January 26, 2005


In north suburban Niles Township, which encompasses all of Lincolnwood, Skokie and Morton Grove, and parts of Glenview, Golf and Niles, the Democratic organization is commonly – but not necessarily fondly – known as the “House of Sutker.” And the longtime Democratic committeeman, 81-year old Cal Sutker, is a political icon, despised by many, but venerated by substantially more.

However, houses deteriorate, and icons fade.

The fall of the House of Sutker is not imminent, and certainly won’t occur in the 2005 municipal and township elections; but structural cracks are developing, and it is likely that Sutker will relinquish his committeemanship in 2006.

In 2005, however, Sutker’s Democrats, running under the guise of the “Caucus Party,” will keep control in Skokie, and will win all the township offices. But Morton Grove will be a major test, with Sutker-backed Rick Krier running for mayor against Republican Dan Staackmann, to succeed the retiring Mayor Dan Scanlon. “Krier will win,” promised Sutker.

To perceptive observers, the political strength of the House of Sutker, as compared to other North Shore township organizations, is highly exaggerated. Sutker lost his 2002 bid for renomination in the Democratic primary as Cook County commissioner in the mostly suburban 13th District when Evanston’s Larry Suffredin amassed a bigger vote in his base (7,724-2,542), a thumping 75.2 percent of the vote, than Sutker did in Niles Township (7,410-4,852), a 60.4 percent margin. Sutker lost to Suffredin by 4,427 votes.

             And, in 2004, Sutker-backed Skokie Democrat Michele Bromberg got 65 percent of the vote in her Skokie base, but that was still insufficient to overcome Republican State Representative Beth Coulson’s (R-17) huge vote in her Glenview/Northfield base. Bromberg lost by 3,849 votes in a race she was favored to win.

In the township, the feeble and disorganized Republicans present no challenge, so Sutker’s Democrats are perceived as a colossus, and control most offices.

But, surprisingly, there are some manifestations that the Republicans are resurgent: In the 2004 presidential contest, Democrat John Kerry beat President Bush 28,666-15,981 in Niles Township, winning with 64.2 percent; that appears to be an impressive victory. But, in 2000, Democrat Al Gore beat Bush 27,591-12,811, winning with 68.2 percent. Turnout increased in the township from 40,402 in 2000 to 44,647 in 2004; the Republican vote climbed, while the Democratic percentage dropped.

Sutker, however, ascribes the slight Republican uptick to demographic change, not Democratic organizational decrepitude. “The Jewish vote (in the township) is dwindling,” Sutker acknowledges.

The 2000 census showed ongoing increases in the township of Asian, Asian Indian, Pakistani, Arab and Assyrian populations. Sutker estimates that the township’s Asian population, consisting of Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian, Filipino, Korean, Japanese and Chinese immigrants, is now up to 15 percent; and that the Arab population is close to ten percent. The census pegged blacks at less than three percent, and Hispanics at eight percent; Sutker projects that the overall township Jewish population is around 28 percent, and that the Catholic population is over 40 percent.

“It’s a very diverse population,” said Sutker.

As for 2006, when Sutker’s term as committeeman expires, he says he has “made no decision” as to his plans. Sutker was first appointed committeeman in 1973, and has been re-elected eight times. “I could retire,” he said. “It may be a time for a younger generation to take over.” Sutker mentioned State Representative Lou Lang (D-16), of  Skokie, or Jeff Greenspan, Skokie’s former assistant corporation counsel, as potential successors. Another possibility is Krier, if he wins the Morton Grove mayoralty. Sutker will not challenge Suffredin for county commissioner in 2006.

But, focusing on 2005, the House of Sutker is full of optimism. “The Democratic presence (in the township) is significant, and the Caucus Party is popular,” said Sutker. Here’s an early look at developing contests:

Skokie: The long-dominant “Caucus Party” was founded by the late Mayor Al Smith (1965-86), and then-corporation counsel Harvey Schwartz (later a county judge), in the 1960s. Schwartz was a Republican, but broke with the local party to form a coalition with the Democrats. Sutker ran against Smith for mayor in 1969, losing big. Eventually, the Democrats came to dominate the Caucus Party, and Sutker came to dominate the Democrats, and the Sutker-Schwartz combine ran the township.

When Smith retired in 1986, Jacqueline Gorell was named as his successor, and she was unopposed in 1989, 1993 and 1997 -- testimony to the Caucus’s/Democrats’ power. When Gorell resigned as mayor in 1999, George Van Dusen, a Skokie trustee, longtime district aide to U.S. Representative Sid Yates (1949-63; 1965-79), and ally of Sutker, was named as her replacement. In the hotly contested  2001 mayoral race, Van Dusen pulverized  Tom Dammrich 7,501-1,948 (79.4 percent), and the six Caucus (meaning Sutker/Democratic) backed trustees won easily.

