April 4, 2007


Each of the City Council's 50 members has some redeeming talent. Matlak's is his ability to hibernate. He's never seen and never heard, he never returns phone calls and he always supports Mayor Rich Daley. Matlak's standard operating procedure is to snooze through the first 45 months of his 4-year term, and then awaken and campaign frantically for the last 90 days.

According to Pat Botterman, the campaign manager for Scott Waguespack, Matlak's foe in the April 17 runoff, the joke in the 32nd Ward is this: What is the difference between Alderman Matlak and the Easter Bunny? Answer: At least you see the Easter Bunny once a year.

Luckily for Matlak, the ward's Democratic committeeman, Terry Gabinski, is not asleep at the switch. Gabinski, age 68, is a protege of former U.S. representative Dan Rostenkowski who served as alderman from 1969 to 1999. He's been the committeeman since 1988, and he is a well wired lobbyist with extensive political connections among the city's "Old Guard" Democrats. Matlak was Gabinski's top aide and protege, and Gabinski picked him as his successor. Gabinski and Rostenkowski, still active at age 79, are calling in all of their chits to rescue Matlak.

The 32nd Ward takes in Bucktown, Wicker Park, South Lakeview and Ukrainian Village, and it has undergone enormous demographic change in the past 15 years, from ethnic to yuppie. Upscale housing, ranging from restored brownstones to $1 million townhomes to $500,000 condos, has politically, culturally and economically transformed the ward. The dinky frame bungalows, long occupied by Polish and Ukrainian Americans, are being razed at a torrid pace. The new ward residents are largely affluent professionals, and they expect their alderman to be seen, to be heard, and to be responsive to their demands.

At least half the population has moved into the ward in the past 5 years, and the Gabinski-Rostenkowski machine can thank itself for sowing the seeds of its own destruction. Matlak has never met a developer that he didn't love, and the quid pro quo is that Matlak spot zones a parcel, without community knowledge or input, and the developer makes a hefty contribution to Matlak or Gabinski. Matlak's campaign committee raised $621,085 in the past 4 years, and Gabinski raised $555,988.

In the not-too-distant past, there were more than enough controlled ethnic votes to keep the machine in control. No longer. In the 2006 Democratic primary for Cook County Board president, "reformer" Forrest Claypool beat John Stroger 4,062-1,447 in the ward, and in the 2006 election, Republican Tony Peraica beat Todd Stroger 7,605-6,615.

Back in 1999, when Matlak first ran, he beat Lorna Brett, a liberal feminist, by 6,725-4,019, getting 54 percent of the vote in a turnout of 10,744. In 2003, against "reformer" Jay Stone, Matlak won by 5,518-1,959, with 74 percent of the vote in a turnout of 7,477. On Feb. 27 Matlak got 3,793 votes (47 percent), to 3,185 (39 percent) for Waguespack and 1,122 (14 percent) for Catherine Zaryczny in a turnout of 8,100.

From Matlak's perspective, the upside is that he was only 257 votes shy of winning re-election outright and that Zaryczny has endorsed him; the downside is that he got 2,932 fewer votes than he did in 1999, that he ran 1,582 votes behind Daley, that he spent more than $400,000 to get 3,793 votes, and that 514 more people voted against Matlak than for him. From Waguespack's perspective, the upside is that he ran only 608 votes behind Matlak despite spending only $40,000; the downside is that turnout will be under 7,000 for the runoff, and Gabinski is bringing in precinct workers from the 10th, 11th, 13th, 14th, 23rd, 40th and 47th wards who are scouring the ward to find any possible Matlak voter.

Nevertheless, Waguespack will win. Here's why:

First, Zaryczny's endorsement is counterproductive. During the campaign, Zaryczny lugged around transcript blow-ups from the Hired Truck Program trial of Don Tomczak to candidate forums, quoting Tomczak as stating that his water department workers collected petition signatures, passed our fliers and turned out the vote in 2003 for Matlak. She has ripped Matlak as "unresponsive and unaccountable."

"Her base was Ukrainian Village," said one observer. "Plus, she got some gender votes. Now, her voters are disgusted. Half will go to Scott, and the other half won't vote."

Second, the precinct captain "surge" also is counterproductive. Matlak's workers are dumping giveaways everywhere: road maps, magnetic holders, pens, key chains. They're promising new garbage carts and instantaneous city services. Matlak is cranking out slick mailers, with one hitting every household every other day, but he is not on the street, and the result has been a resounding thud.

