March 30, 2011


In the Far Northwest Side 41st Ward, politics is a blood sport, akin to gladiator battle at the Coliseum. Bare-knuckled, crotch-kicking, eye-gouging campaigns are the norm, and a tiny infusion of estrogen will wreak no change.

In the Feb. 22 election, the ward's "E-Team," a duo of ostensibly nice, friendly, people-pleasing women -- Mary O'Connor and Maurita Gavin -- finished first and second. They got 55.5 percent of the vote, topping nine other candidates, eight of whom were men.

Does that presage the dawning of an "Age of Aquarius"? A kinder, gentler ward? A depletion of testosterone? In your dreams.

It's an April 5 runoff fight. "She's a follower," O'Connor said of Gavin, who worked as retiring Alderman Brian Doherty's aide for 15 years. "She does what she's told. She has absolutely no leadership skills." "She has no idea about how to solve Chicago's problems," added Lisa Ryan, O'Connor's campaign manager. If she is elected, "Will she let Rahm (Emanuel) tell her what to do like she let Doherty tell her what to do?" scoffed O'Connor.

"She's unethical and unprincipled," Gavin said of O'Connor, the ward's Democratic committeeman, concerning the fact that O'Connor registered to vote from her deli and catering business building on Devon Avenue. "She committed vote fraud," Doherty said. "You can't vote from your business address." Board of Election records corroborate that O'Connor voted from her business address five times from 2004 to 2007. "I made a mistake," admits O'Connor, who said that she was in the process of moving her residence at the time. In 2004 O'Connor voted in the Republican primary to back Mike McAuliffe for committeeman over Walter Dudycz.

 Doherty said that O'Connor also received six no-bid catering contracts from the Chicago Park District, where her brother, Pat O'Connor, who owns the building where her business is located, is employed. "That's unethical," Doherty said.

If voters conclude that the "E-Team" just had a massive injection of testosterone, they're right.

In February, in a turnout of 20,109, the ward's Doherty-McAuliffe and Mulroe-O'Connor political machines clashed in mortal combat. Both organizations had two or more workers in each of the 57 precincts in the ward. Gavin got 5,030 votes (25.0 percent of the total cast) to 6,132 votes (30.5 percent) for O'Connor. O'Connor finished first in 36 precincts, Gavin was first in 18 precincts, they tied on one precinct, and Dan Lapinski was first in two precincts.

The losing candidates got 8,947 votes: Rich Gonzalez (1,918), Tom Murphey (1,764), Jim Mullen (1,695), Lapinski (1,625), Brock Merck (744), John Quinn (546), Barbara Ateca (359), George Bannas (135) and James Schamne (156). Gonzalez, Mullen, Quinn, Ateca, Bannas and Schamne have endorsed O'Connor. Murphey, Lapinski and Merck have made no endorsement.

The ward has 10 precincts in Edison Park, 10 in Norwood Park, 12 in Oriole Park, eight in the west Cumberland corridor, nine in Edgebrook and eight in the Union Ridge/west of Nagle area.

There will be collateral losers on April 5. The careers of state Representative Mike McAuliffe (R-20) and state Senator John Mulroe (D-10) are in jeopardy, depending on who wins.

McAuliffe, the son of the late, iconic state Representative Roger McAuliffe, who served from 1973 to 1996, is allied with Doherty, his father's protege. Doherty, McAuliffe and Gavin all reside in the Oriole Park area. Control of the aldermanic office generates contacts, favors, workers and votes. If Gavin loses, McAuliffe's political base is crippled. He'll be at the mercy of Democratic House Speaker Mike Madigan in the upcoming remap, and his district will be merged with the suburban district of state Representative Rosemary Mulligan's (R-55). Without ward staffers and workers who can be deployed in Park Ridge and Des Plaines, McAuliffe would be toast.

Mulroe beat Doherty for state senator in November, but he lost the 41st Ward by 1,036 votes, getting 46.6 percent of the vote. Chicago's population is down 200,000 in the census, which means that the city's state legislative districts will move outward. Mulroe, of Edison Park, and state Senator Dan Kotowski (D-28), of Park Ridge, live within a few miles of each other. If O'Connor wins, Madigan will have to draw a district that protects Mulroe; if Gavin wins, Kotowski will get most of the 41st Ward and Mulroe will be headed for the bench.

The April 5 turnout will decline by at least 30 percent from the February election, to about 14,000. If O'Connor and Gavin each pull 80 percent of their Feb. 22 vote, that puts it at 4,900-4,000, with 5,000 votes up for grabs. The magic number is 7,100. Gavin needs 3,000 -- or 60 percent -- of those 5,000 votes to win. O'Connor needs just 2,000.

