December 30, 2009


There are tolerable part-time jobs, which pay the minimum wage, and there are better part-time jobs, which can pay a living wage.

Then there is the crème de la crème: commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, where the nine board members get paid $70,000 per year for about 66 hours of work, 22 days a year -- or $1,060 per hour.

Most unemployed people probably missed the water district job posting: "Available: Democrats only. Part-time post. Guaranteed 6 years. $70,000 salary, plus full family health benefits, pension, free auto, gas credit card. Office on North Michigan; indoor parking, 2.5 staffers. Attend two monthly meetings (2 to 3 hours) plus one each July, August. Minimum risks: No roll-call votes; all items on consent agenda; no media attention. Raise $50,000 to $100,000 from contractors.  Must be slated by Democratic Party or get 15,000 signatures on nominating petitions. Must win primary. No job security after 6 years."

 Of course, that posting never occurred, as attested by the fact that a stampede of nine people -- in a county containing 5.4 million people, with unemployment of 10.3 percent -- filed to run in the Feb. 2 Democratic primary. Three will be nominated.

What does the water district do? Sewage treatment. Every time a Cook County resident flushes the toilet, the resultant effluent and solid waste must be gathered, processed, cleansed and sent on its way down to the Mississippi River or sold as fertilizer. Industrial and commercial waste also must be handled. The water district has an annual budget of $1.6 billion, more than the Chicago Transit Authority ($1.3 billion) or the county health care system ($1.1 billion).

No other American metropolitan area elects politicians to handle sewage treatment. At the water district, a corps of high-paid engineers, attorneys and other specialists oversee operations. They inform the president (elected from the nine commissioners) of any immediate needs. The president prepares a consent agenda for the meetings, and it is routinely adopted. The commissioners simply show up, gossip with staff, and depart by noon.

The annual cost to the taxpayers: $720,000 in salary (the president, vice president and finance chairman get an extra $30,000), plus staff, perks, cars, overhead. Put it down at $2 million a year. Then there are 2,100 employees, $30 billion in assets, 109 square miles of acreage, the $3 billion Deep Tunnel for storm water runoff, and upwards of $500 million annually in construction contracts.

The water district keeps favored contractors profitable and trade unions busy, and it provides a consistent contributor cash flow for the Democratic Party.

"It's time for change," said Todd Connor, one of the nine contenders for three nominations, sounding like Barack Obama. "We need transparency. We need accountability. We need single-member districts."

Connor is correct, but it won't happen in 2010. As usual, voters don't have a clue as to who is running. It's the uninformed picking the unknown. Criteria such as gender (women have an edge), ballot position (top or bottom is best), race (there is a "black slate," and Hispanics have run well), ethnicity (Irish surnames are blockbusters), party slating, size of the field, name similarity, and media and special interest endorsements are critical. It's all about incrementalism: The winners must cobble together 200,000 votes from disparate groups.

What is distinctly unhelpful is incumbency. In 13 primaries since 1984, five incumbents, including two sitting presidents, have lost. Slating is only slightly more beneficial: 13 of 41 slated candidates have lost. Ethnic, multiple-vowel names are poison, as Greek, Italian and, to a lesser extent, Polish surnames do not fare well.

And money, at least for media advertising, is worthless. The contest is buried on the ballot. However, seed money is critical: Aspirants who give sizable donations to committeemen get slated, and they get on sample ballots and palm cards.

The 2010 field, known paradoxically as the "Unknown Nine," consists of the following, in ballot order: Stella Black, Barbara McGowan, Mike Alvarez, Mariyana Spyropoulos, Kathy O'Reilley, Wallace Davis III, Maureen Kelly, Todd Connor and Kari Steele.

McGowan is a two-term incumbent who was first elected in 1998. Spyropoulos recently was appointed to a vacancy. The slated Democrats are McGowan, Alvarez and Spyropoulos. McGowan, Davis and Steele are black. Connor is openly gay. The traditional ticket to victory -- a woman with an Irish surname -- is diluted, with three running.

Here's how the race is unfolding:

Slating: In a large field with a small turnout, party backing is essential. White ward and township committeemen have a "sample ballot." That gives the McGowan-Alvarez-Spyropoulos team a boost.

