April 8, 2009


As always, this column revels in delivering good, bad and atrocious news, especially the latter.

For Chicagoans, particularly those on the Northwest Side, the good news is that the city's next mayoral and aldermanic election is roughly 730 days away and will not occur until April 5, 2011.

The bad news is that, two years out, the 2011 campaign is already under way, with incumbents girding for battle and raising money and challengers getting ready to hurl buckets of dirt.

And the atrocious news is that voters can anticipate 24 months of sustained and nauseating political tumult, turmoil and negativity.

All 2011 projections are contingent upon whether Mayor Rich Daley runs for reelection. That decision may depend on whether Chicago gets the 2016 Olympics. If Chicago is denied, Daley might bail. If he runs, he'll win easily, in a low turnout. If the federal investigation into Chicago corruption results in his indictment or if he quits, political pandemonium will ensue, with many mayoral aspirants and a huge turnout.

In the 45th Ward, encompassing Jefferson Park, Gladstone Park, Forest Glen and Portage Park, six-term Alderman Pat Levar announced for reelection on March 11, fully aware of his dire predicament.

An aldermanic contest is a referendum on the competence and performance of the incumbent. Levar, facing three opponents in 2007, won an unimpressive 56.2 percent of the vote, avoiding a runoff by 818 votes. Turnout was 13,125, about half of the November 2008 turnout.

A number of Levar critics are pondering a 2011 challenge, and the ultimate field will contain seven or eight candidates. Under the Chicago system, all candidates run in a nonpartisan February "jungle primary." If a candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote he's elected; if not, there's an April runoff between the top two finishers. A sizable 43.8 percent of the ward's voters rejected Levar in 2007, in a low turnout. Here are the key questions:

First, what is Levar's "base" vote? He got 7,380 votes in 2007, fewer than Daley's 10,550 in the ward, despite spending more than $250,000. Levar amassed 8,667 votes in 2003, 14,199 in 1999, 10,842 in 1995 and 15,850 in 1991. Clearly, Levar's popularity has dwindled. His vote "ceiling," at best, is 8,000, and maybe a lot less. That means a 2011 ward turnout of 16,000-plus would force a runoff.

Second, can Levar repackage and resell himself? He's now the ward Democratic committeeman, and he runs the machinery that pulls out the "controllable" vote. That's not helpful in expanding his support. He has to reinvent himself, in both style and substance, and persuade independent voters that he is an acceptable and accessible alderman.

Third, how large is the ward's independent/liberal vote? In the 2008 presidential primary, Barack Obama got 6,086 votes (46.9 percent of the total) in the 45th Ward, to 6,240 for Hillary Clinton. In the 2004 U.S. Senate primary, Obama got 3,352 votes (35.6 percent of the total). Obama voters won't be Levar supporters.

And fourth, can Levar avoid a runoff? Every candidate will be criticizing him. Each will have some neighborhood, ethnic, gender, ideological or political base. Each will be positioning himself or herself so as to unify the anti-Levar vote in a prospective runoff. If Levar has five or more foes, a runoff is assured.

The most apt area historical analogy is the 1991 contest in the 41st Ward, when increasingly unpopular Roman Pucinski, an 18-year alderman, faced seven opponents and got 9,181 votes (41.6 percent of the total) in a turnout of 22,034. In the runoff against Brian Doherty, with a higher turnout of 25,480 due to the mayoral election, Pucinski upped his vote to 11,698 (45.9 percent), an increase of 2,517, but Doherty's vote soared to 13,782, which meant that almost all the anti-Pucinski primary vote went to him.

For Levar, like Pucinski, a multiplicity of 2011 candidates and a runoff would be fatal. Hence, Levar ranks atop the city's "Most Endangered Aldermen" list.

Levar, age 58, is likable and garrulous, but he is perceived by many as inaccessible and indecisive. "There is this enormous frustration of being ignored" by Levar among community groups, said John Arena, vice president of the Portage Park Neighborhood Association. "He is a control freak. He needs to make every decision. He won't take community advice, but he won't make timely decisions. That creates serious problems."

Specifically, Arena said that Levar's "indecisiveness" has "bungled a huge opportunity" to redevelop the Six Corners (Milwaukee/Cicero/Irving Park) area, particularly the Klee Building. At present, 64 residential condominiums have been built, but the building's "commercial package" has "been an abject failure," Arena said. "There are few tenants. He has not done a good job."

