December 7, 2005


As was readily apparent at the Democrats' November slatemaking for county offices, the 19th Ward is both much reviled as a political hog and much envied as a political powerhouse.

And therein lies the ward's success: It's a powerhouse because it's an unrepentant hog. Like that old 1960s song, it hangs on to what it's got, which is control of the county sheriff's and assessor's offices, plus the state comptroller's post.

The 19th Ward is on the Far Southwest Side, encompassing Beverly, Mount Greenwood and Morgan Park. The ward's Democratic committeeman since 1976 is Tom Hynes, who was the county assessor from 1978 to 1997 and who is a long-time ally of Mayor Rich Daley, who is Illinois' Democratic national committeeman. Hynes' son Dan is the state comptroller, and he is potentially on a track for the governorship or Chicago mayoralty in the next decade. The ward's former alderman (from 1979 to 1990), Mike Sheahan, is the county sheriff. And the elder Hynes, when he resigned as assessor in March 1997, made sure the Cook County Board named his protege, Jim Houlihan, as his successor. Houlihan, a Lakefront resident, was born and raised in the19th Ward.

The sheriff's office has more than 5,200 employees and a budget of $388 million. It is said that almost every block in the 19th Ward has a city and county job holder as a resident. In addition, more than 500 firefighters and 800 police officers live in the ward.

As for the assessor, the office determines the assessed valuation of more than 600,000 parcels of property annually. On appeal, the assessor can reduce assessments, saving commercial property owners tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars in taxes. Those grateful business owners often show their appreciation by contributing to Hynes, the 19th Ward Democrats, Houlihan or the state Democratic Party. Thus, the 19th Ward has a perpetual breadbasket, and other committeemen are suffused with envy.

Now that Sheahan, age 61, is retiring after 16 years, his chief of staff, Tom Dart, another 19th Warder, is his all-but-certain successor. It is, in the inimitable 19th Ward manner, another "seamless succession," much like the Houlihan-for-Hynes switch in 1997. Of course, there's a reason: Northwest Side politicians once had an iron grip on the sheriff's and assessor's offices, but they bungled the succession and the 19th Ward learned from their mistakes.

Sylvester Baker, a retired Cook County Sheriff's Office sergeant, who is black, is running against Dart in the 2006 Democratic primary.

At slatemaking, Democratic outsiders such as U.S. Representative Bobby Rush (D-1), Alderman Dorothy Tillman (3rd) and Metropolitan Water Reclamation District commissioner candidate Frank Avila spoke of their dream. They fantasized that the Democrats' ticket for Cook County offices would reflect the county's demography and wouldn't be the usual "All-Irish Team." That didn't happen for 2006, and it likely won't happen for another decade.

"There's an Irish subculture in the Democratic party," Avila said. "They think that they're the governing class. And they think that all others are the servant class. That's got to change."

Avila's father, Frank Avila Sr., is a Metropolitan Water Reclamation District commissioner and the only Hispanic occupant of any county office. Frank Avila Jr. ran for water district commissioner in the 2004 Democratic primary, and he is passing nominating petitions to run again in 2006. He appeared before Democratic county slatemakers on Nov. 28 to give them that message.

Nothing, of course, changed. Sheahan announced on Nov. 21, the Democrats' first slatemaking day, that he isn't seeking a fifth term; he urged Democratic committeemen to pick Dart, age 43. Some black committeemen squawked that that the "fix" was in and that others should be allowed to present their credentials, so slating was continued to Nov. 28. Rush, from the South Side, was especially critical of Dart, a longtime political adversary.

On Nov. 28, when the county committeemen met, Dart, who had been a Southwest Side state representative for from 1993 to 2002 and who lost a race for state treasurer in 2002, was duly anointed as Sheahan's successor. "I submitted my credentials," Dart said. "They picked me. They had adequate time to find an alternative, but they didn't."

