December 19, 2007


For more than two generations, since the 1960s, the Democratic organization in the Ravenswood-Lincoln Square 47th Ward, led by Ed Kelly and now by Alderman Gene Schulter, has been known as the "Fighting 47th."

In the adjacent 48th Ward, centered on Edgewater, Lakewood and North Uptown, the Democratic organization is derisively known as the "Forgettable 48th" due to a long succession of weak Democratic committeemen, transitional aldermen, family dynasties and changing demographics.

But if, as former U.S. House speaker Tip O'Neill once said, all politics is local, then the 48th Ward Democratic Organization is now on steroids. Call them "Super Hog." They dominate the North Lakefront 7th Illinois Senate District, anointing the state senator and both state representatives. That has engendered considerable resentment from other Democratic committeemen, and from some independent voters. So the issue in the Feb. 5 primary is almost Shakespearian: To anoint or not to anoint, that is the question.

The 7th District encompasses the 48th Ward and about half of the 40th, 46th, 47th and 49th wards, stretching from Touhy Avenue to Irving Park Road, east of Rockwell Street to the lake and, north of Granville Avenue, east of Ridge Avenue to the lake. The state senator is Democrat Carol Ronen, who is the appointed 48th Ward Democratic committeeman and the elected 9th U.S. House District state central committeewoman; the state representatives are Greg Harris (D-13) and Harry Osterman (D-14).

According to the 2000 census, the district is about 17 percent black and 20 percent Hispanic. It is overwhelmingly liberal and Democratic, with George Bush getting just 17.8 percent of the vote in 2004. The most active minority constituency, however, are gays, an estimated 20 percent of the population, especially in the area east of Clark Street and south of Lawrence Avenue.

Ronen was elected to the Illinois House in 1992, and she was appointed by the local Democratic committeemen to the Illinois Senate in 2000, when incumbent Art Berman resigned after filing but before the primary. Ronen was nominated and elected unopposed. Osterman was appointed to Ronen's House seat, and Harris was appointed to Larry McKeon's House seat in 2006, when McKeon resigned after the primary but before the election. McKeon was Illinois' first openly gay legislator.

Osterman lives in the 48th Ward, where his mother, the late Kathy Osterman, was the alderman from 1987 to 1989. Harris, who is gay, lives in the 46th Ward, but he was an aide to 48th Ward Alderman Mary Ann Smith prior to his House appointment.

"They're all liberals, but they're also insiders, and they control the political process," said one area critic. "The politicians do the picking, not the people."

And now Ronen, age 62, has resigned, effective Jan. 7. On Oct. 22, just seven days before the first day for filing nominating petitions and 14 days before the last day (Nov. 5), she quit. She is midway through her 4-year term. Ronen ran Rod Blagojevich's 1996 congressional campaign, and she has been the governor's floor leader in the Illinois Senate. She is expected to take a major job in the Blagojevich Administration, perhaps on his staff. That's like being promoted to first mate while the Titanic was sinking, but she'll have at least 3 years on the state payroll at a higher salary, which would give her state pension a boost.

In the Senate, Ronen was an outspoken supporter of Blagojevich's gross receipts tax, and she toes the typical liberal line on social issues: pro-abortion rights, pro-gay rights, pro-gun control.

Within minutes after her resignation, Ronen anointed her successor: Heather Steans, a wealthy philanthropist who is married to Leo Smith, a former Springfield lobbyist. The two have contributed more than $1 million to various Illinois politicians in the last decade, including almost $200,000 to Blagojevich in the past 5 years and more than $150,000 to various Republicans. Democratic recipients include Illinois Senate President Emil Jones (more than $100,000), Ronen (more than $30,000) and Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan (more than $25,000). Steans is more than just a socialite, having run a political action committee that championed early childhood development with her husband. A Harvard graduate, Steans was a budget analyst in Springfield, and for a time in Madison, while her husband was in law school. She also worked at LaSalle Bank, where her father was an executive.

