November 2, 2005


To draw an analogy to baseball, especially since the White Sox are the world champions, it can be conceded that contests for mayor, county board president and county assessor are akin to the World Series, while races for obscure, lower-echelon positions such as the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, the Cook County Board of Review and Circuit Court judge - especially from local sub-circuits - are like a ping pong tournament.

With the Dec. 19 filing deadline approaching, a horde of ambitious Democrats are armed with deadly, juiced-up paddles and are energetically flailing at each other. Here's the early outlook:

Metropolitan Water Reclamation District: Often disparaged as a springboard to oblivion, a plethora of Democrats biennially vie for the three nominations for commissioner. The upside is that the job pays $50,000 annually, requires attendance at two meetings per month, has a 6-year term, affords the incumbent a car and three office staffers, and gives the commissioner some input into the district's annual $750 million budget. The downside is that there is absolutely no job security for commissioners, and, since the agency's 2,400 jobs are covered by civil service, there's no patronage hiring. If a commissioner does a good job or ignores the job, voters neither know nor care.

The keys to election are ethnicity, gender, party endorsement and ballot position. People with Irish surnames are very electable, women have an edge (especially if they have an Irish surname), being slated by the Democrats helps in a large field, and being first or last on the ballot in a large field is helpful.

Although the spreading city Hired Truck scandal has not infested the water district, the candidacy of attorney Frank Avila, the son of district Commissioner M. Frank Avila, has created some waves. Avila is representing several fired city workers, including Hired Truck "whistle blowers" Frank Coconate and Patrick McDonough, in their attempt to reclaim their jobs. Avila also has called the Hispanic Democratic Organization a "criminal enterprise," and the Daley Administration will do its utmost to beat him. Their fear is that Avila, if elected commissioner, would use that post as a springboard to run for mayor in 2007 or 2011.

In the 2004 Democratic primary, which featured 11 candidates, Avila finished a close fourth, just 38,745 votes behind 20-year incumbent Gloria Majewski. The two top vote getters were incumbents Patty Young, who is white with a neutral-sounding name, and Barbara McGowan, who is black with an Irish surname. Both Young and McGowan got a huge black vote. Avila was last on the ballot, while the incumbents were 4-5-6. The top ballot name, Xochitl "So-She" Flores, got 97,330 votes in Chicago, just a shade less than Avila's 99,902. Avila blames her for his loss, believing that she drained Hispanic votes from him.

But the Avilas understand the virtue of persistence. The elder Avila ran for commissioner in 1998 and 2000 before he won in 2002. His victory was largely attributable to the fact that his son filed a federal lawsuit challenging the right of the slated candidate, Marty Sandoval, to run for both state senator and water district commissioner. Sandoval withdrew, and the Democratic "slate" shrank to two. Democratic committeemen picked their own number three candidate, and Avila, an engineer who got most newspaper endorsements, won the third spot by 2,605 votes. Since his election, the Avilas have built their own political machine, putting both Coconate and Dominic Longo on the commissioner's payroll.

In 2006 the terms of incumbents Terry O'Brien, Harry "Bus" Yourell and William Harris expire. O'Brien is the water district president, elected in 1996 by majority vote of the nine commissioners. He is a close ally of the mayor, and he steers hefty construction contracts - including the residue of the $3.2 billion "Deep Tunnel" project - to contractors who give hefty donations to the Daley machine. But his crown is uneasy, as water district presidents lost primaries in 1990 and 1996. Powerful though he may be, O'Brien is unknown, unrecognized and unappreciated. If he gets a poor ballot position in 2006, he could lose.

Yourell, age 86, was a state representative from Oak Lawn from 1967 to 1984, and he was elected county recorder of deeds in 1984; while he was in the legislature he was the deputy recorder. His stewardship as recorder was so dismal that he was dumped in 1988, but his consolation prize was slating for water district commissioner. Yourell was renominated in 1994 and 2000. He is retiring in 2006, and a furious battle for party slating to succeed him is being waged by Barrett Pedersen, an attorney who is the Leyden Township Democratic committeeman and the county vice chairman, and Dean Maragos, an attorney who lost a 2003 bid for alderman in the Lakefront 44th Ward and whose father, Sam Maragos, was a judge and South Side state senator. "The south suburban committeemen are backing me, as are the black committeemen," claimed Maragos. Retorted Pedersen: "That's nonsense. The suburban committeemen will back a suburban committeeman. I will be slated."

