February 27, 2013


Illinois deputy secretary of state Tom Benigno is running a goody-goody campaign for village president of Norridge, and that, as a strategy, is a sure ticket to defeat.

In the 40 years I've been writing this political column, I've observed and analyzed a vast number of goody-goody campaigns and candidates.

You know the type: candidates so dreamy and delusionary that they fervently believe that being a friendly, sincere, competent, compassionate, loveable, wonderful, modest, semi-saintly human being, utterly devoid of hubris and megalomania, selflessly committed to "serving" all of humankind and dedicated to building a Utopia on earth, makes them irresistible to voters.  Of course, they want to do it their way, since they alone know best, and they are making a tremendous "sacrifice" to lead the unknowing into the pastures of bliss. Of course they lose, and, of course, they can't understand why.

Most voters view politicians as only slightly more desirable than cockroaches and bedbugs. They are a nuisance tolerated, never eradicated, and never trusted. Most especially, voters have a built-in antenna for goody-goody candidates. If they say, "Trust me, I'll do what is best for you," it's a sure signal that they are either clueless or lying.

Candidates must understand the voters' psyche. They must give them a reason to expel the idiots who are in and replace them with the idiots who are out. They must have a rationale for running, a campaign theme, and a hypothesis for governing. They must promise to fix something, cleanse something, or scrub out somebody. It's called the "Brillo Test." Voters demand proof of misdeeds, misfeasance or misgovernance.

Fast forward to Norridge, a vibrant western Cook County suburb of 14,572, the home of the Harlem-Irving Plaza, with oceans of commercial sales tax revenue, an annual budget of $19.5 million, 150 job holders, no unions, no TIF districts, a $5 million reserve fund, no indebtedness, a AAA Standards & Poor rating, and no revenue stamps on home sales. If it were a corporation, it would be ripe for a hostile takeover, which is precisely what Benigno and his Democratic backers, including Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan and former state senator Jim DeLeo, are doing.

Since its founding, Norridge has had three mayors: Joe Sieb from 1951 until his death in 1998, Earl Field, from 1998 to 2009, and Ron Oppedisano, who became the mayor after Field died in 2009 and who is retiring in 2013. The potential successors are James Chmura, the village chief financial officer, and Benigno, who has been Jesse White's chief of staff since 1999, earning $156,676 a year in a job that he intends to keep.

Benigno's line of attack on the incumbent administration, Oppedisano and Chmura is nonexistent. "Moving Norridge forward," blares one of his flyers. "Continuing the tradition of good public service," trumpets another. Absolute pabulum. "I won't take a salary, pension or benefits," Benigno said. Of course, he already has a salary, pension and benefits, and he promises that after working 9 to 5 daily in the Thompson Center, he would be on the job in Norridge evenings and Saturdays. He'll be a veritable Superman, devoting up to 60 hours weekly to public service.

Chmura is running on the Norridge Improvement Party ticket, which was the moniker used by Sieb, Field and Oppedisano in past elections. "We do not need state or Chicago politics or politicians to run our village," he said. "We do not need outsiders raising our taxes or padding our payrolls." And, he added, ask Benigno what he would "do better than we are doing now?" I did.

"I have an improvement agenda," Benigno said. "We must get back to the community." The clincher: "I have a record of service." Wow. That's goody-goody.

The village president's job pays $60,000, which is less than the $63,000 Chmura now earns. "I will be a full-time mayor," pledged Chmura, age 63, a former IRS agent who has lived in Norridge since 1983 and who has been employed since 1998. Benigno, age 57, has lived in Norridge since 1996, and he has a different take. "(Norridge) residents need access to village services evenings and Saturdays. I will expand hours and be there for them." In addition, he noted, none of Norridge's mayors have been full-timers: Sieb owned a plumbing company, Field owned an ambulance service, and Oppedisano operated a tax service. "They worked part-time," he said.

That's well and good. The mayor of Park Ridge is paid $12,000 annually, and the mayor of Niles is paid $4,000. That's definitely part-time pay. Benigno sidesteps that issue by promising to serve without pay. He said that the Norridge job will be "the capstone of my career," adding, "I want to be (village) president for life." With White, who will be age 80 in 2014, running for re-election to a fifth term and sure to win, Benigno will be on the state payroll until 2018, which means that he will be able to retire with a 20-year state pension of about $125,000 annually.

