February 27, 2008


There is a fine distinction between a persistent candidate and a perennial candidate. The latter runs repeatedly and loses. The former runs repeatedly but loses credibly, not by much, and eventually triumphs.

The epitome of persistence in Illinois politics is Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn. In fact, Governor Rod Blagojevich's legal problems could well create a vacancy before 2010, elevating Quinn to chief executive. But when it comes to electoral success, Quinn, age 60, is batting only .500. He's won four and lost four.

In 1982 Quinn was nominated as a Democrat and was elected a commissioner of the Cook County Board of Tax Appeals. In 1986 he lost the Democratic primary for state treasurer. In 1990 he won the primary and was elected state treasurer. In 1994 he lost to George Ryan for secretary of state. In 1996 he lost the primary to Dick Durbin for U.S. senator. In 1998 he lost the primary for lieutenant governor.

By then, Quinn was a household name, a political irritant and a perennial candidate, but he also had some credibility, having won a few times and coming close other times. In the 2002 primary for lieutenant governor, Quinn faced two obscure challengers, and he was nominated and thereafter elected on the ticket with Blagojevich; he was re-elected in 2006.

Quinn is a fixture in state politics, well respected for his integrity and untarnished by the scandals of the Blagojevich Administration, and as 2010 approaches he is a viable contender for governor.

Fast closing on Quinn as a paragon of persistence in Cook County politics is the father-and-son team of Frank Avila and Frank Avila. The elder Avila, age 70, is a Metropolitan Water Reclamation District commissioner. He first ran for the job under the name M. Frank Avila. Every 2 years, in the Democratic primary, three commissioners are nominated for 6-year terms. In 1998 Avila lost, finishing eighth in a field of 14. In 2000 he ran again, finishing fourth in a field of 12.

In 2002 the younger Avila, an attorney, filed a federal lawsuit accusing one of the slated candidates, Martin Sandoval, of conspiracy to disenfranchise voters because he was running for both water district commissioner and state senator and because had been quoted as saying he would resign the district nomination after he won the primary. Exercising prudence, Sandoval quit the county race. That left only two slated candidates, with the elder Avila as the only Hispanic. In an upset, Avila finished third in a field of nine, topping an Irish-surnamed Democratic committeeman by just 2,605 votes.

In 2004 and 2006, the younger Avila, now age 37, sought to join his father at the water district. Although not slated by the party, he had built up numerous contacts with Democratic politicians, had a weekly cable television show, and was developing a high-profile law practice. In 2004, in a field of 11, he finished fourth; in 2006, in a field of nine, he again finished fourth, trailing the third-place winner by just 529 votes. The operative word was "credible." Despite two defeats, Avila did not embarrass himself, but he has also made a lot of enemies, and the "sins of the son" appeared likely to be inflicted upon the father.

In 2007 Avila became counsel for Aaron Patterson, one of four former Death Row inmates who allegedly were tortured by former police commander Jon Burge and Area 2 officers. The City Council has approved a $19.8 million settlement, of which $5 million is allocated to Patterson; a healthy portion of that amount will be apportioned to attorney fees. Avila also called the Hispanic Democratic Organization a "criminal enterprise," and he has represented numerous fired city employees in civil service appeals.

Unlike his feisty son, the mild-mannered elder Avila is an indefatigable campaigner who regularly appears at party dinners and picnics and on cable television. But young Avila had so incensed the Daley political establishment that the father, despite being an incumbent, was not expected to be slated for the water district in 2008. Dean Maragos, a major party contributor, wanted a spot, along with incumbents Kathy Meany and Cynthia Santos. But Santos was out of the country at slatemaking, and the committeemen enacted a rule that only candidates present could be slated, so Avila got Santos' slot.

Also, before filing, he changed his ballot name to Frank Avila from M. Frank Avila. "That was a smart move," said one Democratic politician. "A lot of people thought they were voting for the son, not the father."

