June 18, 2008


In Russ Stewart's June 18 column on "A Tale of Three Cities," former Lincolnwood mayoral candidate Bertha Gimbel was quoted as stating that "Irv and Sally Blackman and Paul Eisterhold really run the town." Gimbel says that she meant to say that they run the Lincolnwood Alliance Party, which runs the town. Eisterhold is a former, not current, zoning board chairman. Gimbel also said that she has not encouraged Trustee Yehuda Lebovits to run for mayor in 2009.

Charles Dickens' classic 1859 novel, "A Tale of Two Cities," dealt with the impact of the French Revolution of the 1790s on the citizenry of Paris and London. "Change" was swift, methods brutal, life short, and the outcome nebulous.

This 2008 column is a "Tale of Three Cities" -- Morton Grove, Skokie and Lincolnwood. All three north suburban cities have municipal elections in 2009. All have political activists who, like the Barack Obama campaign, proclaim that they can provide the "change we need." But no "revolution" will occur.

The "Three Cities" story line for 2009 is simple and succinct: If it ain't broke, don't fix it. When it comes to local government, controversy neutralizes competence. The more politicians bicker, the worse they govern.

In Lincolnwood, an upscale enclave of 12,359 just north of Devon Avenue at the city limits, the nonpartisan Alliance Party has been in control for 77 years, since 1931, when the village was created. Incumbent Mayor Jerry Turry will run again in 2009. "We're in a rut. We need change," said 2005 loser Bertha Gimbel. Turry is a cinch to win.

In Skokie, a diverse city of 63,348 just north of Lincolnwood, the Skokie Caucus Party, an appendage of the township's Democratic Party, has been in control for 43 years, since 1965. In 2009, add four more years. Incumbent Mayor George Van Dusen, a Democrat, will win another term.

But in Morton Grove, just west of Skokie, with a population of 22,451, "buyer's remorse" may prevail. In 2005 Democrat Rick Krier was elected mayor by 440 votes (with 55 percent of the votes cast), running on the Democratic-backed Caucus Party ticket. In the past, the Action Party was controlled by the Democrats, and it held the mayoralty since 1977, but in 2005 it was seized by the Republicans, who backed Republican Dan Staackmann for mayor. Expect another Krier-Staackmann race in 2009, with Krier's rocky tenure as mayor the issue and with Staackmann promising a return to the "good old days."

Here's a look at each contest:

Morton Grove: The knock on Krier is that he reneged on key 2005 campaign promises, increased city spending and taxes and failed to repeal the hated $200-per-household garbage fee.

"I'm getting (the village) out of a mess," insisted Krier, who blames the previous mayor, Dan Scanlon, for current problems. "He didn't do a competent job," Krier said. "They kicked the can down the road. They stopped paying on the police and fire pensions. They cut back on 'rainy day' funding. They imposed the per-household tax for $1.5 million in scavenger services."

Krier was elected a trustee in 2003, in opposition to Scanlon and the Action Party, and he won election as mayor in 2005, with the Caucus Party taking three trustee spots.

According to Pat Kansoer, who is spearheading the attack on Krier in 2009, the mayor has "raised the property tax levy by 30 percent, increased 15 taxes and fees, spent $30 million for a Holocaust Museum in Skokie, allowed the OTB (off track betting facility) to be placed in Niles, lost the Abt store, and backed a $10 million bond issue for the failed TIF development at Lehigh-Ferris.

"He's been a disaster."

Krier vigorously disagrees: Morton Grove's "police pensions were funded at only 58 percent, and firefighters' at 60 percent," he said. "This is a huge municipal crisis in Illinois, with public safety pensions underfunded by $45 billion. I'm fixing it."

Krier admits that the Morton Grove property tax levy increased by 20 percent in 2006, generating $1 million in additional revenue, but he said that it increased by only 3.5 percent in 2007 and by 2.5 percent in 2008. "We have gotten control of spending and begun fully funding our pensions," said Krier, who is running for reelection in 2009.

"He's been irresponsible," said Staackmann, who also plans to run for mayor and who calls both the Lehigh-Ferris and Waukegan Road TIF districts "a total failure." According to Sherwin Dubren, a Reform Party candidate for trustee in 2007, "due to poor planning and lack of initiative" by Krier, there is a "graveyard of empty condos and big ditches in the ground," with "favorite stores and businesses (like Abt) disappearing." Adds Dubren: "He appears to care more about keeping the Democratic Machine running smoothly than about governing well."

