Juen 6, 2012


In life, there are five stages of grief: anger, denial, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

In politics, there are just three: anger, and denial and acceptance or anger, denial and rejection. No bargaining. When the votes are counted, it's over. Prayer, pleading or plea bargaining are not an option.

When an incumbent faces a tough, well funded opponent and wins narrowly, it's a validation. The worst is over. But when an incumbent faces seemingly inconsequential opposition and is expected to win overwhelmingly but barely squeaks through, it's a repudiation. The worst is yet to come.

This column is about recent losers in Chicago's black-majority West Side 29th and 37th wards and in the 39th Illinois House District -- Thomas Simmons, Maretta Brown-Miller and Will Guzzardi, respectively. Each has progressed beyond the rejection phase. Each is busily plotting his or her political comeback. Each is targeting an incumbent of dubious popularity. Each is fighting nepotism or despotism.

Interestingly, the aldermanic jobs have been a ticket to the slammer. Aldermen Ike Carothers (29th) and Percy Giles (37th) were both convicted on federal corruption charges, as was Carother's father, Alderman William Carothers. The current aldermen, Deborah Graham (29th) and Emma Mitts (37th), are both political proteges of Ike Carothers.

39th District (Logan Square, Portage Park): It is psychically painful to lose, but absolutely excruciating to lose by 125 votes out of 7,917 votes cast, as did Guzzardi in the March 20 Democratic primary. In a district with 82 precincts in seven wards, Guzzardi lost by 1.5 votes per precinct. What-ifs abound: If only I had one more negative mailing. If only I spent more time campaigning in Portage Park. If only turnout had been somewhat higher.

But Guzzardi, a 24-year-old former Internet journalist, waged a stellar campaign, working precincts unceasingly for 8 months and positioning himself as an "independent outsider." The winner was 10-year incumbent state Representative Toni Berrios, the daughter of powerful Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios, the county Democratic chairman and the 31st Ward Democratic committeeman. One word describes Berrios' cliffhanging victory: Embarrassing.

Will there be a Berrios-Guzzardi rematch in 2014? "I'm keeping my options open," Guzzardi said, promising to "continue organizing" on "issues I am passionate about," which he said were "improving public schools, fighting foreclosures and increasing corporate taxes." Translation: Guzzardi is running. The question is: Was the outcome a wake-up call for Berrios, presenting her with a 2-year window to remedy her shortcomings, or should "Big Daddy" Berrios earmark a job for her in the assessor's office, where she can join her sister, brother and aunt on the payroll after 2014? Of course, that presumes Joe Berrios gets re-elected in 2014.

"There was a lot of new territory" added in the remap, said Manuel Galvan, who is the media spokesman for both Joe and Toni Berrios. Toni Berrios' old district, where her father bestowed the seat upon her at age 25 in 2002, contained 29 precincts in the Logan Square 35th Ward, 26 precincts in her dad's Avondale 31st Ward, 23 scattered in the 1st, 26th, 30th and 32nd wards, and one in the 38th Ward. The new district, created by "Big Daddy's" close ally, House Speaker Mike Madigan, contains 26 new precincts, including five more in the 31st Ward, 16 more in the 38th Ward (south of Irving Park Road and west of Cicero Avenue) and four in the 45th Ward; she lost 11 precincts in the 35th Ward, where white liberals predominate and are not enamored with the Berrios brand name. It was thought that she was safer, even though one-third of the district is new to her. It also was thought that the "Berrios Clan" had access to enough money to bully, bury or bombard any fledgling opposition. That's exactly what almost didn't happen.

Berrios "did not run on her record" and "rarely mentioned what, if anything, she had accomplished," Guzzardi said. "She exhibited no leadership on any issue." In a conventional campaign, the incumbent stays positive, defending his or her performance and ignoring the opposition, and goes negative only when defeat is imminent. In a conventional campaign, the challenger goes negative early and often, making the contest a referendum on the incumbent, and gives voters multiple reasons for ouster.

The 2012 primary in the 39th District was unconventional. Berrios had 15 districtwide mailers, of which "at least 10 were negative," according to Guzzardi, a North Carolina native who was labeled in this column as "Chapel Hill Will" and who was lambasted by Berrios for his alleged "Wall Street connections," for "supporting tax loopholes" for businesses, for having supporters who took "offshore tax breaks" and for taking a contribution from a "lawyer who defended tax cheats." In response, in his seven mailers, Guzzardi stayed mostly positive, and did not make "Big Daddy" the issue. "I was running against her, not him," he said. "Voters displeased with Joe were going to vote for me anyway. My job was to educate the people that there was an alternative." Unfortunately for him, he fell 125 votes short.

