January 30, 2013


For those who think that suburban Cook County politics is a boring, somewhat soporific, enterprise, think again. On April 9, when 120 municipalities and 30 townships hold elections, there will be an abundance of comedy, duplicity, mendacity and audacity.

In the past, the operative descriptive phrase has been "trickle up," meaning that ambitious would-be politicians seek suburban municipal or township office as a steppingstone to greater glory, such as legislative, congressional or county office. They rarely succeed. Other than former Des Plaines mayor Marty Moylan, who was elected a state representative in 2012, and outgoing Elmwood Park village president Pete Silvestri, who was elected a county commissioner in 1994, suburban officials usually progress only to be ex-suburban officials.

Some "trickle out" and hold second offices. Rosemont Mayor Brad Stephens, who is a Leyden Township supervisor, and River Grove Mayor Marilynn May, who is the Leyden Township clerk, are retiring from their township jobs.

A "trickle up" from trustee or alderman is common. Two aldermen and a former mayor are vying to succeed Moylan in Des Plaines. Two trustees are running for Niles mayor, as are a trustee in Harwood Heights and a former mayor and library board president in Lincolnwood.

This year there's "trickle down," meaning more luminous officials are downsizing. Tom Benigno, Illinois' clout-heavy deputy secretary of state and Jesse White's chief of staff since 1999, is running for Norridge mayor. Skip Saviano, a defeated 20-year state representative, is running to succeed his ally Silvestri in Elmwood Park.

Here's a sampling:

Norridge: Many people think they have a good-for-nothing mayor. If Benigno wins and replaces retiring one-term incumbent Ron Oppedisano, he will be a for-nothing mayor. Benigno has promised to serve without pay. However, that might not include family and friends.

Benigno is a powerful man in state government. He earns $156,676, and he runs an office with 4,753 employees. Every problem flows through him to White, and every decision flows through him to the office's underlings. Benigno's wife is on the Secretary of State's Office payroll as a $2,000-a-month secretary. His aunt, a cousin, three children and a nephew were on the office's payroll over the past decade. His son Anthony is on the county assessor's payroll as part of a 2011 trade-off in which White hired Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios' nephew.

Now Benigno wants to expand his horizons and his empire.

Norridge is a sleepy little northwest suburban village with a 2010 census population of 14,572, a 2013 budget of $15.5 million and 150 employees. Longtime mayor (1951 to 1998) Joe Sieb was a nominal Republican, but the Martwick machine, run by Democratic Committeeman Robert Martwick, dominates the township and Norridge. When Mayor Earl Field died in 2009, Oppedisano was picked by Martwick and elected without opposition. The machine's 2013 candidate is village Treasurer James Chmura, running on Martwick's Norridge Improvement Party ticket.

Benigno makes the machine and every village employee nervous. He may choose to serve without pay, but nobody expects the multitudinous "Benigno Clan," once on the Norridge payroll, to work for free. A total of 1,735 votes were cast in Norridge's 14 precincts in the 2009 election. Few doubt that Benigno can "persuade" 100-plus of his office's workers to troop through Norridge and work those precincts on his behalf before April 9.

"He's paying his workers $200 a day," Chmura said of Benigno. "He's getting financial support from White, Jim DeLeo and Mike Madigan. We are not going to let outsiders take over Norridge."

 "I'm not endorsing anyone," said Rob Martwick of Norridge, the committeeman's son, who was elected a Democratic state representative in November. Is he under Madigan's thumb? Will the Benigno/White/Madigan/DeLeo machine supersede the Martwick machine?

Elmwood Park: Welcome back, Skippy! A 20-year state representative, Republican Skip Saviano is an integral cog in the Silvestri Elmwood Park machine, had a direct conduit into the 36th Ward Banks/DeLeo Democratic machine, having once been an aide to state Senator Jim DeLeo, and was given a free pass, with no opposition, by Democratic House Speaker Mike Madigan in every election from 2002 to 2010.

But the Banks/DeLeo machine vaporized in 2011, and Saviano was no longer obsequious toward Madigan. The speaker recruited Kathleen Willis, a former Republican and Addison school board member, chopped Elmwood Park out of Saviano's district, spent $700,000, and beat Saviano by 1,351 votes.

Now Saviano wants Silvestri's job, but he faces tough opposition from Joe Ponzio. "Skippy's no shoo-in," a Ponzio campaign strategist said. "He's on the rebound. He needs a job." The strategist accused Saviano of "abandoning" Elmwood Park in 2012 to run for re-election in a district stretching west to Elmhurst, Wood Dale, Addison and Bensenville. "If he won, he'd have moved to Elmhurst," the aide said. Elmwood Park is now in the House district of Democrat Camille Lilly of the 37th Ward. "Why didn't Skippy use his $700,000 to run against her?" the source asked.