"That sounds about right" concerning Levar's aldermanic style, said Terry Boyke, Levar's top aide who quit and ran against his former boss in 2007, getting 4,004 votes (30.5 percent of the total). "There is a great deal of discontent" with Levar, added Boyke, who now works for his father's landscaping company and is considering running in 2011.

Greg Sedlacek, a business consultant who also is considering a 2011 bid, is more emphatic: "The (45th Ward) stinks to high heaven," Sedlacek said. "There must be change. All the TIFs -- Lawrence-Milwaukee, Six Corners and Elston Avenue -- have been failures." And, Sedlacek added, Levar has been to Greece "three times at the expense of Jim Kozonis," who owns the vacant Lawrence Avenue property east of Milwaukee Avenue. "That's inappropriate."

The alderman "thinks he is royalty," Sedlacek said. "All his family is or was on the public payroll." Sedlacek noted that Levar's wife, Mary Ann, was an in-district congressional staffer to Rod Blagojevich and Rahm Emanuel. She could be fired after Mike Quigley is installed. His brother Tom was a deputy streets and sanitation commissioner, and his brother Mike was an Aviation Department employee who oversaw O'Hare Airport construction contracts. Both are now retired. According to press reports, the U.S. Attorney's Office is investigating city aviation deals. Tom Levar's wife formerly was a Chicago Park District superintendent at Sauganash Park, and the alderman's son Pat Jr. is the director of facility management at the park district. "This nepotism has to end," Sedlacek emphasized.

In addition, added Sedlacek, Levar is the chairman of the City Council Aviation Committee. "That's where he gets his clout," meaning jobs and contributions, Sedlacek said. "There are over 1,100 jobs at O'Hare."

A certain 2011 candidate is Forest Glen real estate agent Anna Klocek, who got 1,086 votes (8.2 percent of the total) in 2007 despite an amateurish campaign. In the March 3 Democratic congressional primary, Klocek worked hard for Polish American Dr. Victor Forys, who got 1,380 votes in the 45th Ward in an ethnically directed campaign. As a Polish American and a woman, Klocek has a significant base.

Klocek intends to run against "politics as usual" in Chicago. "We sold the city parking meters," she said. "We're selling Midway airport. Our schools have been abandoned. Our city budget is out of control, and the TIF money is gone. I hold Levar accountable. He is the mayor's alderman, not our alderman. To change the city we must change the politicians."

Also in the mix is Bruno Bellissimo, a tax accountant and a former city revenue department employee. "I have a huge machine to fight," as an aldermanic candidate, he said.

Levar, however, is no wilting daisy. "I've done a great job for 22 years," he asserts. At his announcement, Levar touted "major ward accomplishments," including a new library and a police station, a $10 million senior citizen resident center, a Jewel/Osco at Six Corners and a CVS at Montrose-Milwaukee, the reopening of the Portage Theater, $10 million in school and playground improvements, new lighting and a resurfacing and streetscaping of Milwaukee Avenue from Gale Street to Montrose Avenue to during 2009.

"I will keep working hard," Levar said. "I'm a nuts-and-bolts alderman who just gets the job done. But it's obvious that I need to blow my own horn more. There is still much to do." Levar intends to open a Web site and send out a quarterly newsletter.

The Klee Building "was abandoned," Levar said. "Now we're at 50 percent occupancy," with a Pearle Vision, a Vitamin Shoppe and a Cricket wireless store. "All (redevelopment) plans were presented to the community." Regarding Lawrence Avenue, Levar advocates the voluntary acquisition of four parcels by the city Department of Community Development. "We need developers," he said. "It's a terrible, embarrassing situation," said Boyke. "It should have been resolved years ago."

Rebutting Sedlacek's allegation regarding Greece, Levar said that he's been there "a couple times" under Chicago's "sister city" program but that "I always paid my own way."

My prediction: Despite 22 years in office, Lever has not become an icon -- a beloved and unbeatable figure. He never will be. By mid-2009 the anti-Levar field will include Klocek, Sedlacek, Bellissimo and Arena. More will join. Their early job is to identify Levar with ward problems and castigate him for their non-solution. The "magic number" is seven: That many candidates would guarantee a runoff.

Levar is not quite toast yet. But he will soon be on the menu at Quizno's.

Next week: An analysis of other developing Northwest Side aldermanic races.