July 17, 2013


I've always thought the airlines' term "preboarding" was nonsensical, if not ludicrous. One either boards the plane or one doesn't. But there's no nonsense in Cook County , where the Democrats are busily engaged in "preslating," a politically efficacious and financially remunerative process which precedes the party's actual slating of 2014 candidates, which will occur in late August.

"Preslating" can be described in three sentences: Find the sucker. Fleece the sucker. Blow off the sucker. Here's how it works:

First, it is common knowledge that Democrats habitually win every countywide office, that the path to victory runs through the Democratic primary, and that the best way to win the primary is to be the slated party candidate. In 2014 the offices of Cook County Board president, sheriff, treasurer, clerk, assessor, three Metropolitan Water Reclamation District commissioners and nine Circuit Court judgeships will be on the ballot. That's 17 choice spots.

In April word began trickling out, especially in the legal community, that if you want a piece of the pie, see your friendly Democratic committeeman and "clout" yourself up.

Second, the county Democratic chairman, who is county Assessor Joe Berrios, appointed a select group of malleable Chicagoward and suburban township Democratic committeemen to a "preslating" subcommittee. The Democrats' 2014 ticket is already preordained, but the subcommittee's job is to screen the hundred of wannabes who eagerly present their credentials in a private session, not open to the public or the press. The screening occurred on June 21.

Third, the overriding criterion is: Are you a "good" Democrat? In other words, how much have you, your family and your supporters donated to the party or its candidates? Who is your "clout"? Is some influential committeeman backing you? If so, does that committeeman and ward or township generate sufficient votes to merit the "reward" of a county office or a judgeship?

Fourth, the balm is hot and heavy. In fact, the subcommittee's job could probably be called "preembalming." The subcommittee listens respectfully and attentively to all the supplicants, who get 5 minutes. They then wax ecstatic over the candidates' stupendous "service" to the party, extol their monumental qualifications, and encourage them to "keep up the good work."

Fifth, it's all a charade. Instead of a hundred misguided and ill-informed politicians and would-be judges showing up at the formal slatemaking, the flock is culled to a minimum. Each "preslating" attendee is contacted by a subcommittee member and told how impressed they were by his or her presentation but that, sadly and regretfully, there just isn't any availability on the ticket, so don't show up at slatemaking. Also, as a cautionary admonishment, don't run against the party's choice. We will remember.

As Cubs fans are known to say, "Wait until next year," or, in this case, wait until 2016.

The process is nothing less than a shakedown. Supplicants, especially those for judicial office, are encouraged to ally with a committeeman, to donate liberally to that organization, to other committeemen and to the party, and to come back in 2, 4 or 6 years, when they might get their just reward. Since it takes a minimum of 3,000 signatures to get on the countywide ballot, which means obtaining at least 10,000 just to be safe, and since the Democrats have a stable of election law lawyers ready and paid to file petition challenges, bucking the party is a no-win situation.

Sixth, slatemaking is all about quotas, territorial prerogatives and occupancy. Qualifications matter not.

For example, the Far Southwest Side 19th Ward "owns" the sheriff's office. Then-Alderman Mike Sheahan won it in 1990 and palmed it off to Tom Dart in 2006, and Dart will keep the job, which controls more than 2,300 employees, until such time as Alderman Matt O'Shea (19th) can win it. When Dart made noises about running for attorney general in 2014, he was told by the ward's aging ruling clique -- the "Three Wise Men," Tom Hynes, Jeremiah Joyce and Tim Degnan -- to cool it. Their goal is to elect Dart mayor and then install O'Shea as sheriff.

Although Dart was "preslated," he faces a pesky primary challenge from Ted Palka, a former sheriff's police investigator who is trying to mobilize the Polish-American community behind his candidacy. Palka has raised about $40,000.

The county board president post has been held by an African American since 1994, when John Stroger won it. After his 2006 stroke, the party picked his dimwit son Todd as the replacement nominee. In 2010 Todd Stroger's record was so dismal that he got 8 percent of the vote in the primary, which had three black candidates and one white candidate, but 5th Ward Alderman Toni Preckwinkle won with more than 50 percent of the vote. The board president, along with the recorder and the Circuit Court clerk, is now "owned" by the black politicians. In fact, even though Preckwinkle she was elected as an "independent," she remains the 5th Ward Democratic committeeman, and she presided over the countywide preslating on June 21. She also was "preslated."

