August 18, 2004


For supporters of state Representative Ralph Capparelli (D-15), the veteran Democrat's 2004 re-election campaign is a classic example of the old proverb that no good deed goes unpunished.

Conversely, for Capparelli's detractors, the Democrat is a classic example of a politician who hangs onto office long after his usefulness has diminished, if not ended.

Capparelli, age 80, has served in Springfield for 34 years and is seeking his 18th term. His longevity makes him the dean of the Illinois House. But Capparelli, by doing his "good deed," made a huge political miscalculation in 2002: He ran in the wrong district. Capparelli is the deputy majority leader of the House, and the Democratic-drawn 2001 remap of the House's 118 districts crafted him a safe Northwest Side Chicago seat, numbered as the 20th District.

The new district merged part of the old 13th District, represented by Capparelli, and most of the 14th District, represented by Republican Mike McAuliffe. It stretched from Main on the north to Wrightwood on the south, with Nagle the eastern boundary and Canfield the western boundary. However, south of Lawrence and north of Belmont, the district ran west to River Road. Only 20 percent of the new 20th District was in the old 13th District. McAuliffe was drawn into the suburban 65th District, where Republican Rosemary Mulligan was the incumbent.

Faced with the choice of confronting Mulligan or Capparelli, McAuliffe was set to run against Mulligan.

But then Capparelli did his "good deed" for his buddy, fellow Democratic state Representative Bob Bugielski, who had been remapped into a Hispanic-majority district. Bugielski, a member of Alderman Bill Banks' 36th Ward Democratic Organization, was first elected to the Illinois House in 1986, and he needed two more terms to "max out" his pension. Also, at that time, Capparelli was angling to get his son, Cary, slated for county commissioner. So an intricate deal was cut: Capparelli would run in the new 15th District, which is centered on the 39th Ward, thereby allowing Bugielski to move into and run in the new 20th District. Capparelli, the 41st Ward Democratic committeeman, would do his utmost to ensure Bugielski's success in the 20th District, and if a Democratic won the governorship, Bugielski would resign to accept a state job, Capparelli would resign his 15th District seat and allow the 39th Ward Democrats to pick a replacement, and Capparelli would name himself to replace Bugielski in the 20th District. Meanwhile, the Banks/Bugielski 36th Ward crowd would back Cary Capparelli against Republican County Commissioner Pete Silvestri.

That game of musical chairs done, Northwest Side political life would thereupon proceed blissfully.

But McAuliffe upset the proverbial apple cart. He filed to run in the 20th District and proceeded to out-hustle and out-campaign the sedentary Bugielski, who had undergone major cardiac surgery at the onset of the campaign, and Cary Capparelli decided that he did not want to run.

After waging a strenuous campaign, in which he knocked on roughly 10,000 doors, McAuliffe scored a stunning upset, beating Bugielski by 2,670 votes, with 53.7 percent of the total. Capparelli, who enabled Bugielski to run, took the brunt of the blame for Bugielski's defeat because he didn't deliver a big enough vote in the 41st Ward.

Going into the campaign, McAuliffe understood that the 20th District's demographics favored the Democrats. Of the district's 119 precincts, 89 are in Chicago and 30 are in the suburbs. Of the city precincts, 51 are in the 41st Ward, 36 are in the 36th Ward and two are in the 38th Ward, while of the suburban precincts, 24 are in Norwood Park Township (Norridge and Harwood Heights), five are in Maine Township (Park Ridge south of Devon) and is one in Niles Township.

So the McAuliffe game plan was quite simple: get more than 60 percent of the vote in his base, the 41st Ward, where he is the Republican committeeman and where he is part of the organization of Alderman Brian Doherty, get close to 40 percent of the vote in Bugielski's base, the 36th Ward, and win the suburbs with at least 55 percent.

Starting in May, McAuliffe, then age 38, began walking precincts, usually for up to 8 hours a day. He raised and spent $300,000, most coming from the House Republicans. He sent out some blistering mail pieces, attacking Bugielski for voting to raise taxes (calling him the "Abominable Taxman") and for living outside the district, and he concentrated his precinct workers in the 41st Ward.

