January 24, 2007


It takes a real effort for any Chicago alderman to lose a re-election bid. The incumbent must be horribly incompetent or indicted. Or the alderman must have been around too long, engendering great fatigue among voters. Or there must be widespread demographic change within the ward.

In fact, there is rarely much turnover among the city's 50 aldermen. In 350 ward races over the past seven elections, incumbents won 268 of 302 contests, for an 88.7 percent re-election rate; the other 48 were open-seat contests. That's an average of four or five aldermanic losers per election.

This year Aldermen Ted Matlak (32nd) and Berny Stone (50th) are poised to be among the losers -- Matlak for his ineptitude in his increasingly affluent, upscale ward, encompassing Wicker Park and Bucktown, and Stone for his longevity and collapsing political organization in the changing West Rogers Park ward.

Here's an analysis:

32nd Ward (Wicker Park, South Lakeview, Bucktown, Ukrainian Village): The rap against Matlak is (1) that he doesn't communicate with his constituents and doesn't return phone calls; (2) that he allows spot zoning and upscale development of residential property without input from community organizations, and then gets donations from developers; (3) that he fails to deliver ward services until his re-election year and blames city departments for his failures; and (4) that he has ties to the Hired Truck Program scandal, taking contributions from companies involved, and that 14 of his petition circulators or their family members were on the city's recently revealed "clout list" of preferential job hires.

As proof of one allegation, six calls from this writer to Matlak's aldermanic and campaign offices over a weeklong period went unanswered.

"There is no question that those who develop in the ward donate to Matlak," said Scott Waguespack, Matlak's principal opponent. "Ted has decades of experience in city government, but he's a puppet for the mayor in the City Council, and he does not respond to the needs of the people."

Also running are John Lag, a lawyer and the president of the Sheffield Neighborhood Association, and Catherine Zaryczny, a lawyer who has yet to open a campaign office. Waguespack, age 36, is a nonpracticing attorney who was born in Bucktown, managed the 2005 "reform" campaign of independent Mike O'Connor for mayor of Berwyn, and now is O'Connor's top aide. The Hispanic Democratic Organization weighed in on behalf of Democrat Mike Woodward in that race, but O'Connor won with 56 percent of the vote. Waguespack's campaign is being run by Pat Botterman, who masterminded the 2006 upset of Dan Kotowski, now a Democratic state senator.

"Mark my words," said an area Democratic public official. "Matlak will lose. If you know Ted, you don't like Ted. He just doesn't do his job. He's relying wholly on (ward Democratic Committeeman Terry) Gabinski, and they don't have the workers anymore."

In 2003, when Matlak beat Jay Stone with 74 percent of the vote, and in 1999, when he beat Lorna Brett with 54 percent, an army of city workers under the control of top city officials Don Tomczak and Dan Katalinic invaded the ward to help Matlak. Tomczak and Katalinic, who focused on sending city workers into predominantly white wards, have since been convicted in the Hired Truck scandal. Gabinski, who was an alderman from 1969 to 1999 and who has been a committeeman since 1988, has few precinct workers on the street.

The ward just ain't what it used to be. When Joe Rostenkowski was the Democratic committeeman (from 1936 to 1960) and the alderman, and when his son Dan Rostenkowski was a congressman (from 1959 to 1995), the ward was largely Ukrainian American and Polish American, with 1890s or early 1900s frame bungalows built on tiny 25- to 40-foot lots. In the last 15 years, developers have bought two or three dinky lots and built new "McMansion" homes, condominiums or townhouses in the $500,000 to $1.5 million range. To rezone from R-1 to R-3 or R-4 requires the assent of the alderman, and Gabinski and Matlak gave it, spawning an epidemic of knockdowns.

And therein lies the irony: The new 32nd Ward residents, being decidedly affluent, are unimpressed with Matlak. They view him largely as an ineffective, inarticulate dolt. And they are impressed with Waguespack, whose candidacy was prompted by a group called the New Leadership Alliance, which wanted to find an alternative to Matlak.

Also, the alderman didn't make any friends when he permitted a Pleasure Chest store, selling sexual aids, to open in the ward.

