January 7, 2004


A sizable number of black Democratic politicians in Chicago and Cook County feel, to use the current slang, "dissed."

They're disgruntled with the Daley Administration's seemingly perpetual lock on power. They're disgusted about the slow pace of black empowerment. (Blacks hold one of three citywide Chicago elective offices and six of 20 countywide elective offices.) And they're distraught over the prospect of Chicago never again having a black mayor.

Thus, even though three of the six countywide offices up for re-election in 2004 are currently occupied by an African American, an unofficial six-candidate "black slate" has surfaced, with the aim of not only winning all six Democratic nominations in the March 16 primary, but also of spurring black turnout, which would aid the candidacy of Barack Obama for U.S. senator.

Atop the unofficial "black slate," which will be pushed heavily in black areas, are Recorder of Deeds Gene Moore, Clerk of the Circuit Court Dorothy Brown and Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner Barbara McGowan. All three were officially slated by the county Democrats, and all three expect -- but may not get -- the support of the mayor and the white city and suburban Democratic committeemen. They definitely will get the support of the black committeemen.

Here's a look at the upcoming contests:

Recorder of Deeds: Of the three, Moore, of Maywood, is the least endangered. Moore is the Proviso Township committeeman; in 2002 he narrowly defeated his local rival, state Representative Karen Yarbrough (D-7), in the race for committeeman, getting 9,073 votes to Yarbrough's 7,911. Regina Rivers of Maywood, who, according to sources, is one of Moore's local political foes and who is black, filed for recorder. Her petitions have been challenged, and she is likely to be removed from the ballot, leaving Moore unopposed.

Moore was appointed to the recorder's job in 1999, after Jesse White resigned to become Illinois secretary of state. He was unopposed for nomination in 2000. Even if Rivers stays on the ballot, Moore will win easily.

Clerk of the Cook County Circuit Court: Brown's position is more tenuous. She was nominated with less than 50 percent of the vote in the 2000 primary, and she faces a formidable opponent in Jerome Orbach, a white former judge who will run on a "reform" platform.

The clerk's office controls more than 2,300 jobs, and Brown is perceived as a potential mayoral candidate. Brown has done her best to spread patronage jobs among black committeemen, and she will have strong support among black voters. No scandals have erupted in the office during her watch, but Orbach will claim that his judicial experience has given him insight into the office's logistical and clerical shortcomings, and that he can "reform" them.

Daley will assume his usual Sphinx-like demeanor, refusing to endorse either contender. But, by the last weekend, if Orbach has a chance to win, Daley's strategists might authorize the pro-Daley white committeemen to deliver for Orbach. If that occurs, Brown could lose -- and Daley would be rid of a future opponent.

Metropolitan Water Reclamation District: McGowan's fate is even more obscure, since she is one of 14 candidates seeking three water district commissioner nominations. In 1998, when she won an upset on the crest of widespread support among black voters, she was listed last on the ballot in a 14-candidate field -- which is deemed to be a "good" ballot position. Her 2004 ballot position is inauspicious: She is listed eighth among the 14 candidates, which means voters must make a serious effort to find her name.

The other two MWRD incumbents, white Commissioners Gloria Majewski and Patty Young, fared no better. They were listed on the same petitions with McGowan, so the ballot lottery put them sixth and seventh, respectively. Being mired in the middle of a long list of candidates is disadvantageous, and one or more of the incumbents could lose.

State's Attorney: The final 2004 incumbent is Cook County State's Attorney Dick Devine, first elected in 1996 and a solid favorite to win a third term this year. But there has been some discontent in the black community regarding Devine's policies as a prosecutor, and, in a surprise, Tommy Brewer, a black Evanston attorney and the onetime director of enforcement for the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation, filed against him. Brewer ran for sheriff in 1994, getting 179,904 votes (32 percent) to Sheriff Mike Sheahan's 377,273. Devine surely will win, but the question is whether he will get more than 60 percent of the vote. If Brewer, who is both unknown and underfunded, can come close to 40 percent, then Devine's political problems are much more severe than is thought.