Bugielski did virtually no personal campaigning, relying entirely on Democratic precinct captains. He had the backing of Banks in the 36th Ward, Committeeman Robert Martwick in Norwood Park Township and Capparelli in the 41st Ward. Banks also set up his own precinct operation in the 41st Ward, headed by John Malatesta and supplemented by a cadre of 36th Ward workers.

But it was all for naught. McAuliffe won the 41st Ward 10,188-6,109, a margin of 4,079 votes (62.5 percent); Bugielski won the 36th Ward 6,840-4,350, a margin of 2,490 votes (61.1 percent); and McAuliffe won the suburbs, carrying Norwood Park Township 2,949-2,126, Maine 716-600 Township and Niles Township 237-185, for an overall suburban win of 3,902-2,911 (57.3 percent). McAuliffe's plan was a stupendous success, exceeding his 41st Ward and suburban targets and coming close in the 36th Ward. And Capparelli, who allegedly had assured Banks that Bugielski would exceed 40 percent in his ward, was the proverbial goat.

As 2003 dawned, Capparelli had a choice if he wanted another term: move into the 15th District or stay in the 20th District. He opted for the latter, and he will face McAuliffe in November. A number of factors are in play:

First, there's the 80/40 age differential. McAuliffe is en route to knocking on another 10,000 doors. He can't attack his opponent's age, but he can showcase his youth and energy. According to the 2000 census, more than 21 percent of the residents of the 20th District are age 65 or older, and Capparelli considers those voters his base, stressing his experience. But voters, both young and old, understand that they have a clear choice: Do they want to choose Capparelli, and keep him around for another term or two, or choose McAuliffe, and keep him around for another decade or two?

Second, there's the money differential. Capparelli has more than $900,000 in his campaign account. If he retires or is defeated, he can keep $630,000 of that amount as his own, under a 1998 law, and pay taxes on it as income. Because Capparelli is so flush, Democrats in Springfield won't fund him. He's likely to spend more than $400,000, with a barrage of mailings and billboards. "I'll have what I need," said McAuliffe, who expects to spend $300,000.

Third, there's the issues differential, or lack thereof. Both candidates are fiscal and social conservatives, and both are quite popular with their constituents. Capparelli estimates that "we differ on about 5 percent" of the roll calls. But both sides are busily researching the other's voting history. While they won't attack each other personally, their votes are fair game. McAuliffe reportedly has already dug up more than 100 tax and fee increases supported by Capparelli over the past 34 years. Expect direct mail which will give voters "100 reasons" to retire Capparelli. The Democrat will strike back, hitting McAuliffe for his support of the Human Rights Act, which protects gays from job discrimination, and for his support of the SBC rate hike.

Fourth, there's the "majority" factor. Democrats hold a 66-52 Illinois House majority. There's no way that the Republicans can win eight Democratic-held seats and take a majority in 2004. In fact, Capparelli's current 15th District seat will be won by a Democrat, John D'Amico. So for Springfield Democrats and House Speaker Mike Madigan, the 20th District seat is not a "must-win" situation. For Republicans, however, it is.

Fifth, there's the grudge factor. The 36th Ward crowd is still disgruntled about Capparelli's failure to deliver for Bugielski in 2002. Will they exert themselves to deliver for Capparelli in their ward in 2004? Will Capparelli get 60 percent of the vote in their ward? This much is certain: They won't be sending their workers north into the 41st Ward this year.

Sixth, there's the effectiveness factor. Capparelli exerted himself mightily to secure a casino license for Rosemont. With Democrats in control of state government, that should have been a slam dunk. But it didn't happen, and Rosemont Mayor Don Stephens, a long-time Capparelli friend and the Leyden Township Republican committeeman, is supporting McAuliffe for re-election. "I'm a member of the majority," Capparelli said. But does that make any real difference back in the 20th District?

Finally, there's the 55/45 factor. McAuliffe needs to win at least 55 percent of the vote in the 41st Ward and suburbs and 45 percent in the 36th Ward. Capparelli obviously is much better known than Bugielski in the 41st Ward, and he will do better than Bugielski did, but he may not do as well in the 36th Ward.

My early prediction: Many voters do not yet realize that McAuliffe and Capparelli are running against each other. They soon will, and the incumbent who gives voters the most plausible reason to vote against their foe will be victorious. Right now, the race is too close to call.