My prediction: Waguespack promises to "clean up corruption," and he has made no endorsement for mayor. Matlak is running in tandem with Rich Daley. Turnout in the ward was 7,477 in 2003 and 10,744 in 1999. The alderman's base is now down to fewer than 4,000 votes. Turnout will be 8,500 on Feb. 27, and Waguespack will finish with 4,000 votes, to Matlak's 3,500, forcing an April runoff -- which Matlak will lose.

50th Ward (West Rogers Park): Stone, age 79, is viewed as an icon on his ward, having served since 1973. But those doing the viewing are dwindling in number, as the ward's immigrant population continues to grow.

Stone categorically denies rumors that if he is re-elected he intends to resign and press the mayor to appoint his daughter, Alana, his chief of staff, to the job. "I will serve my full term, and I will run again in 2011," promised Stone. "There's nobody who can do better than I do." The alderman also bristles at suggestions that corruption is epidemic in City Hall. "I have been alderman for 34 years," he said. "There has not been a hint of corruption attaching to me or my office."

Being north of Lakeview and Ravenswood and west of Rogers Park, both developing areas with soaring property values, the 50th Ward is now ready to join the crowd. Stone said that he has been "encouraging private development" along Western Avenue north of Devon Avenue and along Touhy Avenue and Devon west of Western.

The Jewish population is estimated at 25 percent in the ward, making up about 40 percent of the voters. They love their alderman. But the Asian population is at least 25 percent, composed mostly of Koreans, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Chinese, Thai and Japanese. There also is a large Indian and Pakistani population, around 10 percent, and a growing Muslim population from the Middle East, as well as a large Russian immigrant contingent. Non-Jewish whites make up about 20 percent of the ward's population.

The perfect political storm -- and Stone's worst nightmare -- would have an aldermanic field with a candidate from each ethnic group. And that is exactly what happened. Greg Brewer, an architect allied with 49th Ward Alderman Joe Moore, is running as the liberal "reform" candidate, appealing to the anti-Daley/anti-Stone vote.  Naisy Dolar, a Filipina who formerly worked for the city as a coordinator of Asian affairs, is trying to solidify the ward's Asian vote behind her; losing 2006 congressional candidate Tammy Duckworth has endorsed her and is campaigning in the ward. And Salman Aftab, a Muslim, is trying to motivate his base.

Stone's last tough race was in 1991, when he beat liberal Hank Rubin 8,654-6,777, with 56 percent of the vote in a turnout of 15,431. In 1995 Stone got 5,676 votes (56.9 percent) in a turnout of 9,965. In 1999 he was unopposed and got 7,445 votes. In 2003 he won with 5,755 votes (76 percent) in a turnout of 7,558. The trend is clear: Voter participation is shrinking, and so is Stone's vote.

In the 2004 Democratic primary, Stone, the ward Democratic committeeman, backed Mike Moses against state Representative Lou Lang (D-16). Lang won with 61.6 percent of the vote, and Moses won the 50th Ward by just 3,531-3,453. In December Stone filed 1,900 petition signatures. Clearly, Stone's organization suffers from atrophy, if not decrepitude. Also, U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-9), is not endorsing Stone and is "neutral," although most of her workers in the ward are backing Brewer.

"This will be a close race," predicts state Senator Ira Silverstein (D-8), a Stone ally. In a ward with many residents living in apartments, the key will be mailings. Stone will do well in the predominantly Jewish Winston Towers precincts. His opponents must spur interest and a get a turnout in excess of 10,000.

"I'm not anti-development, but I'm convinced that zoning changes are a tradeoff and that developers are making donations to Stone," Brewer said. "That's wrong." Brewer also squawks the liberal line that "continuing apartment conversions to condominiums mean a loss of affordable housing." Added Brewer: "We must rewrite to zoning code."

My prediction: Stone admits that if he wins outright on Feb. 27, he won't get much over 50 percent of the vote. Brewer predicts he'll win a majority, which is absurd. But all this activity in the ward will spur turnout to about 10,000. Stone will come in with about 4,200 votes, Brewer with 3,500, Dolar with 1,800, and Aftab with 500. That means an April runoff, a low turnout, and a flood of outsiders descending on the ward. Stone could lose.