June 21, 2006


The acronym of the week in northwest suburban Niles is LANB: "Life After Nick Blase." What will it be like?

The 78-year-old Blase, who has been the mayor of Niles for 45 years, was indicted on June 8 on one count of felony mail fraud. The indictment stemmed from an FBI investigation dating back to 1989, which found that Blase and village officials allegedly pressured village businesses to use Ralph Weiner and Associates for their insurance. Weiner allegedly paid kickbacks amounting to $281,039 to a shell corporation, SMP Insurance Service, which paid an employee in Blase's law office. An employee of Weiner has given the FBI a list of 38 businesses which bought insurance and which had part of their premiums paid to SMP.

For years, Niles' slogan has been: "Where People Count." Now, if comedian Jay Leno were to inveigh, it would be: "Niles -- Where the Mayor Faces a Bunch of Counts."

From a legal perspective, the tactics of the U.S. Attorney's Office, acting through the FBI, are entirely predictable: First, they very publicly and embarrassingly arrest the subject. Blase was hauled out of his home in the early morning, still in his bedroom slippers, to appear before a federal judge for his arraignment. Second, the subject is initially charged with only one count, despite a lengthy investigation. Blase was charged with just mail fraud. Third, the subject presumably is suffused with terror as he contemplates the prospect of being under indictment for 2 or more years, spending more than $300,000 in attorney fees, suffering the humiliation and disgrace of being scorned by his peers, and then enduring a 2-week to 2-month trial.

In the meantime, the feds begin tossing around such buzzwords as racketeering, extortion, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, perjury, tax evasion, mail fraud or wire fraud. That's called "piling on." Every illegal act is a separate count, and the prosecutors can add more counts up to the trial. And every time another "cooperating" subject flips and spills his guts, the evidence grows more imposing. Facing considerable jail time, the subject usually relents, pleads guilty to the most minor offense, and "cooperates" with the feds.

So the feds' message to Blase is this: Plead guilty to mail fraud. Cooperate with the prosecution to finger other culprits. Give up the mayor's job. Give up the law practice. Stay out of jail. Get probation and 1 year of home confinement. Or, be obdurate and get buried with an avalanche of new counts.

When asked about his predicament, Blase responded, "No comment." But, for an array of Niles politicians, "Life After Nick Blase" is now an imminent reality.

Blase, a Democrat, was first elected mayor in 1961, and he has been re-elected 11 times, most recently in 2005; his term runs through 2009. Blase's 45-year tenure is close to surpassing the 46-year mark of former Lincolnwood mayor Henry Proesel (1931 to 1977) and former Norridge mayor Joe Sieb (1952 to 1998), but it will never exceed that of Rosemont's legendary Don Stephens (1956 to the present). Blase's predecessor as mayor was Frank Stankowicz, who served from 1941 to 1961. That means that Niles has had two mayors in the past 65 years.

Niles' population, despite a flurry of condominiums built along Milwaukee Avenue, Caldwell Avenue and Golf Road, has been remarkably stable. It was 30,068 after the 2000 census, 28,384 in 1990, 30,363 in 1980, 32,432 in 1970 and 32,075 in 1960. Over 50 years, the village's population has declined by 2,000. The reason is generational -- or, perhaps, geriatric. According to the 2000 census, about a third of Niles' residents are over age 62. That makes it like a Sunbelt mecca: Those who die are barely offset by those who buy.

Ethnicity also is a factor. Niles has long had a substantial Polish-American population, estimated at a third, but there has been an influx of Koreans and Indians.

Life after Blase can be viewed thus: Should he step down as mayor, either voluntarily or involuntarily, the six village trustees will choose an acting mayor. Or, if the situation remains unresolved, he could choose to not run for re-election in 2009. There are four credible contenders:

*Andy Przybylo, a village trustee since 1989, Maine Township Democratic committeeman from 1992 to 2002, current secretary of the Cook County Zoning Board of Appeals, and, most importantly, co-owner and general manager of the White Eagle Banquets and Restaurant on Milwaukee Avenue, which has been patronized by tens of thousands of Northwest Side and suburban residents over the years. Przybylo took over as committeeman from Blase in 1992, but he gave up the post in 2002. Given Niles' large Polish population, Przybylo is the most likely mayoral successor.

