June 4, 2014



Don't call it Chicago's new 36th Ward. Call it the "swap-o-rama" ward, where political office is being bartered like merchandise on Maxwell Street and DNA is the coin of the realm.

Try to follow this: The "Familia Arroyo" and the "Familia Aquino," in a deal brokered by "Old Gringo" (former 33rd ward alderman Dick Mell), engineered a "Son Swap" in mid-2013. As then detailed in this column, Mell's protege, state Representative Luis Arroyo (D-3), demurred to the 31st Ward, foregoing a run for alderman in the newly created 36thWard, which will come into existence in 2015, pursuant to the 2011 city remap. The current 36th Ward alderman is Nick Sposato; all his ward's predominantly Hispanic precincts, and his own, were put in the new ward.

In exchange, Arroyo's son, Luis Arroyo Jr., got slated for commissioner in the 8th County Board District, and the boss of the 31st Ward, county Assessor, Committeeman and county Democratic Party chairman Joe Berrios, and the sub-boss, Alderman Ray Suarez, got to anoint the new alderman in the adjacent 36th Ward. That was supposed to be Willie Aquino Jr., the son of Suarez's best friend, Willie Aquino Sr.

The "Son Swap" is now half done. The Arroyos got their stake. Democratic ward committeemen dumped Commissioner Eddie Reyes, and even though the Berrios-Suarez machine was humiliated by the loss of 12-year state Representative Toni Berrios (D-39) to Will Guzzardi in the March 18 primary, the younger Arroyo beat Reyes 8,042-6,537, getting 55.2 percent of the vote. While Toni Berrios won her father's 31st Ward 1,459-1,236 (with 54.1 percent of the vote), Arroyo won the ward 1,686-1,109 (with 60.3 percent of the vote). Arroyo got 63.3 percent of the vote in the 26th Ward and 56.7 percent in the 30th Ward, which Reyes' votes of 59.4 percent in the 32nd Ward, 50.7 percent in the 1st Ward and 50.3 percent in the 35th Ward failed to offset. Ironically, under the 2011 remap, all of Mell's 33rd Ward was excised from the 8th District.

However, the "Son Swap" has been swapped by the Aquinos, with a big assist from Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan (D-22) and the implicit consent of the Berrios-Suarez machine. Instead of Willie Aquino Jr. getting the aldermanic seat, it will be Omar Aquino, the 26-year-old second son, who until mid-May was a staffer in the Schaumburg office of U.S. Representative Tammy Duckworth (D-8) and who formerly was a staffer for Madigan.

To the politically naive, it is wondrous how aldermanic jobs in Chicago get doled out or swapped years before they even exist, how county commissioners can be made and unmade in the blink of an eye, and how state legislators happen to be aides or offspring. The Hispanic-majority North Side 1st, 26th, 30th, 31st, 33rd, 35th wards and, effective in 2015, the 36th Ward, are dominated by politicians and voters of Puerto Rican ancestry, and politics is deemed to be the family business. More than 15 members of the Berrios clan are on some public payroll, but the master manipulator and instigator of self-serving political shenanigans is Mell, who quit as alderman in 2013 after installing his daughter Deb Mell in his job.

The son-swap saga actually originated in 2002, when Mell decided that his charismatic but ethically challenged son-in-law, Rod Blagojevich, should be Illinois' governor. Mell, who had made Blagojevich a state representative in 1992 and a congressman in 1996, made promises to Downstate Democratic county chairmen, assuring them of voluminous numbers of state jobs. That never occurred. What did occur was Blagojevich's 2009 impeachment and subsequent bribery conviction.

Pat Quinn, who succeeded to the governorship but who was never much of a Mell pal or a Blagojevich ally, decided he needed some "diversity" in his state cabinet, and he tapped Alderman Billy Ocasio (26th), a protege of U.S. Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-4), as a senior advisor. Ocasio was gone within 2 years. The 26th Ward's Democratic committeeman, Roberto Maldonado, perceiving that an alderman has more clout than a county commissioner, beseeched then-Mayor Rich Daley for the promotion, which he got.

However, while Maldonado's clout inside his 26th Ward may have been augmented, he had none among the other Democratic committeemen in the 8th County Board District, who were empowered to name Maldonado's replacement. Maldonado thought he could dictate his replacement, and he wanted Xavier Nogueras, a 26th Ward precinct captain. The committeemen, led by Mell and including Berrios (31st), Ariel Reboyras (30th) and Rey Colon (35th), thought otherwise. They anointed Mell's choice, longtime state trooper Edwin Reyes.

