June 14, 2006


It's called the "Geezer Rule," and it's characterized by aging politicians' refusal to acknowledge reality and let go of power before they are ousted from power.

The ability to recognize that it's time to quit is rare among Chicago and Cook County Democratic politicians, who tend to hang on until they're carried out or booted out by the electorate. Contemporary examples include John Stroger, Eddie Rosewell, Roman Pucinski, Cal Sutker, George Dunne, Ted Lechowicz, Ed Kelly and John Marcin.

An exception is the Far Southwest Side 19th Ward. There, a trio of veteran politicians -- Tom Hynes, Jeremiah Joyce and Mike Sheahan, known collectively as the "Three Wise Men" -- are riding off into the proverbial sunset. But, in typical Chicago style, each is leaving behind a legacy, namely, a son or a protege to carry on the family political business.

All three are longtime allies of Mayor Rich Daley. They have, among them, 12 sons. But, astutely recognizing the changing demographic, racial and generational trends in their ward, and suppressing their rivalries, they have wisely stepped aside to let a new generation of Irish-Americans take control.

Hynes, the Illinois Democratic national committeeman, was the county assessor from 1978 to 1997 and the 19th Ward Democratic committeeman from 1976 until his resignation in 2005. He backed Daley for mayor in 1983, and he is one of the mayor's closest allies. He handpicked his successor as assessor, Jim Houlihan, a Lakefronter who was his chief deputy but who had 19th Ward roots.

Joyce, a master political strategist heavily involved in all of Daley's mayoral races, was the ward's alderman from 1975 to 1978 and a state senator from 1978 to 1992. He is a lobbyist with many lucrative clients, particularly at O'Hare Airport.

Sheahan was the ward's alderman from 1979 until 1990, when he was elected Cook County sheriff, and he won re-election overwhelmingly in 1994, 1998 and 2002. He could be sheriff for life, but he is retiring this year.

Of course, letting go is less painful when one's life work can facilitate the political career of a son or a protege, and that is what each "Wise Man" has accomplished.

Hynes, age 67, used his clout to engineer the slating of his 29-year-old son Dan for Illinois comptroller in 1998. After clearing out the primary, Hynes was elected in 1998 with 58.6 percent of the vote and was re-elected in 2002 with 63.2 percent, but his primary bid for U.S. senator in 2004 ended in a major embarrassment: He got only 23.7 percent of the vote, to Barack Obama's 52.8 percent. Hynes surely will win re-election as comptroller in 2006, but his path to the governorship is blocked by Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who's gearing up to run in 2010. It's doubtful he can beat her in a primary, so Hynes likely will opt to run for Madigan's job instead, which puts him on a track to be governor in 2014 or 2018.

But Hynes' best option may be to wait for Daley to retire and to emerge as the consensus white candidate to succeed him.

Joyce, age 63, cleared the path for his son Kevin to win the area's newly created Illinois House seat in 2002. Kevin Joyce (D-35), then age 31, was unopposed in the primary, and he beat a Republican incumbent with 63 percent of the vote; he was re-elected with 76.4 percent in 2004.

Sheahan, age 61, hired Tom Dart, the area's state representative from 1993 to 2002, as his $98,000-a-year chief of staff after Dart lost a bid for state treasurer in 2002. In late 2005, just days before the Democrats' slatemaking session, Sheahan announced his retirement and endorsed Dart. Without time to organize and solicit support from committeemen, opposition to Dart faltered, and he was slated. Dart got 59.6 percent of the vote in the primary, and, at age 43, he can expect to serve as sheriff for decades. Like Hynes, Dart could run for mayor at some later date.

Surprisingly, the departure of the "Three Wise Men" has created a seamless transition within the 19th Ward Democratic Organization. Hynes' successor as committeeman was 36-year-old Matt O'Shea, an ambitious political operative who has close ties to each "Wise Man." O'Shea once was an aide to Sheahan when he was sheriff, was field director for Dan Hynes' statewide campaigns, is a close friend of Kevin Joyce, and worked for Alderman Virginia Rugai (19th). By not picking an offspring or protege of Hynes, Joyce or Sheahan for committeeman, and instead choosing someone who is acceptable to each, the ward organization remains unified and focused.

