December 4, 2013



At the online "Obamacare" health insurance exchange, inquirers can peruse more than 100 plan options, which are graded silver, bronze and gold. Pre-existing conditions are not a disqualification.

Illinois voters should be so fortunate. In the March 18, 2014, primary, the choices are more aptly categorized as lead, topsoil and fertilizer. Unfortunately, like "Obamacare," "pre-existing conditions," such as an incumbent's ineptitude, incompetence, stupidity or malfeasance, will not be a bar to re-nomination or re-election.

Like the "Obamacare" Web site, which is 40 percent incomplete, there is a similar voter disconnect. More than 60 percent of registered voters won't bother to cast a ballot in 2014.

The reason is simple: Public officials are expected to exercise good judgment. In Illinois in general, and the state legislature and Cook County in particular, that is an oxymoron. A politician with good judgment? Is that a metaphysical possibility? Me, myself and I -- and my friends and family -- that's the norm.

As the 2014 campaign cycle dawns, we are going to be treated to a cornucopia of bad, worse and horrendous judgment. The differentiation is gleaned when a candidate first runs for office. Is victory more probable than possible? If it's not, or if the candidate refuses to believe that it's not, defeat and humiliation are inevitable.

Of course, there are extenuating circumstances. The initial problem, particularly in Illinois, is that an aspirant must commit himself or herself to a candidacy almost 18 months before the election, or 8 months before the March primary. That time frame is needed to strategize, organize and raise money. That means that anyone who wants to run in 2014 must commit by June of 2013.

Nominating petitions were due by Dec. 2, which means that campaign workers had to be on the street by Sept. 1. To run in the February, 2015, Chicago election for alderman or mayor, a candidate must decide before the end of 2013.

The problem for a challenger, especially in a contest without an incumbent, is that the issues of the 2014 election are unclear a year out. Incumbents run on their record and raise money; if the environment looks hostile, they go negative on their challenger. Challengers try to frame the race as a referendum on the incumbent or the incumbent's party. To prevail, absent a scandal, they need a "wave," which means a drop-off from the previous election of at least 5 percent in the incumbent's or incumbent party's vote and a concomitant 5 percent uptick in the non-incumbent party's vote. That 10 percent swing ensures victory.

For example, the 2010 Tea Party movement didn't gain traction until the Affordable Care Act, or "Obamacare," was passed in April. In November a lot of Democrats, including those running for non-federal office, drowned in the anti-Obama undertow. Likewise, anti-Bush sentiment created Democratic "waves" in 2006 and 2008. The obverse is a "washout" election, where the parties' bases turn out and the status quo prevails.

So how does 2014 look?

First, if the "Obamacare" rollout continues to evolve from a crisis to a catastrophe, the Democrats -- especially those who backed the plan in 2010 -- will be penalized. If people lose their coverage or have to pay higher premiums because they can't get "Obamacare" coverage, there will be a lot of anti-Democratic votes. After all, the Obama Administration had 3 years to plan, program and fix glitches. However, to benefit, the Republicans need "Obamacare" to be as chaotic in September of 2014 as it is in December of 2013.

Second, if there is a federal government shutdown or debt default, voters will blame both parties, and there will be an anti-incumbent "wave," but that has to occur just before the 2014 election.

Third, in Illinois, the "pension crisis" must be paramount. The so-called fix being proposed allegedly will save $160 billion over 30 years, or just over $5 billion annually. Yet the state has an unfunded pension liability of $100 billion, and pensions cost Illinois $10 billion per year, so how does that "solve" the problem? Even if the Madigan-Cullerton plan passes, the unions will clog the courts with lawsuits.

This is a golden opportunity for Republican Bruce Rauner, who can run for governor as a union buster, a tax cutter and a pension fixer.

Fourth, Republican ideological bickering, approaching the pathological, between Tea Party and business/establishment factions, could produce a plethora of flawed, unelectable candidates, so even in a Republican "wave" situation, a goodly number of opportunities in federal and statewide races will be squandered.