The powerful assessor's post, with its ability to raise big bucks from corporations who receive tax breaks, was the domain of P.J. Cullerton and the 38th Ward from 1958 to 1978, then shifted to Tom Hynes (1978 to 2001) and to Jim Houlihan (2001 to 2010) of the 19th Ward, but it was won by Berrios in 2010. It is now "owned" by the North Side Puerto Ricans, who are concentrated in Logan Square andHumboldt Park and who dominate the 30th, 31st and 35th wards. Berrios, the 31st Ward committeeman and former a Board of Review commissioner, won the 2010 primary with just _____ percent of the vote, and he has since been enmeshed in an ethics dispute over whether the hiring of his son and daughter as employees violates the county's anti-nepotism rules.

Berrios was "preslated." As of June 30 he had $523,697 in cash on hand -- a definite deterrent to any challenger. Nobody credible has emerged to oppose him.

The other two incumbents up in 2014, Clerk David Orr and Treasurer Maria Pappas, both Chicagoans, are political has-beens, but they have powerful constituencies. Orr, age 68, was the 49th Ward (Rogers Park) alderman from 1979 to 1990, when he was elected to his current office. His claim to fame is that he was that he was Chicago 's acting mayor for a brief period in 1987, after Harold Washington's death. As one of the few white aldermen who were allied with the black mayor, and who implacably opposed the "Vrdolyak 29," Orr is an iconic figure among African Americans and much beloved by Lakefront liberals.

For decades Orr has pondered running for mayor, board president, secretary of state or U.S. senator, but he's content to be clerk for life. He cannot be dumped, and he was "preslated."

Pappas, age 63, was once thought to be the "golden girl" of county politics, eclipsing Aurie Pucinski. She ran for board president in 1994 against Stroger and Pucinski, getting 24 percent of the vote. She won the treasurer's post in 1998, and she seemed poised to move to the U.S. Senate in 2004. Pappas faced Barack Obama, Dan Hynes, Blair Hull and Gery Chico in the Democratic primary, and she fizzled big time, getting just 6 percent of the vote. Kaput went her dreams of higher office.

But Greek Americans are an important financial component of thecounty Democrats ' coalition: bankers, restaurant owners, caterers, real estate agents. They all give money to the Democratic Party, and they all love their princess, Pappas. In fact, there's a lawsuit pending accusing Pappas of hiring too many Greek Americans in her office, which has about 300 employees. Pappas will be treasurer for life. She cannot be dumped, and she was "preslated."

Then there's the revolving door of county politics, the water reclamation district, which handles all sewage disposal in the city and county, with a budget of $800 million and 2,100 jobs.

There are nine commissioners, each paid $70,000, with a $250,000 office allowance, including two staffers, a car and a gasoline credit card, and the onerous job of attending two meetings per month. The job is highly desirable, either as a career starter or career ender. Commissioners Jerry Cosentino and Aurie Pucinski used it as a springboard to higher office, but the recent district president, Terry O'Brien, got a mere 23 percent of the vote when he ran against Preckwinkle and Stroger in 2010. Commissioner Mike Alvarez is positioning himself to run for clerk of court against Dorothy Brown in 2016. He's got Alderman Tim Cullerton's wife and Alderman Dick Mell's girlfriend on his payroll.

The commissioners' problem is simple: obscurity. Voters don't have a clue, and in a multi-candidate Democratic primary, slating doesn't matter. Ballot position, gender, ethnicity (especially Irish surnames) and race are all factors. The current water district president, 19th Warder Kathy Meany, succeeded O'Brien in 2012 and is retiring in 2014. At "preslating," incumbents Frank Avila and Cynthia Santos were anointed, along with south suburban Rich Township administrator Tim Bradford. Rejected were Barbara Moore, the wife of 49th Ward Alderman Joe Moore (who took Orr's seat) and Wallace Davis III, whose father and grandfather were West Side 27th Ward politicians, both of whom went to jail. Moore and Davis will run in the primary.

The next water district president will be Mariana Spyropoulos, the current vice president.

Then there are the nine countywide judicial vacancies. The Democrats on the Illinois Supreme Court are a wholly owned subsidiary of Ed Burke, and they appoint all interim judges. Thus, there are already nine incumbents, all with political clout and hefty past donations. On June 21 about 25 lawyers appeared. Their message: Keep giving money, and see you in 2016.