April 26, 2006


Now that all the votes are counted and the March 21 primary fades into the dustbin of history, here's a final look at a couple of magnificent stumbles and surprises, with unheralded winners.

Winner: Terry O'Brien. The good news for O'Brien, the powerful president of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, is that he was renominated as commissioner. The bad news is that his two slated running mates lost and that intrigue may be afoot among the other eight commissioners to oust him as president in December.

As usual, the 2006 water district race to nominate three commissioners for 6-year terms was chaotically unpredictable. In 12 Democratic primaries since 1984, five incumbents have lost, including two sitting presidents, and 12 nonslated candidates have won. All nine of the commissioners who will serve next year initially were elected as independents.

With the water district awash in a sea of obscurity, voters pick candidates on the basis of ballot position, gender, familiarity or Irish surnames rather than qualifications, media endorsements or party slating. But O'Brien, a veritable ironman who originally won as an unslated independent in 1988 (being first on the ballot), has assumed an almost mythical aura. He has been renominated three times as a party-slated candidate, even though he was buried 10th on the ballot in 1994, sixth in 2000 and fourth in 2006.

O'Brien, age 49, has two brothers who are judges, is part of "Team Daley," and is a major player in Cook County Democratic politics. The water district treats sewage for 10.1 million people, with an annual budget of $800 million and 2,100 jobs. Most of the general contractors who are building the $3.2 billion 109-mile "Deep Tunnel" water retention project are liberal contributors to Mayor Rich Daley and the Democratic Party. The companies of Mike Tadin, a major Daley donor ousted from the city's Hired Truck Program, got $640,000 in sludge-hauling contracts from the district in 2005.

Having finished second in the 2006 primary, O'Brien, who lives on the Northwest Side, has emerged as a potential mayoral contender when Daley retires. He is young, well liked, Irish-surnamed and a Daley loyalist who can raise plenty of campaign cash. He could be the ideal "compromise" choice of party committeemen.

It should be noted that some water district commissioners have risen to higher office, but not to the highest offices. Aurie Pucinski became clerk of the Circuit Court, and Jerry Cosentino became state treasurer. Having a background in sanitation, wastewater treatment and the disposal of solid wastes is not the stuff that captures voters' imaginations. But it should be remembered that Ed Kelly was the chief engineer for the county sanitary district (a predecessor to the water reclamation district) in 1933, when he was chosen to be mayor after the assassination of Anton Cermak. Pat Nash, the county Democratic chairman at the time, ran a sewer contracting company with his brother Dick. Kelly was their bosom buddy, and he allegedly steered contracts to Nash's firm.

The 2006 primary produced some surprises: Dean Maragos, an attorney who lost a 2003 race for 44th Ward alderman, was first on the ballot and spent more than $300,000. Being first produced a win in 1986, 1988, 1992, 1996, 1998 and 2002. Not this time: Maragos finished sixth.

Frank Avila, an attorney and a strident critic of Daley and the Hispanic Democratic Organization, which he has called a "criminal enterprise," and who represented several Hired Truck scandal whistle blowers, was last on the ballot. That was magical in 1998 and 2002, when the bottom candidate won. In 2004 Avila was last on the ballot and finished fourth, 38,745 votes behind incumbent Gloria Majewski. This year Avila had the public support of U.S. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. and Aldermen Dick Mell, Bill Banks, Gene Schulter, Ed Burke and Manny Flores, but he finished fifth.

In 2002 Avila's father, M. Frank Avila, was last on the ballot and won by 2,605 votes. The elder Avila lost primaries in 1998 and 2000. An Avila has now been on the water district ballot in five straight primaries and has won once. Had Avila won this year, he certainly would have run for the city clerk vacancy of Jim Laski in 2007. But the Daley forces, especially the HDO, exerted maximum effort to beat him.

M. Frank Avila's 6-year term expires in 2008. He is allied with Alderman Dick Mell's 33rd Ward organization. Will he be slated in 2008? Frank Avila is supporting Jackson for mayor in 2007. If Daley is beaten, then the elder Avila is a likely winner and slating won't matter. But if Daley wins, M. Frank Avila is toast.