Guzzardi spent $104,537, a fraction of the $286,327 spent by Berrios' ward and district campaign committees.

The outlook: Toni Berrios has clearly not established herself as a legislator of renown, has not entrenched herself, and is clearly dependent on her father to keep her in office. In 2014 "Big Daddy" won't be blindsided again. He will field a bunch of "shill" candidates to divide the non-Berrios vote, and he will deploy more money and manpower earlier. He also might convince Guzzardi not to run or to run for some other office. Toni Berrios is an incumbent waiting to be beaten.

29th Ward (Austin): When Carothers, the then-powerful Police and Fire Committee chairman, resigned following his bribery conviction in May of 2010, Graham eagerly gave up her Illinois House seat. Mayor Rich Daley appointed her alderman, and it was presumed that Graham, the inheritor of Carother's ward organization, an 8-year state representative and a faithful ally of state Senator Don Harmon, the Democratic committeeman of adjacent Oak Park, had a lock on the job. Money and manpower would be profuse.

But the 2011 election results proved otherwiseGraham limped to a 52.1 percent victory in a field of seven candidates, with Simmons placing second with 11.9 percent of the vote. Graham got 5,521 of the 10,603 votes cast, and her six opponents aggregated 5,082; she got a majority in 26 of the ward's 49 precincts.

The rap on Graham, according to Simmons, is that she's arrogant, imperious and thoroughly unlikable. Simmons' 2015 strategy is based on the "Nibble Theory," which posits that the way to beat an aldermanic incumbent is to assemble a huge field of challengers, each with a base among friends, family and neighbors, all of whom "nibble" at the incumbent's vote. By keeping the incumbent under 50 percent of the vote and necessitating a two-way runoff, the presumption is that everybody who didn't vote for the incumbent in the first election will vote for the challenger in the runoff. Simmons, a veteran political operative who runs Citizens for a Better West Side, expects that the longer Graham remains in office, the more enemies she will make. His game plan is to recruit a dozen contenders for 2015. But Simmons has his own baggage, having been a part of white 37th Ward Alderman Frank Damato's organization in the 1980s.

The outlook: In 2003, against two opponents, Carothers got 8,039 votes (74.8 percent of the total cast); in 2007, unopposed, Carothers got 7,836 votes. Graham got 5,521 votes in 2011, and in the 2012 Democratic committeeman's race she edged U.S. Representative Danny Davis (D-7), a onetime 29th Ward alderman who has long feuded with the "Carothers Clan," by 3,138-2,977, getting 51.3 percent of the vote and carrying 26 of 48 precincts. Graham is beatable.

37th Ward (East Austin, West Garfield Park): When Democrats talk about "job creation," it's invariably in the public sector, with government employees paying union dues to AFSCME and SEIU, who then fund their PACs and donate to elect Democrats, who then maintain the status quo. That's not the mindset of Mitts, an 11-year alderman. She had the temerity to successfully fight to bring a Walmart into her economically challenged West Side ward, thereby creating private-sector jobs and curing "food desert" problems -- and incurring the unions' wrath. In 2011 the unions poured resources into the ward and nearly succeeded, holding Mitts to 58.5 percent of the vote.

Round two is under way. In 2011, in retribution, the SEIU brought in 75 workers for Brown-Miller and financed four mailers. Mitts finished first in a field of six candidates with 5,133 votes, to Brown-Miller's 2,086 (23.8 percent of the vote) and 1,559 votes for the other four candidates. Mitts had a majority in 38 of 43 precincts.

Will the "Nibble Theory" work? Mitts was a staunch ally of Daley, and she is reliable backer of Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Will she be a union target in 2015? Brown-Miller thinks she will, and she is busily trying to encourage everybody and anybody to run. Mitts got 5,469 votes (73.1 percent of the total) in 2003, 4,485 (59.3 percent) in 2007 and 5,133 votes in 2011, in a turnout of 8,778.

The outlook: Unlike Graham, Mitts seems to have entrenched herself. Big box is not a big problem. She is favored in 2015.