Of course, in the state legislative and Cook County Democratic primaries, personalities, connections, money and clout will reign supreme. Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan (D-22) will pour up to $5 million into key state representative races, and Democratic ward and township committeemen will labor mightily for slated countywide and judicial candidates. A few liberal reformers will scratch for victory, and turnout will be abysmally low.
Here's the early line:

Sheriff: In his job, incumbent Tom Dart needs to wear a flak jacket and drive an explosion-proof Humvee. Every day, and in every way, he is at the mercy of a scandal, such as an escaped, assaulted or killed prisoner, a drug-dealing or pistol-wielding correctional officer, a rogue sheriff's police officer, or a harmed judge. Dart's and political future is in the hands of his 2,000-plus employees. If they screw up, he pays the price.

Not renowned for his gutsiness, Dart took a pass on the 2011 mayoral race, and he is clinging to his job in the hope that he'll get another mayoral shot in 2015 or 2019. Having been nominated and elected in 2006 entirely due to his 19th Ward connections, Dart sits atop a power keg. He hopes it won't detonate before he departs.

Ted Palka, a 30-year sheriff's police officer who retired as an inspector in 2007, is opposing Dart in the primary, along with Sylvester Baker and Bill Evans. Palka's base is the county's Polish-American community, which hasn't had a county office holder since 1990, when Ted Lechowicz and Stanley Kusper departed. It requires 7,400 petition signatures to get on the ballot, and Palka filed close to 15,000. "I'm giving voters a choice," Palka said.

Metropolitan Water Reclamation District: With a budget of $1.6 billion and 2,100 employees, the water district should be a political utopia. It's not. All the jobs are civil service, but each of the nine commissioners (all Democrats) earn $70,000, get a free car, a generous pension, and four office staffers, and have to suffer through two meetings per month. It's a nice gig.

Three commissioners will be nominated on March 18. Slating is critical, since voters do not know the candidates. Incumbent Frank Avila, along with Josina Morita and Tim Bradford were slated, producing a politically correct Hispanic, Asian and African-American ticket. Dumped was incumbent Cynthia Santos, who is of Greek heritage but whose name sounds Hispanic, rekindling images of former city treasurer Miriam Santos. Also filing were Tom Courtney, Frank Gardner, Kathleen O'reilly, Brendan Houlihan, John Xydakis and Adam Miguest.

A Republican has not been elected to the water district since 1972. No Republican filed for any countywide office besides the water district, since 2,500 signatures is apparently a superhuman task. One who did is Cary Capparelli, the son of Ralph Capparelli, who was a Northwest Side Democratic state representative from 1970 to 2004. "He's very conservative, very business oriented," the elder Capparelli said of his son, who ran for county commissioner in 2010 as a Democrat.

Ralph Capparelli called on his connections with Rosemont Mayor Brad Stephens, who is the Leyden Township Republican committeeman, to get the necessary signatures. The other Republicans filing were Herb Schumann and Jim Parrilli.

West suburbs: There may be change in the air, but it's not yet on the ground. Joe Ponzio assembled a loose coalition of anti-incumbent activists for the 2013 municipal elections. He got 46 percent of the vote in a bid for Elmwood Park mayor, losing to Skip Saviano. Barbara Piltaver won the Schiller Park mayor's post. Now they're back for round two.

Frank McPartlin, the son of a former state representative and a top aide to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, is challenging 20-year incumbent Republican Pete Silvestri for county commissioner in the 9th District. Rob Galhotra, a prosecutor in the Cook County State's Attorney's Office, has filed to oppose powerful state Senator Don Harmon (D-39) in the Oak Park-area 39th District primary. Galhotra is running because he wants to build name recognition for a 2015 bid for 29th Ward alderman.

Jon Medina, an Elmwood Park ally of Ponzio, is opposing Leyden Township Democratic Committeeman and Franklin Park Mayor Barrett Pedersen. Even state Representative Mike McAuliffe (R-20), the only Chicago Republican in the Illinois House, has a primary foe: Mike Yordy of Schiller Park.

The area's politicians, from both the Northwest Side and west suburbs, have a nonaggression pact. The "King of the Hill" is Stephens; he has the money, and he provides most of the manpower to elect McAuliffe, Silvestri and Saviano. He lets Pedersen win in Franklin Park because Pedersen never opposes Stephen's township slate or meddles in Rosemont, Schiller Park or Northlake.

The Ponzio-McPartlin-Piltaver bunch are upsetting the proverbial applecart

Next week: A look at Chicago state legislative contests.

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