September 12, 2007


For Northwest Side Alderman Tom Allen (38th), who is seeking the Democratic nomination for Cook County state's attorney in the Feb. 5 primary, the recent Democratic slatemaking session sent mixed signals about his viability.

The bad news is that he was not slated. Hence, he will not have the automatic backing of committeemen allied with Mayor Rich Daley. The good news is that nobody was slated, and the 50 Chicago ward Democratic organizations and 30 suburban township organizations can endorse whomever they wish.

The bad news is that Allen, who has been an alderman since 1993, is not a ward committeeman, is largely unknown among white city committeemen outside the Northwest Side, and is totally unknown among black and suburban committeemen. Allen must spend the next 4 months trekking from precinct captain meeting to precinct captain meeting, making his pitch. The good news is that his principal white foe, county Commissioner Larry Suffredin, whose political base is in Evanston and Skokie, is equally obscure, and the principal black contender, Alderman Howard Brookins (21st), is not viewed enthusiastically by black committeemen.

The bad news is that Allen lacks gravitas as a candidate. He can't claim to have a lifetime of experience in putting crooks behind bars. The good news is that neither can Suffredin nor Brookins. But expect the newspapers to endorse Suffredin, viewed as the "reform" candidate.

The bad news is that if a slated Democrat in a countywide primary is not assured of victory, what chance does a nonslated regular Democrat have? In 2000 Alderman Pat Levar (45th) was slated for clerk of the circuit court. His campaign was orchestrated by the late Tom Lyons, who was the county Democratic chairman and a close Daley ally. Levar lost badly to a black independent candidate, Dorothy Brown.

But the really bad news is that having a political base on the Northwest Side, which consists of 10 wards, pales by comparison to having a political base in the predominantly black wards or among Lakefront and North Shore liberals. To win a county primary, Allen has to win upwards of 75 percent of the vote in the Northwest Side and Southwest Side white ethnic wards, 60 percent of the suburban vote, half of the Lakefront vote and 10 percent of the black vote. That's just not going to happen.

At the Sept. 6 slatemaking, Allen got 90,861 weighted votes, or 33.6 percent of the 270,162 votes cast by the 80 committeemen. His support came from the white ethnic wards. Brookins got 107,904 weighted votes, or 39.9 percent of the total, all from black committeemen, and Suffredin got 66,522, or 24.4 percent, primarily from north suburban and Lakefront committeemen. A fourth candidate, assistant state's attorney Anita Alvarez, got 4,875 votes.

The primary, featuring Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the presidential contest, will engender a huge turnout. Turnout in 2000 was 573,012 in Cook County, with 148,370 in the suburbs and 424,642 in Chicago. In 2004, when Obama was embroiled in a U.S. Senate primary, turnout zoomed to 764,163, with 279,538 in the suburbs and 484,625 in Chicago. Expect the 2008 turnout to equal or exceed that of 2004.

The good news for Allen is that Brookins is not Obama. In 2004 Obama got 301,199 votes in Chicago, or 62.1 percent of the total, and he got 163,718 votes in the suburbs, or 58.5 percent of the total. Roughly two-thirds of Obama's city vote (195,669) came from the predominantly black wards, and roughly 40 percent of his suburban vote (65,293) came from the predominantly black townships. In those areas, Obama got more than 90 percent of the vote. Obama got approximately 204,000 votes from the predominantly white and Hispanic wards and townships.

In 2008, aided by a huge black turnout, Brookins will get 90 percent of the vote among blacks. Even though he has desultory support from the Daley-allied black committeemen, black voters will flock to Brookins once they focus on the race and realize that an African American could become state's attorney for the first time in history. But Brookins will be lucky to get 50,000 votes in the white and Hispanic areas.

Allen's predicament is illustrated by the 2000 contest for clerk, in which Levar got only 27.5 percent of the vote. Brown won with 48.4 percent of the vote against Levar and two white independents. She got more than 88 percent in the black wards and townships, a quarter of the vote on the Northwest Side, a fifth of the vote on the Southwest Side and a third of the vote along the Lakefront, and she actually beat Levar by 20,000 votes in the suburbs.