"The new voters say, 'What is this,'" said the observer. "They're paying eight to 10 grand in property taxes, and they expect city services as a matter of right, not as a favor. The more Matlak's workers push, the fewer votes they will get."

Third, for the first time, the Gabinski machine is perceived as not just vulnerable, but beatable. The retinue of precinct captains who flourished during the Rostenkowski years (1958 to 1994) are either dead or retired. Gabinski had to rely on troops under the command of Tomczak and Dan Katalinic to win in 2003. "Our people are energized," Botterman said. "They scent that Matlak can be ousted." Waguespack's campaign sought to register 1,000 new voters. The ward has 34,907 registered voters, but only 23 percent turned out in February. If turnout is over 20 percent in April, Waguespack wins; if it's under, Matlak wins.

My prediction: The runoff is a referendum on 8 years of Matlak's ineptitude and indifference. Waguespack will win by 300 votes, getting 53 percent of the votes cast.

In the adjacent 43rd Ward, which encompasses Lincoln Park and Old Town, another relic of the past, former alderman Marty Oberman, is attempting a political resurrection. Oberman was an alderman from 1975 to 1987, and he is backing Michele Smith, a former assistant U.S. attorney, whose theme is corruption. "If City Hall won't prosecute corruption, then put a prosecutor in City Hall," she trumpets. That's not going to make her friends among fellow aldermen.

The incumbent is Vi Daley, no relation to the mayor, who was first elected in 1999. As in the 32nd Ward, development, downzoning and landmarking are critical issues, but Daley is no Matlak. She is active and visible in a ward where service, not rhetoric, is demanded.

In the primary Daley finished with 3,616 votes (48 percent of the total), to 2,494 (33 percent) for Smith, with 922 (12 percent) for Tim Egan, 331 for Pete Zelchenko and 218 for Rachel Goodstein, in a turnout of 7,581. Daley missed winning outright by 168 votes. Both Smith and Daley spent about $200,000, and turnout was just 27 percent. Egan has endorsed Daley.

Daley was unopposed and got 5,678 votes in 2003; in 1999 she won her first term with 6,776 votes (66 percent of the votes cast), in a turnout of 10,215. Her voter base is shrinking.

Once a hotbed of liberal and anti-machine sentiment, the 43rd Ward elected Bill Singer as alderman in 1969. Singer got crushed by the late Mayor Richard Daley when he ran for mayor in 1975. Evolution has sapped revolution, as the ward gentrified, property values (and taxes) soared, and unruly bars, traffic congestion, a shortage of parking and unrestricted development became intolerable. "Quality of my life," not "save the world," is now the mantra in the ward. The proposed mall on the site of Grossinger Auto is an example. It meant more traffic and congestion. Oberman was the attorney for the opponents, and Daley held community meetings and came out against it.

The ward is very upper class, almost entirely white, and more WASPy than Jewish. George Bush got 10,134 votes (34.1 percent of the total) in 2004, demonstrating a substantial Republican base. Mayor Daley got 6,321 votes (83.4 percent) in February, clear proof that, as the 43rd Ward's legendary former alderman Paddy Bauler (1933 to 1967) once said, Chicago -- and the 43rd Ward in 2007 -- "ain't ready for reform."

My prediction: Newly elected Alderman Brendan Reilly (42nd) is helping Daley in the Gold Coast portion of the ward. In a turnout of under 7,000, Daley will win by 500 votes, with 55 percent of the total.

35th Ward (Logan Square): They call him "Old Gringo" in the predominantly Hispanic wards, and Alderman Dick Mell (33rd) is up to his old tricks. Mell, the father-in-law of the governor, has deployed the 300-plus workers from his ward organization into the 35th Ward on behalf of former alderman Vilma Colom. With just 35 precincts in the ward, that's almost 10 workers per precinct. The incumbent is Rey Colon, who beat Colom 4,444-3,212 in 2003 but topped her by just 3,038-2,218 in February, with 1,291 votes to Miguel Sotomayer.

Mell's workers are canvassing the old-fashioned way, getting a plus (Colom) or a minus (Colon). Their goal: Get 3,000 pluses, and then run them on April 17. My prediction: Colom is coming on strong, and she will win.