The water district oversees the processing of liquid and solid wastes in Cook County, and it has 2,400 employees and a budget of more than $750 million. But there also is hundreds of millions of dollars in construction contracts dispensed annually, which makes the post of MWRD president -- now held by Terry O'Brien, a close Daley political ally -- especially critical. It takes the vote of five of nine commissioners to elect the president, and the outcome of the 2004 primary could affect his tenure.

The current race is both complex and chaotic. In Democratic primaries since 1984, an incumbent commissioner has lost four times (including the president in 1992 and 1996), and a slated candidate for commissioner has lost 10 times. Because of the obscurity of the agency and of the sitting commissioners, there are absolutely no powers of incumbency. In primaries, it is gender (with women candidates having an edge), ethnicity (meaning Irish surnames) and ballot position (being first or last) that matter. This year it took 5,154 nominating petition signatures to get on the ballot.

Of the nine candidates who filed on the first day for the $45,000-a-year part-time job (the board meets twice per month), a lottery gave the top spot to John Ryan, a Northwest Sider who ran for state representative in 1998, losing to Republican Mike McAuliffe, and who is an operating engineer at O'Hare Airport. Ryan's petitions have been challenged, but if he stays on the ballot, top-plus-Irish gives him a chance to win.

Listed 14th on the ballot is Frank Avila, an aggressive and controversial attorney and the son of incumbent Commissioner M. Frank Avila. The younger Avila filed a federal lawsuit in 2001 to knock off the ballot appointed (and slated) water district Commissioner Martin Sandoval, who was simultaneously running in 2002 for state senator, on the grounds that he had publicly announced that he would resign his MWRD nomination if nominated for senator, thereby allowing the county Democratic chairman to choose his replacement.

This "conspiracy" theory so rattled Sandoval and his Hispanic supporters, including mayoral aide and political strategist Victor Reyes, that they yanked Sandoval off the water district ballot, leaving only two slated candidates -- Therese Meany (Irish surname and first on the ballot) and Cynthia Santos (second on the ballot). The elder Avila, an Edison Park engineer who was last on the ballot, got strong support among blacks and Hispanics, got most media endorsements, and edged out Jim Sheehan, the sheriff's cousin, who was second to last on the ballot.

In 2002 the younger Avila filed another federal lawsuit challenging Chicago's aldermanic residency requirements. He prevailed and got his ally, Manny Flores, on the ballot for alderman in the 1st Ward. The independent Flores beat pro-Daley incumbent Jesse Granato in the 2003 election.

Will son replicate father? Frank Avila is much reviled among some Democratic insiders, but he also is much admired for his gutsiness and political acumen. He is crafting a diverse coalition of support: He expects the backing of such powerhouse white Democrats as U.S. Representative Bill Lipinski (D-3), Alderman Dick Mell (33rd) and state Representative Ralph Capparelli (D-15), and he already has been endorsed by such influential black politicians as U.S. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-2), Alderman Howard Brookins (21st) and state Senator James Meeks (D-15). Being last on the ballot, having a Hispanic- and Italian-sounding name, having had his father run for water district commissioner in 1998, 2000 and 2002, and having the energy to campaign around Cook County, all make Avila an ominous threat to the Democratic slate.

And then there's the "black slate," McGowan, attorney Lewis Powell II, who lost in 2002, and Gracie Gipson. In 1998 black committeemen pushed only for McGowan, and she got 101,677 votes, to Majewski's 112,867 and Young's 130,411; the other slated candidate, Gary Marinaro, got only 52,383 votes. In that same primary, M. Frank Avila got 33,457 votes, and Sheehan got 64,043.

In the 2002 primary, the "black slate" consisted of Derrick Stinson (119,001 votes), Powell (93,757) and Jesse Evans (182,998). But Avila got a significant black vote, which enabled him to top Sheehan 192,029-189,578.

Other 2004 MWRD candidates are Brendan O'Connor, Dean Maragos, Stacy Stoldt, Tony Sutor, Reginald Mason, Minerva Orozco and Xochiti Flores.

The early outlook: If white committeemen push Majewski-Young-Avila, and if black committeemen steer some votes to Avila, the likely 2004 loser would be Majewski.