As always, Mell had his own priority, to save the job of Rudy Urian, the $60,000-a-year chief of staff in Maldonado's office, who also was a 33rd Ward area coordinator and a top precinct captain. Reyes promised to retain Urian, while Nogueras was noncommittal. In the 2010 Democratic primary, Maldonado ran Nogueras, but all the other committeemen backed Reyes, who won 9,256-6,075 (with 51.2 percent of the vote), with 2,742 votes to Ariel Rosa. Reyes ran first in every ward. The co-manager of Reyes' 2010 campaign was the senior Arroyo, another longtime Mell precinct worker who in 2006 was anointed as a state representative when incumbent Willie Delgado was appointed state senator, replacing his ally Miguel del Valle, who was appointed city clerk.

There are two factions among North Side Puerto Ricans: The Berrios-Suarez machine regulars and the so-called "progressives." The latter group includes Delgado, State Senator Iris Martinez (D-20), del Valle (who lost for mayor in 2011) and Reyes. In 2011 Reyes fired Urian, which sowed the seeds of his destruction; he also allied himself with the "progressives." Flitting between the groups are Aldermen Proco Joe Moreno (1st) and Colon and Gutierrez, a liberal who endorsed Toni Berrios over Guzzardi.

"They just ignored me," Reyes said earlier this year. "It was as if I ceased to exist." Reyes had endorsements from a phalanx of liberal luminaries, including Toni Preckwinkle, but the elder Arroyo had the better ground game. 

Mell's ward is 60 to 65 percent Hispanic, and almost 80 percent of the precinct workers are Hispanic. In 2013 Mell anointed his top ward staffer, Jaime Andrade, to replace his daughter as state representative. Andrade was a 20-year precinct captain. The Reyes lesson: Don't mess with Dick Mell, don't switch loyalties, don't fire Mell's payrollers.

The new 36th Ward contains most of the Hispanic precincts from Sposato's existing ward (around Galewood and Montclare), plus most of the south half (south of Irving Park Road east of Austin Avenue) from Tim Cullerton's existing 38th Ward. Sposato has purchased a home in the current 38thWard, but he has not officially re-registered. He is awaiting a decision by the federal 7th Circuit Court of Appeals regarding the 2011 map, which could necessitate a redrawing of Chicago ward boundaries to comply with one-person, one-vote mandates that the population of every voting district or ward must be equal. The district court has already rejected the lawsuit.

According to Sposato, predominantly black wards were "underpopulated" by as much as 8 percent in order to ensure at least 18 black aldermen. Add to that the imperative to create two or three more Hispanic-majority wards, he said, and "my ward (the 36th) got eliminated," along with that of Alderman Bob Fioretti (2nd), the only white alderman representing a black-majority ward. Sposato expects a decision this summer. If it is favorable, the boundaries of all the predominantly black wards will have to be redrawn.

Under city guidelines, 411 service calls are apportioned according to the new ward boundaries, effective 2012, although the aldermen elected in 2011 are supposed serve the old wards. Sposato's ward was cannibalized between the 29th, 38th and new 36th wards, so who does he serve? "Those who elected me," he said, even though he's giving Cullerton a free pass in the new 38th Ward, where Sposato should be campaigning.

In the 45th Ward, Michelle Baert, who calls herself the "45th Ward Mom," is in the race. Baert is distributing fliers ripping Alderman John Arena for his alleged inattention to filling potholes and providing ward services, saying he was "too busy playing politics in other wards." Milwaukee Avenue between Foster Avenue and Devon Avenue is a pothole paradise, and some side streets are worse.
Arena, who was elected in 2011 by 30 votes over John Garrido, is a consistent critic of the Emanuel Administration. "He's a thorn, an irritant," one ward political activist said. "Nobody takes him seriously." Arena spent much time and energy aiding Guzzardi in his campaign for state representative in the 39th District against Toni Berrios. Guzzardi will return the favor in 2015.

Garrido, a police lieutenant, is running again, and he already has committed spending $30,000 for billboards. Two lines of attack are emerging:

First, that Arena's top priorities are building a political machine and getting re-elected. Second, that the 45th Ward has been blacklisted by City Hall and is not getting the services provided in the 41st, 39th and 38th wards. Arena disputes the claim, but Baert must be careful. She must be perceived as the anti-Arena candidate, not the pro-Emanuel candidate. To win, Garrido must let Arena and Baert squabble, finish second, and inherit Baert's vote in the runoff.

Send e-mail to russ@russstewart. com or visit his Web site at www. russstewart.com.