March 18, 2009


To paraphrase philosopher Thomas Hobbes, politics is mean, nasty, brutal and tawdry. That certainly describes the environment in Chicago, Cook County and most suburban municipalities.

Until recently, however, it was not descriptive of north suburban Niles, where politics was un-mean, un-nasty, un-brutal and un-tawdry. That's because, for the past half-century, political rivalry was nonexistent. That changed in August of 2008, when 47-year Mayor Nick Blase resigned and later pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud and one count of tax evasion for taking $420,000 in kickbacks to his law firm from an insurance company to which he steered local businesses.

Now Niles can join the real world. Acting Mayor Bob Callero, who replaced Blase, promises to perpetuate Blase's legacy of "low taxes, low crime, good services" and to be "business-friendly and nonpolitical." But Callero, age 71, faces four opponents in the April 7 election, the most formidable being Trustee Kim Sychowski Biederman, an active Democrat backed by a phalanx of area Democratic politicians. Luigi Nitti, Chris Hanusiak and Carol Harczak also are running.

The race is getting nasty, and Callero asserts that if Biederman wins, "it will introduce Chicago-style politics" to Niles.

A similar situation is unfolding in west suburban Franklin Park, as 13-year Mayor Dan Pritchett, a nominal Republican, is facing a tough challenge from Leyden Township Democratic Committeeman Barrett Pedersen. "If he wins, he will build a Democratic machine," said Pritchett, who earns $90,000 annually.

Here's an analysis:

Niles: The bickering is fast and furious. "She's young and inexperienced," Callero said of Biederman, age 38, who has been a Niles trustee since 2003. "He lacks experience and good judgment," said Biederman of Callero, a trustee since 1995. Biederman noted that she is 6 years older than Blase was when he was elected in 1961. "She supported me for acting mayor," said Callero, who was chosen unanimously by the six trustees. "I backed him because he promised not to run for a full term, and he broke his word," retorted Biederman.

"I didn't intend to run, but nobody qualified stepped forward," said Callero, a retired accountant. According to Callero, Blase was a "great mayor," a statement that Biederman does not dispute. "The indictment related to his law practice, not to his official conduct," Callero said. "People still love him."

"I will be a nonpartisan, full-time mayor," Callero promised concerning the job that pays $3,000 annually. Callero said that Biederman would use the job to "build a political machine." Her husband, Rob Biederman, who is running her campaign, once was a political operative for Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, and he now is a public relations consultant. "He will really run Niles," a Callero strategist said. A slew of prominent Democrats, including U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky, state Senators Dan Kotowski and Ira Silverstein, and state Representative Lou Lang have endorsed her, as has Republican state Representative Mike McAuliffe.

Blase, his organization, and village Trustees Andy Przybylo, Louella Preston, Bart Murphy and Joe LoVerde are backing Callero.

Biederman is treading delicately around the Blase conviction, not attacking village corruption but trying mightily to besmirch Callero. "I want open and honest government," she said. Callero's "unethical behavior" is a "huge issue," she said, citing three instances:

First, a letter was sent out on village stationery endorsing Callero, listing Blase as "retired mayor" and signed by Blase. "I knew nothing about this," Callero said.

Second, village employees with village videotaping equipment were dispatched to get citizen testimony to be used at Blase's sentencing hearing. "The village manager authorized that, and it was wrong," Callero said.

And third, Callero created an ad hoc "ethics subcommittee" consisting of three trustees, the village attorney and a retired assistant state's attorney to make recommendations. Biederman said that that violated the Open Meetings Act, and she has filed a complaint with the Illinois Attorney General's Office. "The act does not apply to ad hoc committees, and ethics committees are exempt," Callero said. "She is trying to manufacture an issue." "He's the mayor," Biederman snapped. "He's responsible."

Biederman promised to be a full-time mayor, air council meetings on cable television, post the budget online and hold regular office hours. "There will be change," she said.

Niles was incorporated in 1899, and it had a population of 30,068 in 2000. It has roughly 12,000 registered voters. Up until the collapse of the housing market, Niles experienced a major infusion of Polish Americans, many being non-citizens. Blase first won election in 1961, defeating Frank Stankowicz, a nominal Republican who had been the village's mayor since 1941. In 11 subsequent elections, Blase won easily, running unopposed in 1977, 1981, 1985, 1989, 1993, 1997 and 2005, and getting 85.8 percent of the vote in 2001 in a turnout of 4,317.