Pedersen has promised that he won't run if not slated, while Maragos is passing petitions and will run regardless. It takes roughly 5,000 signatures to earn a ballot position.

The early outlook: Harris is running run for another term, as is O'Brien. Also in the race are Debra Shore of Evanston, the gay editor of Chicago Wilderness magazine, who is backed by the political organizations of U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-9) and County Commissioner Larry Suffredin (D-13). Also running are attorney Lewis Powell III, who lost in 2002 and 2004 and who is supported by many black South Side committeemen, attorney Jack Heggerty of Orland Park, Karen Smith of Worth Township and Bogie Stefanski of Chicago, while Brendan O'Connor, from the 40th Ward, who finished a close fifth in 2004, also may run. Others will file.

In 1994 and 2000, there were, respectively, 22 and 12 candidates. In those years, the "slate" won. But nonslated aspirants won in 1984, 1986, 1988, 1990, 1992, 1996, 1998 and 2002. The leaders in 2006 will be O'Brien, Harris, Pedersen, Shore, Maragos, Powell and Avila. All have a chance to win.

Board of Review: This obscure but powerful board hears residential and commercial property tax appeals. It has the ability to reduce assessed valuation, which can save an applicant from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars. Three commissioners are elected to 4-year terms from single-member districts - one from the South Side, one from the North Side and one from the suburbs. The North Side commissioner is Joe Berrios, the 31st Ward Democratic committeeman. Berrios wants to run for assessor in 2006, but he can do so only if incumbent Jim Houlihan runs for Cook County Board president. Since John Stroger apparently is seeking re-election, Houlihan will stay put. If Berrios retires, the younger Avila will run for that job, not the water district post.

Circuit Court Judgeships: The General Assembly in 1991 created 15 sub-circuits, each of which elects a judge. The purpose was to create more diversity, and as a result, more blacks, Hispanics and suburban Republicans were elected. The Illinois Supreme Court determines how many of the 187 judgeships will be allocated to the sub-circuits, and in the Northwest Side 10th sub-circuit next year, it's just one, to fill the vacancy of Francis Golniewicz, who resigned after it was disclosed that he lived in Berwyn in 1994, in a different sub-circuit, and had falsified his residency.

The early favorite for the vacancy is Jim McGing, an Edison Park attorney who is the director of the Cook County Jail. McGing lost the 1992 election for state senator by 3,111 votes to Republican Wally Dudycz, and he lost the 2004 primary for judge in the sub-circuit by 1,277 votes to Aurie Pucinski. Pucinski, the former 12-year Circuit Court clerk who switched to the Republicans to run against Stroger in 1998 and then switched back to run for judge in 2004, got 38.3 percent of the vote, to McGing's 35.3 percent and appointed Judge Carolyn Quinn's 26.4 percent. McGing lost the suburbs by 1,527 votes, and that was fatal.

For the 2004 election the party slated Joe Potasiak for one of two vacancies, and it was understood that Potasiak was to get the "Polish-American" seat; McGing was slated for the second vacancy and had to face Pucinski. But Potasiak died in December 2003, after filing closed, so McGing couldn't switch races. The party "owes" McGing a judgeship in 2006.

All the committeemen in the 10th sub-circuit are backing McGing, but the "Irish Surname Syndrome" could be a problem. Park Ridge attorney Frederick Rhine, who got 11.5 percent of the vote in the 10th District primary in 2002, has changed his name to Patrick Michael O'Brien, and he is running again. Peggy Chiampis, who lost in 2004, has endorsed McGing. Quinn, an associate judge, will not run.

The outlook: The stars are aligning themselves for McGing. He will easily win the 2006 primary.