"She's a well qualified, progressive candidate," said Ronen of Steans, rejecting insinuations that she "fixed" her succession. "I could have resigned after Nov. 5 and let the committeemen choose my successor, but I resigned early, so a primary will pick my successor," she said.

Steans will face Suzanne Elder, a health policy advocate, in the Democratic primary on Feb. 5. Steans can self-fund and spend whatever it takes to win. But the apprehension among some area voters is that she is a dilettante who hasn't paid her political dues, is buying her way onto the political stage, and will be a stooge for Blagojevich in Springfield.

"It was a set-up," said one independent Democrat from the 46th Ward. "Look at the facts: Ronen got (48th Ward Democratic Committeeman Mike) Volini to resign last summer. She got herself appointed by the Democratic Central Committee as his replacement. She waited until the last possible minute to resign as senator, and then she endorsed Steans and got all the other committeemen to back Steans, using the threat of Steans' big spending to scare everybody else out of the race."

Adds the source: "She is supposed to be a great liberal and reformer, but she does inside deals just like everybody else."

Ronen strongly rebuts the charge: "I've been in office since 1992," she said. "I've accomplished most of my goals. It's time to move on." Ronen is running for election as 48th Ward Democratic committeeman, and she is unopposed.

Steans has the support of the area's committeemen, including the Pat O'Connor of the 40th Ward and Gene Schulter of the 47th Ward, both powerful Chicago aldermen, but they're not happy. According to sources in the 40th Ward, O'Connor passed nominating petitions to run attorney Brendan O'Connor, a member of his organization who is no relation, against Steans in the primary, but, just before filing, O'Connor got a job in the legal department of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District and declined to run.

In fact, Alderman O'Connor was eager to elevate Harris to Ronen's seat, as that would have enabled him and Schulter to pick his House replacement. At present, there is no state legislator from either ward. The last from the 47th Ward was Bruce Farley, who lost a state Senate primary to Lisa Madigan in 1998, and the last from the 40th Ward was Bernard Wolfe, who retired in 1974 to become a judge.

McKeon was elected to the House in 1996, and the gay community, which is a strong Democratic constituency, considers the 13th District a "gay seat." Harris replaced McKeon in a battle between two gays: Harris was backed by then-committeeman Volini, Schulter and O'Connor, while Jim Snyder was backed by McKeon, 46th Ward Committeeman Tom Sharpe and 49th Ward Committeeman David Fagus. Snyder is now a judge.

O'Connor figured that if Harris became Illinois' first gay senator, then a non-gay could be slated for his House seat, but Harris refused to risk his safe House seat, especially since Steans proclaimed that she would run anyway.

"I'm satisfied that she will put the interests of the city first," said O'Connor, rejecting the notion that Steans will back the governor over Chicago. "I'm supporting her."

Steans versus Elder is a classic case of "Machine liberals" versus "movement liberals." Steans' ideology is not suspect, but her large contributions and her claim to the seat are quite suspect. "Enough is enough," said one Elder backer, who noted that Ronen, back in the "Year of the Woman" in 1992, upset Lee Preston, a "Machine liberal." The outlook: If Barack Obama's candidacy elicits a huge turnout of "movement liberals," Elder could win.

In the 48th Ward, Osterman, age 40, is positioning himself to run for alderman in 2011. The ward runs from Rosemont Avenue to Foster Avenue, and dips south to Lawrence east of Racine Avenue.

In most other wards, the Democratic committeeman is a powerhouse and either reigns as alderman or controls the alderman. Not in the "Forgettable 48th." There's been a succession of weak committeemen going back to the 1940s. The ward had a Republican alderman from 1947 to 1971 and from 1975 to 1978. Marty Tuchow, a county commissioner and committeeman from 1972 to 1984, was convicted of bribery. His successor, Bob Remer, a Harold Washington backer, couldn't get an alderman elected. Mike Volini, whose mother was the alderman from 1978 to 1987, was an ally of Smith, who was once a staffer for Rich Daley at the state's attorney's office.

Under Ronen, the 48th Ward is aspiring to be formidable, not forgettable. But all depends on Steans winning the election.