The ensuing Feb. 5 primary outcome was a stunner. In a field of eight candidates, four of them women, Avila finished first, getting 367,731 votes. He fashioned a broad coalition of support, leading the field in the predominantly Hispanic wards and coming in second in the predominantly black wards. He finished among the top three in white ethnic wards, the Lakefront and the suburbs. Women won most of the contested judicial races and the state's attorney contest, and the four women seeking water district spots finished 2-3-4-5, but that didn't impede Avila.

Incumbent Meany was second with 335,893 votes, followed by Dumped incumbent Santos with 334,255 votes. Next was Diane Jones, a member of Rickey Hendon's 27th Ward organization who was the top vote getter in the predominantly black wards and townships, with 284,923 votes, and then newcomer Mariyana Spyropoulos, who was first on the ballot, with 306,930 votes. Finishing 6-7-8 were the slated Maragos, who had only 212,917 votes, followed by Derrick Stinson with 188,407 votes and Matt Podgorski with 130,713 votes.

Santos' victory is noteworthy. Her surname is actually Greek, not Hispanic, and she benefits from the fact that Miriam Santos was once the city treasurer. She won as an independent in 1996 and was a slated candidate in 2002, and she beat the slate again in 2008.

Because of the obscurity of water district contests, coupled with the cost of countywide advertising, it is impossible to deliver any discernible message to voters. So gender, ballot position, ethnicity and name familiarity are the key to success, as was again demonstrated in 2008.

Rumors are afoot that Avila now plans to challenge Commissioner Terry O'Brien for the water district presidency in December. O'Brien is part of "Team Daley," and the district's $750 million annual budget means that there are plenty of contractors who donate to the Democratic party. Meany is the district vice president, and Gloria Majewski is the finance chairman. To oust O'Brien, Avila needs the backing of four other commissioners. His ally, Debra Shore, would be the vice president. There are two black commissioners, Pat Horton and Barbara McGowan. One could replace Majewski.

Commissioner Patty Young is allied with O'Brien, so the swing vote is Santos. It could be payback time. Santos was dumped by "Team Daley" slatemakers, and her husband, state Representative Rich Bradley, was forced to run for state senator (and lose) to make way for Alderman Dick Mell's daughter. Now she can exact her revenge.

The younger Avila could run for a water district post in 2010, when the terms of commissioners Majewski, Young and McGowan expire. Majewski is expected to retire. Given the growing magic of the Avila name, he surely would win. Or he could shift his sights to the Hispanic-majority 4th U.S. House District, currently occupied by U.S. Representative Luis Gutierrez. Avila is of Mexican-American ancestry, and he is conservative on social issues, while Gutierrez is Puerto Rican and liberal. If Avila uses his attorney fees from the Patterson case as seed money to fund his candidacy, he could give Gutierrez a difficult race.

Here's a look at the primary for the office of county recorder of deeds:

Who is Gene Moore, and why did he get 520,872 votes? Barack Obama got 743,659 votes in Cook County. Howard Brookins, the black candidate for state's attorney, got 172,562 votes. Yet Moore, an obscure cipher, devoid of a political base and utterly dependent on white Democratic committeemen, swept to an easy victory. Call it the luck of the Irish or, more appropriately, Moore's luck in not having an Irish-surnamed woman run against him.

Moore, who is black, was appointed recorder in 1999, and he was renominated without opposition in 2000 and 2004. In 2006 he was ousted as Proviso Township Democratic committeeman by state Representative Karen Yarbrough, who then began angling for slating for recorder in 2008. But Alderman Ed Smith decided he wanted the job, Yarbrough withdrew, and Smith failed to show up for slating. Smith was later endorsed by Daley. In a race between two obscure black men, white voters opted for Moore, the slated candidate, who won the suburbs 221,476-128,324, with 63.3 percent of the vote, and Chicago 299,396-203,068, with 59.5 percent of the vote.

This much is certain: Had it been Moore versus Yarbrough, she would have won, and in 2012 someone with an Irish name will run for recorder and beat Moore.