Niles has an annual budget of $70 million, and it generates $23 million in sales tax revenues. A vibrant commercial base, which includes Golf Mill, an off-track betting facility, a thriving corridor of businesses along Milwaukee Avenue from Golf Road to Devon Avenue, and Costco, Target and Wal-Mart stores on Touhy Avenue east of Caldwell Road, makes Niles nearly impervious to an economic decline. The village is looking at a revenue shortfall of $500,000 to $900,000 in 2009, Callero said, but that's far less than the $1.5 million shortfall for Morton Grove or the $2.5 million shortfall for Arlington Heights. "We have $23 million in our reserve fund," Callero said. "There will be no tax hike."

My prediction: Callero is relying on the withering Blase network, while the nascent Biederman machine is canvassing precincts, identifying "plus" voters and disseminating anti-Callero information and will have an election day operation. Turnout in the village's 31 precincts will be high, around 6,000. Callero's base is about 2,400 votes, and Biederman, Nitti, Hanusiak and Harczak will split the remaining 3,600. My hunch is that Biederman will get about 2,500 votes and win.

Franklin Park: Pedersen is the county Democratic suburban vice chairman, a township committeeman and the host of a weekly cable TV show for 16 years. That clout and celebrity should make him a cinch to win locally. But he lost dismally in a 2006 countywide primary bid for a seat with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, despite being slated. Downsizing his aspirations, Pedersen is now facing Pritchett and Bill Ruhl, a 35-year Franklin Park police officer. If he loses again, his political career is through.

The village has 17 precincts and a 2000 population of 19,434, of whom 38 percent are Hispanic. Turnout will be in the realm of 4,000 to 4,500.

Pritchett, age 61, proclaims himself an effective mayor, citing an enhancement of the town's quality of life. "We have better schools, better parks, better services" than neighboring towns, he said, adding that property values are higher than in Schiller Park, Elmwood Park and River Grove. He takes credit for the Grand Avenue underpass, paving 19 miles of alleys and keeping the $30 million budget "in check." He recently was in Washington to attempt to secure stimulus money. "We have 33 shovel-ready projects," he said.

Pedersen claims to have 65 precinct workers, and he is blasting Pritchett for engaging in "an abuse of power." "He has his own 'friends and family' plan," he said, stating that Pritchett has hired his son, his daughter, his nephew, his son's mother-in-law and brother-in-law, the former wife of Trustee Paul Bellendir, and the wife, daughter and son of Trustee Paul Sharp. Pedersen also rips Pritchett for supposedly coercing residents to use Omar Electric, a firm founded by Pritchett's father, to correct code violations and a "connected" company for sidewalk concrete work. "It's nepotism run amok," he said.

Pedersen also criticizes village "excesses" in code enforcement. "They're incompetent and harassing," he said. He also charged that the village is spending more than $500,000 annually to defend lawsuits "caused by Pritchett."

"That's just an incredible lie," Pritchett retorted. "It's slick lawyer talk." Pritchett noted that Pedersen was paid $300,000 over 10 years as a village prosecutor, handling Franklin Park ordinance violations. "He never uttered a word of criticism when he was on the payroll," he said. "He's just an opportunist."

Added Pritchett: "My children work part-time and get no benefits." His son is an engineer, and his daughter writes the village newsletter. "My dad is retired," he said. "I have no interest in Omar Electric." The village has 200 employees, and Pritchett said he cut 19 jobs and did not increase spending.

"This election is all about Barrett and his unbridled ambition," Pritchett said. "If he wins, Franklin Park will be one big patronage army for him." Pritchett is endorsed by all incumbent office holders except Trustee John Johnson. State Senator Don Harmon, an Oak Park Democrat, state Representative Skip Saviano, an Elmwood Park Republican, and Johnson are backing Pedersen.

My prediction: Unlike Callero, Pritchett is out in the precincts soliciting votes. He is dangerously relying on voters' goodwill and remembrance. Like Biederman, Pedersen is working precincts daily, spreading anti-Pritchett propaganda and promising utopia; he is identifying his voters, and he will get them to the polls. In a turnout of 4,400, Pedersen will get 2,000 votes, to Pritchett's 1,950 and Ruhl's 450.

Change is coming. Expect new Democratic machines in Niles and Franklin Park.