December 12, 2012


Almost four decades ago, back in 1973, the year I began writing this column, I was interviewing the venerable Roman Pucinski, a 14-year Northwest Side congressman who had just gotten thrashed in a 1972 U.S. Senate race. Despite losing by a humiliating 1,146,047-vote margin and being out of a job, the "Polish Prince" was in a remarkably upbeat and jovial mood.

41st Ward Republican Alderman Ed Scholl had just gotten elected to the Illinois Senate, but nobody was jockeying to fill the aldermanic vacancy. Pucinski, the ward's Democratic committeeman, had the right of first refusal. The job was his if he wanted it.

Why, I asked Pucinski, demonstrating my naivete, would a powerful, prominent ex-congressman want to be a mere alderman?  Why not wait for 1974, beat replacement Frank Annunzio in the 11th District primary, and go back to Washington?

"Whenever God closes a door, He opens a window," said the loquacious Pucinski, the master of superficial bromides. What he really meant was: The job's there. I need a job. I don't want somebody else to win it -- and being alderman extends my political career.

In short, no opportunist forfeits an opportunity, and every politician is an opportunist.

Fast forward to Elmwood Park, circa 2012. It's a once heavily Italian-American suburb, west of Harlem Avenue between Belmont Avenue and North Avenue, adjacent to the 36th Ward Galewood and Montclare neighborhoods. It encompasses four square miles, and it has a population of 24,883, with a growing Hispanic presence. But in Elmwood Park there are no doors or windows. There are, instead, pots of gold.

So when 20-year state Representative Skip Saviano (R-77) of Elmwood Park lost his 2012 re-election bid, he did not depend, as did Pucinski 40 years earlier, on heavenly intervention. For politicians, Elmwood Park is like a lost and found agency. Lose one pot of gold, and another magically materializes.

Saviano reportedly is running for village president in 2013 on the Unity Party ticket. The part-time post pays $41,000 annually. The embattled 24-year incumbent, Pete Silvestri, a longtime Saviano ally, also is a county commissioner, so the job is not 24/7. Silvestri neither denies nor confirms his retirement. "I have my petitions," he said. "I am the Unity Party candidate. I will decide by Dec. 17," which is the first day to file. "Skippy (Saviano) hasn't announced," he added.

But he will. The "Old Switcheroo" is imminent. Saviano doesn't have Silvestri's political baggage, he benefits from sympathy regarding his defeat, and in a political master stroke, he raided and largely neutered the Village Voice Party slate, message and raison d'etre. Saviano is an Elmwood Park insider who, after winning, will use his job to grease the village's Republican machine. Nothing will change. It will be the same old same old.

Joe Ponzio, a local activist and a bellicose Silvestri critic, has been running for village president for 2 years, and he assembled a Village Voice slate that included Diane Marchetti for clerk and Phil Marcantelli, Tony Del Santo and Elvis Hernandez for the $12,000-a-year trustee spots. In 2011, running as the Neighborhood Voice Party trustee candidates, Marcantelli and Del Santo lost to the Silvestri slate by fewer than 200 votes.

Posturing as the "unity" candidate, Saviano co-opted Marcantelli and Del Santo for his Unity Party slate and made Gina Peski his clerk candidate. On Saviano's (and Silvestri's) part, it was brilliant strategy -- divide and conquer. As for the former Village Voice candidates, is their defection treachery? Or opportunism? Or both? Marcantelli is circulating a whiny, wordy letter justifying his flip-flop.

"There's too much dissension" in Elmwood Park, he wrote, with Silvestri and his cohorts in government being "a roadblock." Saviano, he said, has "admired the Village Voice's platform and goals" and, with Saviano as village president, they will "become a reality" and he will "bring both parties together as one." Marcantelli said that as part of this "compromise," he and Del Santo were "honored" to be on Saviano's ticket, dismissing erstwhile ally Ponzio and his supporters as malcontents who "will continue the fight in this town." That's drivel at its best.

Ponzio insists that he will persevere, form a new slate, and secure new petition signatures, which are due by Dec. 24. He was surprisingly unembittered about the betrayal. "They (Marcantelli and Del Santo) made a deal with Saviano," he said. "I made a deal with the people of Elmwood Park. It's time for new ideas, new principles and new solutions."