Benigno also will get another county pension. Prior to his current gig, he worked for county government. He had been a Chicago precinct worker with ties to the 36th Ward, where he was a pal of DeLeo. His father, Ned Benigno, ran the county's forestry department. That's were Benigno met White, a protege of longtime Cook County Board president George Dunne (1969 to 1990). White had a second job as Dunne's aide during the 16 years he served as an Illinois state representative.

In 1992, when Carol Moseley Braun ran for U.S. senator, White won the county recorder of deeds post. In 1994 Benigno shifted onto White's payroll. White ran for secretary of state in 1998 and looked a loser until the frontrunner, cancer-stricken state Senator Penny Severns, withdrew from the race and endorsed him. In the Democratic primary, White, with a surge in Chicago's predominantly black wards, beat Orland Park police chief Tim McCarthy, 484,798-384,603, getting 55.8 percent of the vote. White faced the well known Al Salvi, the Republicans' 1996 U.S. Senate nominee, in the election and creamed him by a 437,206-vote margin, getting 55.5 percent of the vote and winning Cook County by 573,358 votes.

Benigno moved onto the state payroll as White's deputy secretary of state, the office's number two job, in 1999. Without dispute, White has been a scrupulous, veracious and competent office holder -- for which Benigno deserves some credit. Akin to a major corporation, the office has 3,700 employees and an annual $400 million budget. "We've cut wait lines (and) improved counter services," Benigno said. "We're online, and we've been scandal-free." Compared to the corruption during George Ryan's tenure (1991 to 1998), White's 15-year time in office has been positively pristine. "I have administrative skills," added Benigno.

Benigno also has padded White's payroll with family: his wife, three children, aunt, cousin and nephew. "My wife no longer works there," he said.

Unfortunately, tying himself to White and running on the record of his daytime job won't cut it. "He has done nothing in the community," Chmura said of Benigno. "People don't know him." However, after Benigno spends $100,000, bombards Norridge's 4,900 households with eight mailers, and has an army of outsiders -- family, friends, political cronies and 13th Ward and 36th Ward precinct captains -- trooping through the 10 precincts, they definitely will. "I won't force any of my employees to work for me," Benigno insisted, but he said that his 65 cousins will be in evidence.

What are Benigno's issues? "There's no (Norridge) downtown," he said, stating that he wants to help develop the 3-acre property occupied by the shuttered Norridge Theater and Lenell Cookies on Harlem Avenue. He said he can get federal and state grants to fix the flooding along Lawrence Avenue west of Cumberland Avenue. He wants more funding for Meals on Wheels, more playgrounds, a senior transport program, and "resource sharing" with Harwood Heights and Norwood Park Township. "There's a lot to be done," he said. "I'll be an activist president."

Chmura scoffs at Benigno. "There's nothing wrong with Norridge," he said. "Crime is low. We have 37 police officers. Property taxes are low. The tax levy is only 2 percent of the total bill, and increased only 1.2 percent in 2012. We have low water and electric rates and low vehicle sticker fees. (Harlem-Irving Plaza) generates $22 million annually in sales tax revenues, of which we receive a share. We are economically sound. Making him president won't be an improvement."

With a campaign budget of $30,000, Chmura anticipates three mailings and counts on up to 150 volunteers, but he can't count on the Martwicks, Norridge's royalty, for assistance. Robert Martwick, a tax appeal attorney extraordinaire and Democratic township committeeman since 1969, and Rob Martwick, the area's Democratic state representative, are both "neutral." "I have to work with everybody," Rob Martwick said. "I'm not taking sides." Benigno promises that if he wins he will not run against Martwick for committeeman in 2014.

Expressing disappointment, Chmura noted that he was always loyal to the Martwicks. "Maybe it's because of Madigan and White," he mused.

Prediction: Norridge has 7,400 registered voters, of whom 40 percent are of Polish ancestry and a quarter are seniors. In 2009 Oppedisano got 1,513 votes unopposed, and in 2005 Field got 1,947 votes unopposed. On April 9 Benigno will fail the "Brillo Test." Chmura will win with 53 percent of the vote.