After Skokie’s corporation counsel, Barbara Meyer, was appointed to a county judgeship, Trustee Harry Piper was named to her job. Edie Sue Sutker, Cal’s daughter, was then appointed as Piper’s replacement. Rejecting any inference that he fosters nepotism, Sutker said that “she (Edie) should not be penalized because she is related (to me). She (Edie) has been on the (Skokie) Plan Commission for 11 years, is qualified for the job, and has a master’s degree as a social worker.”

Sutker’s other daughter, Shelley Sutker-Dermer, was elected in 1996 as a Cook County judge, and is now the presiding judge in the 2nd District (Skokie). Sutker’s former son-in-law, Mike Gelder, is a Skokie trustee. “There’s a glut of Sutkers,” complained one political foe. But voters don’t seem to be repulsed. For 2005, all six incumbent trustees, including Bromberg, Gelder, Randy Roberts, Edie Sutker, Frank McCabe, and longtime Republican (and Schwartz ally) Don Perille, are running for re-election; they, along with Van Dusen, will win overwhelmingly.

Niles Township: Sutker was present at the creation. In 1977, Sutker and the Democratic/Caucus alliance backed Ed Warman for township supervisor, and he won – the first Democrat in history, according to Sutker, to capture the post. Warman, who unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 1969 and 1970 against Republican Phil Crane, died in 1981, and was succeeded as supervisor by Tom McElligott, who has won re-election to the post five times as the Caucus Party candidate.

McElligott was re-elected in 2001 by 9,234-3,401 over Bob Malooly, who was part of the Republican-backed slate, which included longtime township assessor Bob Hanrahan, who defected from the Caucus party. Scott Bagnall opposed Hanrahan, and beat him 7,957-4,748; other Caucus Party nominees won for clerk (Charles Levy) and collector (Pramod Shah), as well as for the four township trustees: Suzanne Schwartz, Harvey’s wife; Levon Tamraz; Les Brownstein (a Republican), and Usha Kamaria.

For 2005, Schwartz is retiring, replaced on the Caucus ticket by Marilyn Glazer; clerk Shah is replacing Kamaria; and Brownstein and Tamraz are running for re-election. D.C. Modi is replacing Shah for collector. “We have diversity,” said Sutker, noting that Shah and Modi are Asian Indian-Americans. The Caucus Party, which has dominated the township for 28 years, will win in 2005 with minimal opposition.

Morton Grove: It’s been 32 years since a Republican (Jule Bode) has been elected as the town’s mayor, but Republican Dan Staackmann, a village trustee for two years, and a park board commissioner for 18 years, has a good chance to change that.

Two-term (1997-2005) incumbent Mayor Dan Scanlon is retiring. He was elected as the Action Party candidate, defeating Staackmann 2,326-1,354 in 1997, and winning unopposed in 2001. Scanlon’s predecessor was Dick Flickinger (1977-97), a Democrat and Sutker ally, whose Action Party was really an adjunct to the Caucus Party/Democratic Party, even though a majority of the village trustees were Republicans.

In 2003, Sutker strongly backed Rick Krier for one of the three trustee posts, and, in a six-candidate field, Krier (with 1,784 votes) topped the Action Party’s Joe Moll, finishing third; Staackmann (with 1,906 votes), now with the Action Party, finished second. Krier’s father, Ray, was once the Niles Township Democratic committeeman (1966-70), as was his grandfather, Scotty Krier (1960-66). “He (Rick Krier) is angling to take that (Democratic committeeman’s) job,” said one Morton Grove politician.

Krier may have too much baggage to win. Krier was an employee of the Cook County Forest Preserve District, lived in a house on the Chick Evans Golf Course for many years, and was a north suburban supervisor of the district’s operations. In 2003, the county board, which had a $1.5 million operational golf course deficit, contracted Billy Casper Golf Co. to run them, and they turned a $1.5 million annual profit. “He couldn’t run them (the golf courses), which demonstrates that he can’t run the village (of Morton Grove),” said one Action Party official.

Krier, who currently has a job in the Cook County Assessor’s office, voted for gas tax hikes to close the $2 million deficit in Morton Grove’s 2004 budget. Now he opposes any tax or fee hike to close the village’s 2005 budget deficit of $500,000, and is attacking Staackmann and the Action Party as tax-hikers.

Krier is running for mayor as the “Morton Grove Caucus Party” candidate, and Staackmann as the “Morton Grove Action Committee” candidate. Expect a nasty campaign. But, if Staackmann wins, the Republicans will have at least some political presence in Niles Township – and the House of Sutker will take a big knock.