*Joe Annunzio, Niles village attorney since 1998 and the nephew of the late U.S. Representative Frank Annunzio, who served in Washington from 1965 to 1992. The Annunzio name is still familiar to a lot of Niles seniors.

*Joe LoVerde, the executive director of the Niles Park Board who ran as a Democrat for village trustee in 2005, getting 1,934 votes (19 percent of the total). His opposition was Blase's Present Leaders for Future Security slate, and the winners were Przybylo (2,857 votes), Bob Callero (2,720 votes) and Louella Preston (2,654 votes). LoVerde is itching to run again.

*Bob Dudycz, the Republican Maine Township supervisor since 2001. Dudycz's candidate just lost a bid for township Republican committeeman, but a Niles mayoral bid may be tempting. There is no provision for a runoff, and the candidate with the most votes wins. If a number of Democrats file, either in 2009 or in a 2007 special election if Blase resigns prior to December of 2006, Dudycz could win in a multi-candidate race.

The matter of party identification is somewhat murky. Blase and his slate never ran as Democrats, choosing some bland moniker, but under state statute a partisan caucus or a demand for a primary could be filed. That means there could be Democratic, Republican and multitude of other party candidates in the race to succeed Blase.

The Village of Niles is split between Maine and Niles townships, with Harlem Avenue as the dividing line. Two-thirds of the village is in Maine Township, extending from Milwaukee and Albion Avenue northwestward to Golf Road, taking in the area around Lutheran General Hospital (Greenwood and Dempster) and the Golf Mill shopping center. One third is east of Harlem, extending to the Edens Expressway between Touhy and Oakton and to Caldwell between Touhy and Devon.

The motivation to be mayor is certainly not economic. The part-time mayor is paid $4,000 annually, and the six village trustees, three of whom are elected every 2 years, are paid $2,000 annually and meet monthly. But the village has an annual budget of $56 million and employs 503 people. In the last decade, millions of dollars were spent to build a new village hall and health center at Oakton Street and Waukegan Road, a new police station at Touhy Avenue and Milwaukee, a new park at Touhy and Harlem, and a new maintenance yard on Touhy east of Milwaukee. In addition, the village is annexing every commercial parcel possible, the most recent being the Best Buy lot at Golf and Greenwood, and new condominiums are going up on the east side of Waukegan south of Dempster Street.

For an enterprising mayor, the potential for serious campaign contributions from Niles' businesses and developers is enormous.

But, as in most small communities, the voter base is bordering on the anemic. Although the population is over 30,000, turnout in the 2005 mayoral contest, in which Blase was unopposed, was just over 3,500, or less than a third of the village voter registration of roughly 12,000.

In the 2005 trustee contest, where three candidates were elected, the 4-year term winners were Przybylo, Callero and Preston. For a 2-year term, Blase-backed Kim Sychowski Biederman got 2,067 votes, beating Ray Czarnik and Rich Harczak, who was running a joint campaign with LoVerde. Clearly, the Blase machine is capable of cranking out 2,000 votes.

In 2001 Blase beat the Republican-backed Len Reinebach 3,707-610. The mayor was unopposed in 1997 (getting 3,199 votes), 1993 (getting 3,016 votes), 1989 (getting 5,192 votes), 1985, 1981 and 1977.

All of the village trustees are Democrats and Blase allies. Incumbent trustees Biederman, Bart Murphy and Tom Bondi are facing re-election in 2007. If there is an anti-Blase backlash, they will suffer, but if the anti-Blase base is fractionalized, they can win with a minority of the vote.

The early outlook: Blase seems to have adopted a bunker mentality: no deal with the feds. And that means toughing it out politically. Do his supporters stick with him or bail out? If Blase quits, Przybylo would be his certain replacement, but if the mayor goes through a messy trial and is convicted, a throw-the-bums-out mentality surely will prevail in 2009. And that could mean the election of an outsider, such as LoVerde or Dudycz.