March 16, 2011


A creative lawyer, some years ago, employed a "Twinkie Defense" to explain his client's felonious behavior. Too much junk food, he argued, upset the perp's dopamine balance, clouded his judgment, and involuntarily precipitated deranged behavior.

In the 38th, 36th and 50th wards, where aldermanic runoffs are set for April 5, a "Twinkie Offense" is boosting the candidacies of appointed incumbents Tim Cullerton (38th) and John Rice (36th) and challenger Debra Silverstein (50th).  Non-deranged voters are gravitating toward the "comfort candidate." Given a choice, they prefer the Twinkie to acid reflux.

Cullerton, Rice and Silverstein are endorsed by Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel.

The three wards are a microcosm of what ails Chicago. People are scared and angry. Their home values have collapsed by up to half. They can't bail because their house is unsellable. State income and property taxes are soaring. The local business district is decrepit. Jobs are tenuous and, if lost, irreplaceable. College costs are ludicrous.

What to do? Go postal? Go bankrupt? Go into hibernation? Lay in a supply of Jim Beam? Or, the least arduous, indulge in an orgy of junk food?

"Comfort food" explains why Cullerton and Rice will be runoff winners. In tough times, voters prefer the predictable taste of a Big Mac to more digestively challenging fare such as sushi or foie gras. Cullerton, with his family history, is reassuring and comforting. Rice, anointed by former alderman Bill Banks, is similarly perceived as safe.

"I really thought voters wanted a change," said one bitter 38th Ward loser. "Instead, they wanted a crutch. They want to return to the ward's 'Golden Years.' And who better than a Cullerton to lead them back to the future?"

But "a majority of the ward's voters rejected Rice and Banks," countered Nicholas Sposato, a firefighter who made the runoff. They want change, he said. In the 38th Ward, real estate agent Tom Caravette, Cullerton's runoff foe, says, "It's time to take back the ward. Eighty years of the Cullertons is enough."

The West Rogers Park 50th Ward is a melting pot of ethnicities, with half the voters Jewish, a fifth gentile, and major population growth coming from Muslims, Indians, Pakistanis and other Asians. Throughout his 38-year tenure, the cantankerous Stone, age 83, has been the antithesis of comfort food. He's the equivalent of an irritable bowel syndrome in a ward where voters crave Metamucil.

"Berny is a used-up man," said one prominent Lakefront Jewish liberal who supported the alderman in the past. "He's used up his goodwill, his money and his resources." In 2007 Stone got 5,059 votes (48.3 percent of the total cast) in the general election and 6,015 votes (53.1 percent) in the runoff. He got 4,295 votes (37.5 percent) on Feb. 22 -- 764 fewer votes than in 2007. In the 2007 runoff, against a Filipino candidate, Jewish voters coalesced behind Stone. "Not this time," added the politician. "Those who didn't vote for Berny will vote for Silverstein."

It is said that there are lies, damn lies and statistics. The latter trumps the former.

In the 38th Ward, Cullerton -- the son, brother-in-law and nephew of former "Cullerton Clan" aldermen -- finished first in 51 of 53 precincts and in an eight-candidate field he a majority of the vote in 24 precincts. He got more than 60 percent of the vote in five precincts, 50 to 60 percent in 19 precincts, 40 to 50 percent in 17 precincts and 30 to 40 percent in 10 precincts. Caravette won no precincts, got more than 40 percent of the vote in one precinct, 30 to 40 percent in eight precincts and 20 to 30 percent in 22 precincts.

Cullerton had 5,623 votes (47.6 percent of the total), to 2,705 (22.1 percent) for Caravette. If Cullerton had gotten an additional 292 votes, he would have won. Turnout for the runoff will drop by 20 to 25 percent, from 12,228 to about 9,000. To win, Caravette needs to keep Cullerton under 4,500 votes while retaining his 2,700 votes and getting 2,000 of the 3,700 other non-Cullerton voters to the polls to back him.

In the 36th Ward, Rice, who is Banks' former driver, finished first in 52 of 55 precincts and won a majority in 25 precincts in a six-candidate field. He got more than 60 percent of the vote in eight precincts, 50 to 60 percent in 17 precincts and 40 to 50 percent in 19 precincts. Sposato won two precincts, but he has been endorsed by all the other candidates.

Rice had 6,743 votes (48.1 percent of the total), to 3,360 (24.0 percent) for Sposato. If Rice had gotten an additional 268 votes, he would have won. Turnout in the runoff will drop from 14,020 to about 10,000. To win, Sposato needs to keep Rice under 5,000 votes, retain his 3,360 votes and get 1,700 of the other non-Rice voters to back him.