Finishing first in the 2006 Democratic primary was Debra Shore, a self-proclaimed "genuine environmentalist" and avowed lesbian/feminist with a degree in fine arts who edits Chicago Wilderness magazine. Shore, of Evanston, was endorsed by the Sierra Club, was lionized by the news media, and had the backing of U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky's organization. She was second on the ballot, got solid support from liberals and gays, and received 224,843 votes. O'Brien was second with 215,598 votes.

The battle for third place was between two black candidates, Jim Harris, an incumbent and the former mayor of south suburban Phoenix who was elected to fill a vacancy in 1998 and re-elected in 2000, and Patricia Horton, a political aide to West Side state Senator Rickey Hendon and the vice president of the Madison-Western Chamber of Commerce. Harris was fifth on the ballot and Horton was third. Horton got 165,523 votes to 162,872 for Harris, with Avila close behind with 149,148.

A key factor in the race was black turnout, spurred by the stroke suffered by Cook County Board President John Stroger. There was an unofficial "black slate" consisting of Harris, Horton and Lewis Powell, who finished seventh with 110,246 votes, but some South Side black committeemen who detest Hendon intentionally "cut" Horton and backed a Harris-O'Brien-Powell ticket. However, the spike in black voting pushed both Horton and Harris ahead of Avila.

The third slated candidate was attorney Barrett Pedersen, the west suburban Leyden Township Democratic committeeman, who expected support from his fellow committeemen, especially suburbanites. He was sorely disappointed. Pedersen has hosted a cable-TV show for 15 years, and he presumed that he had some visibility, but he finished eighth of nine in the suburbs, behind Powell and 8,000 votes ahead of Bogie Stefanski, who finished last countywide.

Now the games begin: The nine commissioners elect the water district president, vice president and Finance Committee chair. O'Brien has been president since 1996, when Tom Fuller lost the primary. The vice president is Patty Young, who first was elected in 1992. The finance chairwoman is Gloria Majewski, who first was elected in 1984; her husband, Chester, was a Northwest Side state representative from 1963 to 1966 and a water district commissioner from 1968 until his death in 1983.

All it takes is a "Gang of Five" to elect new officers. O'Brien can count on himself, Majewski and commissioners Kathy Meany and Cynthia Santos. The key is Young. If she sticks with O'Brien, then the incumbent white officers keep control. But black commissioners Barbara McGowan and Horton may want a piece of the action, and Shore and Avila have no tie to O'Brien. Thus, if Young seeks the district presidency and promises McGowan finance and Avila veep, she could assemble five votes and oust O'Brien.

And that puts Avila in a prime bargaining position. He can demand, if he backs O'Brien, an ironclad promise of slating in 2008, and even the vice presidency if Young tries to oust O'Brien. And he will get it. The bottom line: While sludge control is distinctly unexciting, internal water district politics is always exciting. Expect O'Brien to make whatever deal is necessary to keep his presidency.

Winner: Hispanic Democratic Organization. The U.S. Attorney's Office has indicted 44 people, and convicted 35, in the Hired Truck probe, which involves bribery and kickbacks for city contracts. Victor Reyes and Al Sanchez, two Daley allies who ran the HDO, are under investigation. It is presumed that if Reyes and Sanchez go down, Daley is next. If they don't, then Daley is safe.

But in the 2006 primary, every HDO-backed candidate won. The organization exerted maximum effort to beat Avila in the water district race. In the South Side 1st District, state Senator Tony Munoz, who sponsored convicted Hired Truck contractor Angelo Torres for a job, easily beat his anti-HDO foe, Oscar Torres, 5,738-1,709. In the 2nd District on the South Side, state Representative Ed Acevedo beat anti-HDO challenger Francisco Rodriquez 3,507-1,308. In the Cicero-area 12th District, state Senator Marty Sandoval beat anti-HDO challenger Eddie Garza 3,196-2,158. And in the 24th District, the HDO candidate, Lisa Hernandez, beat Cicero state Representative Michelle Chavez 1,370-625.

Clearly, Hispanic voters -- and Hispanic politicians -- are sticking with Daley and delivering their votes.