The common consensus is that "Silvestri fatigue" has reached critical mass and that voter discontent with rising taxes and fees is cresting. Silvestri is the boss of the political machine founded by Elmer Conti in 1955. Conti died in 1988, and Silvestri became the village president in 1989. Conti also initiated the village's double-dipping tradition: He was a state representative for 12 of the 32 years he was the village president. Silvestri has been a county commissioner since 1994, and he faces a tough re-election campaign in 2014. Had he lost for mayor in 2013, his credibility for 2014 would have been shattered. Had he won in 2013, it would have been a grueling, expensive and tight contest. By handing off the job to Saviano, Silvestri protects the machine and his political base, and he can focus on raising money and making alliances for 2014.

Saviano, age 54, cannot be too distraught about losing his present pot of gold. He earned $77,836 annually as a state representative, and as of Sept. 1 he had $395,328 in his campaign account. Saviano was once an aide to Democrat Jim DeLeo, a 36th Ward powerhouse who ran the ward with Alderman Bill Banks. DeLeo retired as state senator in 2010, and Banks retired as alderman in 2011. Nick Sposato's election as alderman in 2011 signaled finis to the Banks/DeLeo machine, and Brian Doherty's 2010 defeat in his run for DeLeo's seat signaled the end of the Doherty-McAuliffe-Silvestri alliance and eradicated Silvestri's 41st Ward base. DeLeo and Saviano were the Springfield go-to guys for the state's restaurant, liquor and entertainment industries, as their fund-raising demonstrates.

Saviano, with his state pension maxed out, will now follow DeLeo into a lucrative lobbying career. His prospective duties as mayor won't preclude his spending maximal time in Springfield, and he can start working on another pension. As I said, another "Pot of Gold" awaits

According to Nov. 6 returns, Democrat Kathleen Willis beat Saviano 13,708-12,357, getting 52.6 percent of the vote and winning by a margin of 1,351 votes. In the 28 DuPage County precincts (Addison, Wood Dale, Bensenville), where 12,039 votes were cast, Willis topped Saviano 5,933-5,719, with 50.9 percent of the vote and with a margin of 214 votes. In the 33 Cook County precincts, Willis beat Saviano 7,775-6,638, with 53.9 percent of the vote and with a margin of 1,137 votes. In the 15 Leyden Township precincts (Franklin Park, Schiller Park, Northlake, River Grove), Saviano's base, Saviano won 3,703-3,428, and in the 15 heavily Hispanic Proviso Township precincts (Melrose Park, Stone Park and parts of Berkeley, Maywood, Bellwood and River Forest), south of North Avenue and not part of the old 77th District, Willis won 4,297-2,912.

Willis, an unknown, nondescript, uncharismatic school teacher, was an Addison school board member, and he was a registered Republican through 2010. In 2002 the Democrats' remap gave Saviano a district with a 22 percent Hispanic population, but the Democrats conceded the seat to Saviano, who was unopposed in 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010. Obviously, DeLeo was Saviano's "guardian angel" throughout the 2000s. The "angel's" powers vanished in 2012.

Saviano's 2012 defeat can be summed up in six words: Mike Madigan. Marty Sandoval. Money. Republican.

First, the Democratic speaker bolted the doors and shuttered the windows in Saviano's west suburban 77th District. Saviano, an ally of the late former Rosemont mayor Don Stephens and a booster of the Emerald Casino, allegedly made some derogatory comments about Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan after she said that Stephens appeared to have connections to organized crime and killed the casino in 2004. He also twice refused to vote for bills backed by Mike Madigan. In retribution, the speaker's remap chopped Elmwood Park and Rosemont out of the new 77th District, replacing it with Proviso Township Hispanic territory and making the district almost half Hispanic. Madigan dumped nearly $800,000 into Willis' campaign, his aides ran it, and his committee paid for the deluge of mailers tabbing Saviano as a "Chicago politician" and, incredibly, ripping Saviano for being part of a nonprofit foundation with the speaker.

Second, Sandoval, a Cicero Democratic state senator, played the race card. At an Oct. 26 candidate forum, Sandoval was escorted from the building after his anti-Saviano tirade, the gist of which was that "Republicans are not with our people." Saviano quickly trotted out U.S. Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-4) with an endorsement, but the damage was done. South of North Avenue, in the Hispanic areas, Willis won by 1,385 votes, simply because she is a Democrat. That was the ball game.

Third, money isn't everything.  Saviano spent $600,000 and Willis spent $700,000. Franklin Park Mayor Barrett Pederson, the township Democratic committeeman, did nothing to aid Willis. The Republican brand among Hispanic voters was poison.

But, as Pucinski proved, there is life after defeat. "Skippy" Saviano will be Elmwood Park's next village president -- and his "Pot of Gold" will runneth over.