November 23, 2005


Several generations ago on the West Side, so-called "plantation politics" was a fact of life. As southern blacks migrated northward to urban areas during the Depression and World War II, the predominantly Jewish and Italian West Side evolved into a majority-black area.

But that didn't bother the area's white ward bosses. Jake Arvey, Artie Elrod, Eddie Quigley and Al Horan continued to rule their West Side domains. During the 1940s and 1950s they put a few black faces into a few offices, but they maintained dominion. The civil rights movement of the 1960s hastened their political demise, and black bosses emerged to control the predominantly black wards.

An updated version of "plantation politics" has arisen in west suburban Proviso Township, which has a large and growing black population, especially in Maywood, Bellwood and Broadview. The township's black Democratic committeeman, Gene Moore, who is the Cook County recorder of deeds, is being kept in power by white votes generated by the white mayors of the white-majority cities in the township.

In next year's March 21 primary, it will be "Plantation versus Anti-Plantation." Moore, of Maywood, faces tough opposition from state Representative Karen Yarbrough (D-7), who also is black and from Maywood and whose husband, Henderson Yarbrough, was elected Maywood's mayor in 2005. Moore beat her for committeeman in 2002 by 9,073-7,911, getting 53.4 percent of the vote. Yarbrough won the township's black areas by sizable majorities, but Moore prevailed in the white areas by even bigger majorities. But now, as was evident by Henderson Yarbrough's triumph in 2005 over Moore-backed incumbent Ralph Conner, Moore's base in Maywood has collapsed, and his Maywood vote will shrink even more.

Moore could lose to Yarbrough, and if he does, his hold on the recorder's job will be jeopardized. His term runs through 2008, but if he's not committeeman, party leaders will feel no compunction about dumping him and slating some more clout-worthy suburban black committeeman for the job.

Proviso Township is an electoral behemoth - it's the second largest suburban township in Cook County, containing more than 83,000 registered voters. It runs from Harlem west to DuPage County, just west of Interstate 290, between North Avenue and Ogden. It includes Maywood, Bellwood, Forest Park, Berkeley, Hillside, Melrose Park, Broadview, Brookfield, Westchester, LaGrange Park and part of Stone Park.

In the 2000 census, Maywood was 82.6 percent black, Broadview 73.1 percent and Bellwood 73.4 percent - major increases over 1990. The black population was up to 31.1 percent in Forest Park, 36.8 percent in Hillside and 27.7 percent in Berkeley, and it is higher today. However, Brookfield was 93.5 percent white, LaGrange Park 93.2 percent, Westchester 86.1 percent, Melrose Park 71.5 percent, Berkeley 59.3 percent and Forest Park 56.1 percent.

Those percentages have declined, as the out-migration of blacks from the West Side to the west suburbs continues. Overall, Proviso Township is about 45 percent black, 40 percent white and 15 percent Hispanic, but white voters are still the majority.

The key white Democratic political players in the township are the "Mighty Mayors" - Melrose Park's Ron Serpico, Brookfield's Mike Garvey, Berkeley's Mike Esposito, Bellwood's Frank Pasquale, Broadview's Henry Vicenik and LaGrange Park's Jim Discipio. Broadview and Bellwood, despite a black majority, have white mayors. The mayors are not political allies of Moore, but they definitely prefer that he remain as the Democratic committeeman.

As mayors, they control their municipal budget and hundreds of jobs. Each has a mini-machine, and each has the ability to deliver thousands of votes to Moore. Their fear is that Yarbrough, if committeeman, would use the job to build a black political machine in Maywood, Bellwood and Broadview and would, by the end of the decade, have enough power to take over township government, controlling some funding for local projects and then fielding mayoral candidates in their cities as the black population increases.

The mayor of Westchester, Republican Paul Gattuso, won't be a player in next year's contest.

But Proviso's "Mighty Mayoral Machine" is not invincible. The township supervisor is Kathy Ryan, a white independent who is backed by the local Republican organizations. In 2001 Ryan beat Wanda Sharp, Moore's black protege, by 9,538-8,633; she succeeded August Taddeo, who also was Melrose Park's mayor until he was convicted of taking kickbacks. That election marked the end of the township government's dominance by Italian-American politicians.