In 2008 Dean Maragos was slated and spent nearly $1 million, but he finished sixth of eight candidates. In 2006 the slated Barrett Pedersen, who was the county Democrats' vice chairman, finished eighth of nine. The wealthy Spyropoulos, who was first on the ballot in 2008 as an independent (finishing fifth), has already dumped more than $500,000 into the coffers of committeemen. At least one slated candidate invariably loses.

Race: With a tempestuous primary for Cook County Board president, black turnout will be heavy. In 2008 black committeemen took Maragos' money and produced negligible votes. That's because an unofficial "black ballot" is distributed. Blacks comprise almost 40 percent of the countywide vote. Regardless of whether committeemen are backing Todd Stroger, Dorothy Brown or Toni Preckwinkle, they definitely will have McGowan and Steele, and maybe Davis, on their "black ballot." Steele and Davis are the children of former black Chicago aldermen. Steele's base is the South Side, and Davis's is the West Side. Davis could be "cut" in certain wards.

Alvarez, who lives in Sauganash, is the son of a former chief operations officer for the Circuit Court clerk. His chief sponsor, Alderman Dick Mell (33rd), will ensure support from white committeemen. County Democratic chairman Joe Berrios will push Alvarez hard in Hispanic areas. As a "director of outreach" in Obama's 2004 U.S. Senate campaign, Alvarez has key connections to both the black and Hispanic communities. He has been endorsed by the AFL-CIO, and he will benefit from name similarity to Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez.

Ethnicity: Irish surnames are magical, especially because black and white liberal voters tend to reject the names of others ethnics, as do rival ethnics. McGowan is blessed with a profusion of advantages: black, woman, incumbent, slated, second on the ballot. Kelly, out of the clout-heavy Southwest Side 19th Ward, is a college administrator. O'Reilley is a county employee and the wife of former commissioner Frank Gardner, but she is using her maiden name. Being fifth (after Alvarez and Spyropoulos) gives O'Reilley an edge over Kelly, who is seventh.

Gender: Before 1992 a woman on the ballot was a novelty, and those running for the water district usually won. In 2010 six of nine contenders are women. In fact, so are seven of the nine current commissioners

Ballot position: The first-listed candidate won in 1986, 1988, 1992, 1996, 1998 and 2002 but lost in 2004, 2006 and 2008. The last-listed won in 1998 and 2002. Steele, being last, has an advantage. Black, who is first and who is an ally of former 44th Ward alderman Bernard Hansen, has a great ballot name and will absorb votes that might otherwise go to O'Reilley or Kelly. The "slate," in the 2-3-4 positions, is well placed.

Coalition building: The penultimate "incrementalist" campaign was waged by Debra Shore in 2006. Being openly gay, from Evanston, with environmentalist credentials, the support of U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky's (D-9) political machine and endorsements from the Sierra Club and newspapers, Shore finished first. Kudos also go to Frank Avila, who lost in 1998 and 2000, won as an outsider in 2002, and finished first in 2008, on the slate, after spending 6 years cultivating committeemen and the media and being a ubiquitous cable television presence.

Connor, a management consultant and a former navigator on a U.S. Navy guided missile cruiser, is a protégé of Shore, and he is backed by her coalition: Schakowsky, Preckwinkle, U.S. Representative Mike Quigley (D-5) and a phalanx of liberal state legislators, aldermen and county commissioners, plus the Sierra Club, the IVI-IPO, Personal PAC, Emily's List and gay organizations.

Issues: The water district does not purify drinking water. It treats waste at seven facilities and dumps the effluent into the Sanitary and Ship Canal, which flows to the Mississippi. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards mandate "disinfection" of untreated water, which would cost $1 billion over 20 years. The water district has refused to do so, spending $17 million in attorney fees to resist. The recent $600 million bond issue, and the fact that 15.7 percent of employees earn more than $100,000, also are relevant. But voters don't care.

Turnout will be around 500,000. McGowan is a cinch. Connor's liberal/gay base puts him in contention, as does Alvarez's multi-racial coalition and Spyropoulos's money. Steele will get a solid black vote. My prediction: The $1,060-per-hour plum will be won by McGowan, Alvarez and Steele, with Connor and Spyropoulos close behind.