When committeemen - or political observers - criticize the 19th Ward for its alleged hoggishness, they should recall certain one fact: 19th Warders have a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Consider their luck:

Assessor: The Northwest Side 38th Ward controlled the assessor's office from 1959 to 1978. P.J. Cullerton, born in 1898, was elected the ward's alderman in 1935 and the Democratic committeeman in 1932. Cullerton won the 1958 Democratic primary, defeating incumbent assessor Frank Keenan, who had backed Mayor Martin Kennelly against Richard J. Daley in the 1955 mayoral primary.

In 1974, after 18 assessor's office employees were convicted of bribery, Cullerton retired, but he had enough clout to get his chief deputy assessor, 34-year-old Tom Tully, slated. Tully withstood a vigorous challenge in the primary from 10th Ward Alderman Ed Vrdolyak, and he appeared to have a lifetime job, perpetuating the 38th Ward's lock on the assessor's office. However, Tully, who had been deemed a likely candidate for mayor in 1979, abruptly retired in 1977, remarking that "it was of great benefit for me to have served in this office." A 1980 Chicago Tribune article explained why, stating that after leaving office, "Tully has become wealthy as a result of real estate deals with property developers with whom his office cut (property) taxes while Tully was assessor."

The 38th Ward had no successor to Cullerton's successor. The 1978 field consisted two Northwest Siders, state Representative Ted Lechowicz, a Polish-American from the Northwest Side 30th Ward, and Alderman John Aiello from the 36th Ward, but the winner at slatemaking was Tom Hynes, then the Illinois Senate president. Hynes was in the right place at the right time.

Hynes had served in the Senate with Rich Daley, and he supported Daley in the 1980 primary for state's attorney and the l983 mayoral contest. Hynes ran an abortive race for mayor as the Chicago First Party candidate in 1987. Despite his opposition to Mayor Harold Washington, Hynes' grip on the assessor's office was solid.

In early 1997 Hynes was ready to retire as assessor and was plotting to run his 29-year-old son for state comptroller in 1998. Hynes knew that many other politicians coveted his job, including 36th Ward Alderman Bill Banks. So he quit, and the county board chose his top aide, Houlihan, as his replacement. After a year in office, Houlihan was not dumpable, Banks didn't challenge him, and the 19th Ward kept control. Hynes also cleared the field for his son, who was nominated for state comptroller without opposition.

Sheriff: In 1986 the incumbent was Dick Elrod, out of the 50th Ward. Elrod had been sheriff since 1970. Between 1981 and 1986, 47 office employees were convicted of criminal offenses, including four deputy sheriffs in the "Operation Greylord" court corruption probe and two vice unit cops for taking bribes from pimps and bookies in the "Operation Safe Bet" probe. Elrod though he had entrenched himself, with so-called "weekend warriors" - 1,600 part-time court deputies who got a badge and the right to carry a gun - contributing liberally to his campaign. But Elrod's 1986 foe was former Chicago police superintendent Jim O'Grady. "Corruption" was the issue, and O'Grady upset Elrod by 36,865 votes. Had Elrod retired, another Democrat certainly would have won the job.

O'Grady was a popular sheriff, even though in late 1989 undersheriff Jim Dvorak resigned after a mob informant told a grand jury that Dvorak was taking bribes from mob sources. There was no stampede to challenge O'Grady, and the only willing Democrat was Sheahan, then the obscure 19th Ward alderman and part of the anti-Washington "Vrdolyak 29." But, prior to the election, a number of new stories surfaced, including Dvorak's plea, while jailed, that he hired ghost payrollers, that hurt O'Grady.

Sheahan, who ran an astutely invisible campaign, thumped O'Grady in 1990 by a margin of 335,680 votes, getting 55.4 percent of the total. By just being on the ballot as a Democrat, he got near-universal black support, and the white pro-Daley committeemen pushed him hard. Since 1990 Sheahan has had the usual array of employee misconduct and alleged brutality lawsuits, but he has run a largely scandal-free regime.

Sheahan surely have won a fifth term had he run in 2006. Had he announced in early autumn that her was retiring, a flock of ambitious politicians would have run, including Alderman Bill Beavers (7th). But Sheahan played it right, announcing his retirement on the day of slating and endorsing Dart.

Of the19th Ward crowd, this much can be said: Love them or hate them, they know how to hang on to what they've got.