Obviously, white committeemen did not exert themselves mightily on Levar's behalf, and the alderman blamed Lyons for his humiliating defeat. On the Northwest Side, Levar got unimpressive totals in the 45th Ward (66.3 percent of the vote), 41st Ward (53.1 percent), 39th Ward (53.2 percent), 38th Ward (55.8 percent), 36th Ward (64.3 percent) and 33rd Ward (53.2 percent). He needed to get 75 percent of the vote in the area to offset Brown's black-ward margins.

Allen's problem will be Suffredin, not Brookins. The race to succeed the retiring Dick Devine will not be about who is tougher on crime; instead, it will be about who can best fight government corruption, as evidenced by the city's Hired Truck Program scandal and the federal probe into county hiring. Devine, Daley's protege, has been missing in action on official corruption, undertaking no probes on his own and deferring to the U.S. attorney. Under Brookins or Suffredin, that would change. For the mayor, Allen would be the safe choice.

Suffredin will be quick to define himself as the "reform" candidate, emphasizing his efforts on the Cook County Board. He will be well funded, and he will assemble a coalition of white liberals, independents and gays. Allen will be supported by the unions, all the Northwest Side committeemen and the mayor's allies, but he needs to develop a theme soon. In a year when voters are eager for "change," Allen cannot win as a bland, listless replica of Devine.

The most fervent participants in Democratic primaries, other than city and county workers, are liberals. Even in the historically conservative white ethnic wards, there is a core of voters who detest Daley, despise President Bush, abhor the Iraq War, and support gay and abortion rights. In 2004 Obama got 3,352 votes in the 45th Ward and 3,449 votes in the 41st Ward, winning both wards with less than a majority. He got 2,476 votes in the 38th Ward and 2,871 in the 36th Ward, finishing second. He easily carried the 39th, 40th, 47th and 50th wards. Most of those white liberals will stick with Obama for president and will gravitate to Suffredin, who could get 40 percent of the vote or better in the Northwest Side wards east of Cicero Avenue. If that happens, Allen is toast.

Brookins will win if Suffredin and Allen split the white vote and Brookins gets 15 to 20 percent of the white liberal vote. Suffredin could win if Allen tanks like Levar. It's hard to imagine any scenario in which Allen wins.

Here's what happened in other contests at slatemaking:

Cook County Recorder of Deeds Gene Moore was supposed to have been toast. He lost his bid for re-election as Proviso Township Democratic committeeman in 2006. But, miraculously, he got re-slated -- by default. State Representative Karen Yarbrough of Maywood, who beat Moore in 2006, wanted to run for recorder, but she deferred to Alderman Ed Smith (28th), a West Side political powerhouse.

The Democratic slatemakers, however, have an iron rule: To get slated, you have to appear and ask for it. Smith, a committeeman himself, ignored that rule and left town for a National League of Cities event. Only Moore appeared.

Smith would have been slated, but now his task is doubly hard. Neither Moore nor Smith is well known or well funded. Moore will be on the sample ballot of white Chicago committeemen, and as a suburbanite, he will be heavily pushed by township committeemen. To win, Smith must run up epic numbers -- more than 80 percent of the vote -- in the black Chicago wards. That won't happen. Smith definitely is a contender for political dunce of the year.

Metropolitan Water Reclamation District: Smith faces stiff competition for the dunce cap from water district Commissioner Cynthia Santos, who has served since 1996. Santos was on vacation on Sept. 6. To use the phrase from the 2006 governor's race: What was she thinking? As a result, incumbent commissioners Kathy Meany and M. Frank Avila were reslated, and Dean Maragos was slated. Now Santos must circulate petitions and collect 15,000 signatures -- a job which the committeemen will do for the Meany-Avila-Maragos ticket.

Santos and her husband, state Representative Rich Bradley (D-40), probably can start contemplating a permanent vacation. Bradley is facing a tough primary against Deborah Mell, the daughter of Alderman Dick Mell (33rd). Both will be jobless after 2008