Given that 75 percent of the voters overlooked but did not necessarily reject Gavin on Feb. 22, and 70 percent did likewise to O'Connor, each has room to grow. So a strategic call is necessary: Does the campaign go positive or negative? Do you hype your credentials or demonize your opponent?

Neither candidate has demonstrated much dynamism, raised much money, or engendered much enthusiasm. It's a friends-and-family effort. O'Connor, through her restaurant, has served thousands of customers over the last 20 years, and she was the president of the Edison Park Chamber of Commerce. Gavin has served thousands of ward constituents over the past 15 years. In essence, both are people pleasers. Their job: Keep customers happy.

Here are the key factors in the race:

Base expansion. O'Connor got 5,744 votes for Democratic committeeman in 2008, and Mulroe got 7,266 votes in the ward for state senator in 2010. The base of the Mulroe-O'Connor machine is Edison Park, especially the area near Saint Juliana Parish. O'Connor got 388 more votes in February than she did in 2008, but 1,134 fewer than Mulroe got in 2010.

Doherty, who was first elected in 1991, got 12,469 votes in 1995, 14,182 in 1999, 10,777 in 2003 and 9,990 in 2007, averaging 11,854 votes per reelection and getting over 70 percent of the vote in each contest. McAuliffe, in tough contests against fellow incumbents Bob Bugielski in 2002 and Ralph Capparelli in 2004, got 10,188 votes and 12,389 votes, respectively, in the 41st Ward, where he is the Republican committeeman. Gavin's 5,030 votes were less than half of Doherty's and McAuliffe's previous votes.

In the February general election, O'Connor won more than 40 percent of the vote in five precincts, 30 to 40 percent in 21, 20 to 30 percent in 25 and 10 to 20 percent in six. Gavin won 40 percent in just one precinct, 30 to 40 percent in 14, 20 to 30 percent in 27, 10 to 20 percent in 12 and less than 10 percent in three.

The line of demarcation is Bryn Mawr Avenue. In the 21 precincts south of Bryn Mawr, Gavin's base, she finished first in 12 precincts, O'Connor was first in seven, and Lapinski was first in two. Gavin topped O'Connor in the southern portion of the ward by 1,728-1,451, a margin of 277 votes.  In the 36 precincts north of Bryn Mawr, O'Connor's base, she finished first in 30 precincts and tied in one, and Gavin finished first in five precincts. O'Connor topped Gavin in the northern portion of the ward by 4,681-3,302, a margin of 1,379 votes. Clearly, O'Connor's base exceeds Gavin's.

City issues. It's Tweedledee-Tweedledum. Both candidates bemoan the decrepitude of the Norwood Park, Harlem-Foster, Harlem-Higgins and Edgebrook commercial districts, demand more money to cure the area's overcrowded schools, promise exemplary ward services, oppose police officer redeployment and promise to "stand up for the ward."

But each pinpoints her opponent's flaws: "There is a lack of leadership" in the ward, said O'Connor of Doherty and his office. "They're complacent, unresponsive, inefficient and always make excuses, and my opponent is part of that problem." That's ridiculous, according to Gavin, who notes that 311 phone calls go to the city. "Daley's been mayor for 22 years," she said. "If we don't get services, it's because the city is incompetent. The services emanate from City Hall, not from our office."

"There is a lack of technology and accessibility," O'Connor said. "There is no ward Web site. There is no transparency. People should know what's happening in their ward and what the alderman is doing." O'Connor promises to be a "24/7 alderman." Retorts Gavin: "I am proud of our constituent services. She talks a good game, but her ideas are unrealistic."

There is a serious financial dichotomy: O'Connor spent $55,000 in the general election, to $30,000 for Gavin. O'Connor will have at least seven mailings for the runoff, four or more paid for by the Service Employees International Union's political action committee, while Gavin will have only one. "She's beholden" to the SEIU, Gavin said. "She won't be an independent alderman."

Social issues: On abortion, Gavin is pro-life and O'Connor is pro-choice. Both favor gun ownership rights. Gavin supports the death penalty and O'Connor opposes it. O'Connor backs gay civil unions but not gay marriage, while Gavin opposes both.

My prediction: Doherty, while not unpopular, is tarnished by the nasty 2010  campaign. His blessing won't elect Gavin. Ambivalence reigns. "None of the above" leads the field. Gavin lacks the funds to give voters a reason not to elect O'Connor, and O'Connor's mailers will regurgitate enough propaganda to make her palatable. O'Connor will win 7,400-6,600.