In the 50th Ward, the shoot-from-the-mouth Stone, who has shown unaccustomed restraint by merely deriding Silverstein as a "housewife," finished first in 26 of 45 precincts and tied Silverstein in one; he won a majority in seven precincts. He got more than 60 percent of the vote in three Winston Towers condominium precincts, 50 to 60 percent in five precincts and 40 to 50 percent in 15 precincts. However, in a five-candidate field, the controversial incumbent got less than 40 percent of the vote in 22 precincts -- an ominous sign.

Stone had 4,295 votes (37.5 percent of the total), to 3,856 (33.7 percent) for Silverstein, 2,154 (18.8 percent) for Greg Brewer, and 1,155 for two other candidates. Stone missed an outright win by 1,436 votes. Emanuel got 7,212 votes (55.3 percent of the total cast) in the ward, about 1,400 votes fewer than the three Jewish aldermanic candidates. Brewer, the liberal who has been endorsed by the Chicago Tribune, amassed 30 percent of the vote or more in nine precincts, and he won three.

Turnout for the runoff in 2007 was 11,325. It was 11,460 on Feb. 22. To win, Stone needs to retain his 4,295 votes and gain 1,700 votes from the 3,309 cast for Brewer, Mike Moses and Ahmed Khan. Silverstein is the last anti-Stone candidate standing.

 Here are my predictions:

38th Ward (Portage Park, Belmont-Cragin, Schorsch Village, Dunham Park, Old Irving Park): Tom Allen, Cullerton's brother-in-law, resigned to become a judge in December. Unlike Pat Levar in the 45th Ward, who suffered from voter fatigue and disconnect and quit, Allen could have won if he had run. He got 7,335 votes running unopposed in 2007, 7,024 votes (89.0 percent of the total) in 2003 and 12,021 votes running unopposed in 1999. Cullerton's base is 1,500 fewer voters than Allen's.

"Allen was more show than substance," sniped Caravette. "He spent most of his time practicing law, not solving ward problems. There has been no leadership and poor services, and Cullerton will be a rubber stamp" in the City Council. Caravette is especially irked by Emanuel, who won the ward 6,658-4,174 over Gery Chico, with 1,581 votes for the rest of the field. "He's a hypocrite," Caravette said. "He says he's the 'reform mayor.' I'm the reform candidate for alderman. (Cullerton) is the do-nothing, anti-reform, status quo."

On Feb. 22 Cullerton had four-plus workers at every polling place, handing out palm cards touting his Chicago Tribune endorsement. Most were union workers paid for their services. Cullerton spent $80,000 and had 10 mailings to voters. Caravette spent $12,000. Caravette promised that if he is elected he will run for ward Democratic committeeman in 2012 against Patti Jo Cullerton, Tim Cullerton's sister. "My goal is a Cullerton-free ward," he said. Prediction: Caravette is sushi to Cullerton's Twinkie; he loses with 39 percent of the vote.

36th Ward (Galewood, Montclare, Cumberland corridor): "There's always been an intimidation factor" in the ward, said Sposato, who got 2,595 votes (24.0 percent of the total cast) in 2007, upping it to 3,360 votes in February. If you don't vote like you're told by Banks' precinct captains, "you don't get a city service or favor when you need it," he said.

Emanuel won by 7,194-5,319 over Chico, with 1,846 votes for the rest of the field. Rice had 6,743 votes to his opponents' 7,277. Banks had 8,291 votes in 2007 and 10,141 in 2003.There is a growing disconnect.

Prediction: You can't beat the Pillsbury Doughboy in 2011. Rice wins with 58.0 percent of the vote. By 2015 Rice's "Twinkie Offense" will be stale and his record inedible. Then he loses.

50th Ward (West Rogers Park): Emanuel endorsed Silverstein, who is the wife of state Senator Ira Silverstein. The election of Chicago's first Jewish mayor has engendered "tremendous Jewish pride," said one local politician. Jewish voters "cannot trust Stone to support Emanuel, but they can trust Silverstein," he said.

Wait a minute: Didn't 44.7 percent of the ward not vote for Emanuel?

Maybe they want an independent-minded alderman, not an Emanuel stooge. Stone, however, is a close-minded alderman.

Stone will trot out a bunch of tired shibboleths: That "slum landlords" are funding Silverstein. That Silverstein wants to raise property taxes to fund city pensions. That an alderman and a senator in one family is too much power. That the Silversteins are "Obama Democrats" and insufficiently pro-Israel.

Prediction: April 5 is not a choice between Stone and Silverstein. Stone's attacks on Silverstein are meaningless. Instead, it's a referendum on Stone: After 38 years, can voters stomach him for 4 more? Acid reflux will give Silverstein a 56 percent win.