"That's just plain wrong," Krier said. "The Lehigh-Farris TIF will generate $43 million in tax revenue. We've replaced Abt with the Bone and Joint practice. The mixed use Elliott and Trafalgar Square developments will add 800 residential units. We've increased the tax base. Pensions will be fully funded by 2033. We must balance the residential and commercial tax base." Krier said that the village generates $6 million annually in revenues each from sales and property taxes. He wants Morton Grove to be "more like Lincolnwood, Rosemont and Schaumburg," with more businesses in the Waukegan Avenue corridor (between Dempster Street and Golf Road) and more sales tax revenue.

Three parties competed in the 2007 election: The Democratic/pro-Krier Caucus Party, the Republican-run Action Party and the anti-Krier Reform Party, a faction of the Caucus Party.  The three Action Party trustee candidates (including incumbent Staackmann) won, averaging 1,618 votes, to 779 for Caucus Party candidates and 452 for Reform Party candidates. "Voters rejected the Caucus' broken promises and screw-ups," Dubren said. After the election, Krier's Caucus Party had a 3-3 deadlock among the six trustees, with Krier as the tie breaker.

The early 2009 outlook: Despite a population of nearly 23,000, only 4,390 people voted in 2005 and about 2,850 in 2007. "Divide and conquer" is the operative phrase. Turnout in 2009 will be about 4,200, and the election will be a referendum on Krier. Staackmann can count on close to the 1,955 votes he got in 2005. If Dubren's Reform Party wins 500-plus votes, they will come from Krier's base -- Democrats who won't back Staackmann. But Staackmann has a lot of negatives. Either Krier or Staackmann might win, with less than a majority, but Staackmann is the early favorite.

Lincolnwood: Unlike Morton Grove, partisan politics is abhorred. So, too, is bickering and controversy.

Village founder Henry Proesel created the Administration Party, and he served as mayor of the village from 1931 to 1977; he was succeeded by John Porcelli, who retired in 1985. His inept successor, Frank Chulay, presided over the so-called "Lincolnwood Loony" period from 1985 to 1993, when township Democrats, behind Trustee Lydia Cohan, tried to take over the village and every board meeting was a circus.

All returned to normal in 1993, when the Alliance Party, controlled by the remnants of the old Administration Party, ran Madeleine Grant for mayor. Weary and disgusted voters opted for a blast from the past, giving Grant 1,722 votes, to 703 for Chulay and 881 for Cohan. In 1995 Cohan and her allies got bounced as trustees, with Turry and Peter Moy winning spots. Grant won re-election in 1997, and after she died in 2000, and she was replaced by Moy, who won a full term in 2001 and who retired in 2005.

 Turry, running on the Allied Neighbors Party ticket, trounced Gimbel in 2005 by 1,203-576, with 67 percent of the vote. Gimbel won't run in 2009, and she is encouraging Alliance Party Trustee Yehuda Lebovits, an Orthodox Jew and a onetime Cohan ally, to take on Turry. "We need fresh blood and fresh ideas," Gimbel said, charging that "Irv and Sally Blackman and (zoning board chairman) Paul Eisterhold really run the town."

Turry said that he has numerous accomplishments, including persuading the Chicago Park District to fund $1 million in Thillens Park improvements, working with local legislators to recover $2 million in vetoed state funding for local projects, including the pool at Proesel Park, initiating a Lincoln Avenue Task Force to make the downtown area "pedestrian friendly," and attempting to entice investors to buy and rehab the Purple Hotel on Touhy. Turry foresees two upscale hotels, two restaurants, a health club, condominiums and a theater on the site. "That would be my crowning achievement," he said.

The 2009 outlook: Turry wins easily.

Skokie: In a city with serious demographic diversity, there is minimal political diversity. The Skokie Caucus Party -- a wholly owned appendage of the Niles Township Democratic Organization, run by state Representative Lou Lang as committeeman and formerly by Cal Sutker -- rules the proverbial roost.

According to Van Dusen, who will run again in 2009, Skokie "has over 70 ethnic groups" and "50 to 60 languages are spoken" in the schools, but the population is still 60 to 65 percent white, with large numbers of Jews. There is a growing Russian and Assyrian population and a sizable Asian-Pacific population, nearly 30 percent, of Filipinos, Koreans, Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Indians and Pakistanis. But white, primarily male and Jewish, Democrats run the town.

"We are redeveloping downtown, Old Orchard and Gross Point-Dempster," Van Dusen said. "We have funded our pensions. We have not increased our property tax levy." Van Dusen, who was unopposed in 2005, is a lock to win another term.