 In 2005 the township's white mayors fielded their own slate for eight township offices, including Mari Herrell for supervisor. Moore supported their slate. Ryan won again, beating Herrell 8,666-8,513, but the slate's candidates won the other seven offices, including four trustees, clerk, assessor and collector.

One would think that Moore, age 63, would be a veritable titan in his bailiwick. But in the pantheon of county office holders, Moore is the runt of the litter. His office employs 275 people and has a budget of $13 million. That's definitely not the "Right Stuff" needed to build a personal political machine.

Moore was the Maywood-area state representative from 1993 to 1999. When Jesse White was elected secretary of state in 1998 and resigned his post as recorder, Moore quickly lined up support among black committeemen in general, and suburban committeemen in particular, and when the Cook County Board met to choose White's successor, Moore had the backing of board President John Stroger and was picked.

From there, at least in Proviso Township, it's been mostly downhill for Moore. In 1998 he challenged Committeeman Gary Marinaro, who is white, in the primary and beat him 6,883-3,935, getting a huge vote in Maywood and the black precincts. He then arranged to have his aide, Wanda Sharp, appointed to his House seat in 1999.

In 2000, however, Sharp was opposed in the Democratic primary by Yarbrough, the president of the Maywood Chamber of Commerce. Just after her appointment, Sharp was indicted on six counts of perjury and six counts of mutilation of election materials stemming from a prior election. She lost to Yarbrough 5,733-5,545. The charges were dismissed after the election, and Sharp maintains that Yarbrough was behind the allegations.

Moore faced Yarbrough for committeeman in 2002, beating her by just 1,162 votes. In 2005 Yarbrough's husband got 1,314 votes (31 percent of the total) in the election for Maywood mayor in a five-candidate contest; Moore's candidate, the incumbent mayor, finished fourth, with 692 votes (16 percent).

For 2006 the "Maywood Maze" is typically puzzling and convoluted. State Senator Kimberly Lightford (D-4) of Maywood is a close ally of Moore. Her Senate district includes Yarbrough's suburban House district and the Chicago-based House district occupied by Calvin Giles (D-8), which takes in the 37th Ward and small parts of Oak Park, Berwyn and North Riverside. Lightford's district is 64 percent black.

Giles, an erstwhile ally of Moore and Lightford, is backing James Smith in the 2006 Democratic primary against Lightford. Interestingly, Smith ran against Giles for state representative in the 2004 primary, losing 11,334-4,021 and getting 26.2 percent of the vote. In 2005 Giles was ousted as chairman of the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus by state Senator James Meeks, who was supported by Lightford. Giles was mightily incensed, and now it's payback time. Expect Yarbrough's organization to weigh in behind Smith.

Moore is supporting Chris Welch, president of Proviso Township High School District 209 Board of Education, in the 2006 primary against Yarbrough. Lightford has not taken a stance.

The early outlook:

Lightford, a senator since 1998, has huge problems. She won her primary in 2002 with 62.3 percent of the vote, beating two opponents. In 2006 she'll likely have both Giles' and Yarbrough's organizations working against her, simply because she is allied with Moore.

As for Moore, he has no political organization. Maywood is dominated by the Yarbroughs' political machine. In the 2002 committeeman's race, township turnout was 16,984; that's 50 percent more than the turnout of 10,768 in 1998. Turnout in the 2005 municipal elections was about 4,300 in Maywood, 4,000 in Bellwood and 1,300 in Broadview, or about 9,600 in the black-majority towns. It was 4,800 in Brookfield, 4,600 in Westchester, 3,100 in Melrose Park, 1,300 in Berkeley, 1,800 in Hillside and 3,000 in LaGrange Park, or about 18,600 in the white-majority towns. Turnout will be much lower in a Democratic primary.

My prediction: Moore will lose to Yarbrough by almost 3-1 in Maywood and by at least 3-2 in Bellwood and Broadview - worse than he did in 2002. To win, he needs to win the white areas with more than 60 percent of the vote. The "Mighty Mayoral Machine" did its job in 2002, and the mayors have the motivation to replicate their feat in 2006. They would love to be rid of those pesky Yarbroughs and let Proviso Township return to the quietude of plantation politics. But getting their constituents to support them is a lot easier than persuading them to vote for a black candidate in a Democratic primary.

Welch will lose to Yarbrough by a sizable margin, but the fate of both Lightford and Moore is in doubt; either could lose.