In the past, 36th Ward precinct captains, along with Elmwood Park job holders, were enough to keep the Silvestri machine in power. He was unopposed in 2009, getting 1,789 votes, and in 2011 Silvestri's trustee candidates got 5,815 votes to the Ponzio slate's 4,396. "Now there's chaos," Ponzio's aide said.

Park Ridge: "Mayor No" knows best. That describes Dave Schmidt, who was elected mayor in 2009 and who is renowned as grouchy, grumpy and downright cheap.

Schmidt has a quaint, if somewhat antiquated idea. He believes that government shouldn't spend what it doesn't have. It doesn't borrow. It doesn't hike taxes. It lives within its means. Schmidt believes that during rough economic times his job is to cut non-essential expenditures and to veto any pay or spending hikes.

What an outside-the-box idea. Who would have ever thought of it? Certainly not such luminaries as Barack Obama or Pat Quinn. Some might call Schmidt's approach fiscal sanity. Others would call it political suicide.

The City Council screams about his so-called obstructionism, but voters seem reconciled to the necessity of a "Mayor No." Park Ridge's tax base is primarily residential, property values are still declining, and the downtown business core is stagnant. The only source of new revenue is property taxes. Schmidt, a Republican, faces self-styled independent Larry Ryles. "He's a nobody," one area Democratic office holder said of Ryles, conceding that the Democrats have folded up shop in both Park Ridge and in the township elections.

In 2009 Schmidt beat Republican Mayor Howard Frimark 4,073-3,313. A lot of Democrats voted for Schmidt because they disliked Frimark, and now they detest Schmidt. Hard-core conservative Republicans love him. The situation is fluid, and the election is a referendum on Schmidt.

Des Plaines: With one-termer Moylan gone to Springfield, a three-way battle for the succession is raging. Running are 26-year-old Alderman Matt Bogusz, who was elected in 2009 and who is endorsed by Moylan, Alderman Mark Walsten, who was elected in 2007, and former mayor (1999 to 2009) Tony Arredia. "It's a simple choice between the old (meaning Arredia) and the new (meaning Bogusz)," Moylan said.

According to sources in Des Plaines, Arredia's record will be hashed over, with the travails of Tom Becker, Bill Schneider and Jim Dvorak exhumed. Walsten will position himself as the independent, Bogusz as the reformer, and Arredia as the repository of experience. All the contenders have a base of roughly 30 to 35 percent of the vote.

Moylan won in 2009 with 4,139 votes (43.2 percent of the total) in a turnout of 7,666. Arredia was unopposed in 2005 and got 5,523 votes. The winner will be the "No Tony" candidate, likely Bogusz.

Niles: Niles has had two mayors in the past 52 years. With the cloud of disgraced Nick Blase, who was the mayor from 1961 to 2009, fading, and with incumbent Bob Callero retiring, two "Polski Krolewicz" ("Polish Princes") are running for the job. They are Andy Przybylo, who is the part-owner of the White Eagle restaurant and who has been a trustee since 1989, and Chris Hanusiak, who got 1,062 votes (20 percent of the total) for mayor in 2009 and who was elected trustee in 2011.

Callero, the Blase machine's candidate, won in 2009 with 2,602 votes (48.9 percent of the total) in a turnout of 5,324; he has endorsed Przybylo. Two of the other four trustees have endorsed Hanusiak. Przybylo is favored.

Harwood Heights: Loyalty, fealty, integrity. Those traits may be valued in the U.S. Armed Forces, but Harwood Heights is not Fort Bragg. Republican Arlene Jezierny beat embattled Democratic mayor Peggy Fuller in 2009 by 1,027-756, getting 57.6 percent of the vote in a turnout of 1,783. On her ticket for trustee were Jimmy Mougolias and Les Szlendak. They both turned on her, and Mougolias is now opposing her.

"He's an opportunist," Jezierny said of Mougolias. "I've done a good job as mayor." Fiscal issues, including the village's role in approving a Mariano's Fresh Market store, will be uppermost. Compared to Fuller, Jezierny is a pillar of stability, but since 2001 the mayor's job has been a revolving door.

Lincolnwood: Quitting is tough, and unquitting is tougher. Mayor Gerry Turry, who was elected in 2005 and who was a cinch for re-election, announced his retirement in 2012. Into the 2013 race jumped former mayor (2000 to 2005) Peter Moy, on the Forward Vision Party ticket, and library board president Georgia Talaganis, on the Independent Party of Lincolnwood ticket. Turry, who has been an effective and popular mayor, reconsidered and jumped back into the race as an independent. If Turry wins, it will be difficult and costly.