The critical test for O'Shea and his organization of a supposed 1,000 precinct workers will come in 2007, when Rugai seeks re-election to a fifth term. Rumors abound that Rugai, age 60, a breast cancer survivor who was first appointed by Daley in 1991, will retire in 2007. If she does, O'Shea definitely will seek the job.

The 19th Ward stretches from 87th Street on the north to the city limits at 119th Street on the south. The eastern boundary is Vincennes Avenue and the Rock Island/Metra tracks. It contains Mount Greenwood, Beverly, West Beverly and Morgan Park. East of the 19th Ward are the 34th and 21st wards, both overwhelmingly black, and north is the 18th Ward, which is 75 percent black. To the south are Alsip and Blue Island, majority-black suburbs. To the west is Oak Lawn, which is overwhelmingly white.

Given those demographics, it was expected, at least 20 years ago, that "white flight" would racially transform the 19th Ward. That hasn't happened. There's been racial integration, not flight. The ward is now about 20 percent black.

Beverly, the equivalent of the Northwest Side's Sauganash or old Norwood Park, with housing in the $300,000 to $500,000 range, has a black population of about 25 percent. Its white residents, primarily upscale professionals, are not inclined to follow their precinct captains' dictates. West Beverly, from 99th to 115th, between Western and California, is mostly white, and it resembles Jefferson Park, with housing in the $200,000 to $300,000 range. Mount Greenwood, west of California, which has 23 of the ward's 76 precincts, is almost exclusively white and contains a heavy concentration of police, firefighters and city workers; home prices are in the $200,000 range. That is the Rugai/Hynes/Sheahan/Joyce/O'Shea base.

 Morgan Park, south of 107th Street, is racially diverse and about half black, with housing in the $150,000 to $200,000 range. Unless "white flight" occurs here, the 19th Ward will stay predominantly white.

In 2003 Rugai faced a tough challenge from John Somerville, an assistant Cook County state's attorney who ran Dart's 2002 campaign for state treasurer. Dart won the 19th Ward by 18,485-5,914 over Republican incumbent Judy Baar Topinka, but he lost statewide by 404,545 votes. Dart, as well as Hynes, Sheahan and both Joyces, endorsed Rugai, but she beat Somerville by a narrow 2,796-vote margin. Clearly, there is fatigue, if not discontent, with Rugai.

In 1991 Rugai got 14,460 votes (61 percent of the total cast), and Daley got 19,947 votes. In 1995 she was unopposed and got 16,442 votes, while Daley got 16,146 votes. In 1999 Rugai was opposed by Republican Ray Wardingly and got 17,090 votes (84 percent), and Daley got 17,852. In 2003, against Somerville, Rugai's margin dropped to 10,701-7,905, while Daley got 15,608 votes. Clearly, Rugai's core vote is diminishing.

But, as always, any election is a referendum on the incumbent. Rugai got 56 percent of the vote in 2003. She has been a loyal Daley supporter, and she is the chairman of the City Council Energy, Environmental Protection and Public Utilities Committee. Somerville is running again in 2007, as is Tim Sheehan, a real estate broker with no political experience. A major issue in the ward is the lack of commercial development along Western Avenue and 95th Street, which Sheehan will emphasize.

In the 2006 Democratic primary, Somerville's organization backed John Sullivan, a Beverly resident, in the 3rd U.S. House District. Incumbent Democrat Dan Lipinski won easily, and Sullivan finished third both districtwide and in the 19th Ward.

The bottom line: Somerville's 41 percent share in 2003 was more of an anti-Rugai vote than a pro-Somerville vote. Ward residents have a 24/7 expectation of performance from their alderman, and Rugai, of late, has not satisfied. The fact that the most of the Somerville family has been on the city and county payroll, and that his brother Luke was called to testify in the Sorich trial, diminishes his anti-Daley, "reform" credentials. Somerville's first problem is that Sheehan will divide the anti-Rugai vote. His second problem is that Rugai may not run.

My prediction: Expect Rugai to vacillate until December and then announce her retirement. And then expect O'Shea to run for her seat. O'Shea has been active in sponsoring softball and football leagues, the Saint Patrick's Day parade and Misericordia. Against Rugai, Somerville has a chance. Against O'Shea, Somerville is history. The "Three Wise Men" have passed their 19th Ward torch to O'Shea, who will succeed Rugai.