June 18, 2014



Here is some advice for Chicago's 50 aldermen and Mayor Rahm Emanuel as the 2015 city election unfolds: Be afraid. Be very afraid.

At the next City Council meeting, whip out your iPods or iPads and start taking selfies of fellow aldermen. At least 15 won't be back for the 2015-19 term. As set forth in the adjoining chart, in the 650 aldermanic races since 1963, an incumbent has been re-elected in 471 contests and defeated in 61, for a "re-elect quotient" of 88.5 percent. The remaining 118 contests were for open seats due to death, retirement, conviction or reapportionment.

Looking ahead to Feb. 24, 2015, here is a prediction: The "re-elect quotient" will be barely 70 percent.

Richmond, Va., is more than 600 air miles from Chicago, but the June 10 primary defeat of U.S. Representative Eric Cantor (R-7) should terrify every elected official. The clear message: There is enormous voter disgust, anger and frustration with the political ruling class. No incumbent, even those thought to be powerful, is immune.

Because Chicago has a nonpartisan general election and runoff system, aldermen are particularly susceptible to voter wrath, especially in high-turnout years. No party affiliation is listed on the ballot. Only two the 256 candidates who ran for alderman in 2011 -- Maurita Gavin in the 41st Ward and John Garrido in the 45th Ward -- allowed themselves to be tarred as a Republican. Both lost.

The election process is essentially an "incumbent protection plan." After passing nominating petitions to secure the requisite number of signatures, which will be 473 for 2015, and withstanding petition challenges, all candidates appear on the ballot in the municipal general election, which is held in February. Weather is a factor. The campaign season is cold and short, lasting barely two months. With the holidays and the football playoffs, voters are not focused on politics. Money also is a factor. The incumbent has 4 years to raise the $50,000-plus needed for re-election, in order to fund a blizzard of mailings, while the challenger has only a few months.

Constituent services are critical. When an incumbent alderman seeks re-election, the race becomes a referendum on the alderman's performance. There is the "quality of life" test. Is the ward better or worse than 4 years ago? Are the ward's schools, parks and commercial districts in an upward or downward spiral? Is residential and commercial development aided, encouraged and under control? There is the "quality of service" test. Are the essential services -- street paving, street cleaning, refuse pick-up and tree planting and removal -- being performed? What is the response time from complaint to solution? Is crime under control?

Finally, there is the "quality of character" test. Is the alderman ethical, personable, likable, accessible and dependable? Is the staff competent?

An alderman failing any of those tests is in jeopardy. An alderman who is well known, well liked, well respected and well funded is unbeatable. Aldermen who lose largely are from wards with the worst schools, worst crime rates and worst services.

Aldermen rarely vote on "hot button" issues (such as tax hikes, abortion, gun control or gay marriage). They are judged solely on their ward performance. A competent alderman does not draw a high-caliber opponent, gets more than 50 percent in the February "jungle" election, and is re-elected. In 2011 a total of 31 incumbents won re-election outright while 10 were forced into runoffs and four were defeated. That is a "re-elect quotient" of 88 percent.

The psychology of the April runoff has several factors. First, if the alderman barely tops 40 percent of the vote in the municipal election, he or she is toast. Second, first-term aldermen, usually from black-majority wards, have problems entrenching themselves. In 2011 black first-termers Joann Thompson (16th), Willie Cochran (20th), Sharon Dixon (24th) and Toni Foulkes (15th) got 43 percent, 46 percent, 20 percent and 44 percent of the vote, respectively. Only Dixon lost her runoff.

Second, the incumbent's opposition must be cohesive, not combative. The issue and goal is to get rid of the alderman. If the challengers are jealous and hostile toward each other, they can't unite against the incumbent in the runoff.

A textbook example was the 36th Ward contest in 2011, in which appointed Alderman John Rice had five challengers, who amassed a combined 52 percent of the vote in the general election, with Nick Sposato getting a distant 24 percent. Rice got 48 percent, and he had the "Banks/DeLeo Machine" behind him, but he was not likable, humble or approachable. Voters resented Bill Banks' 2010 switcheroo of resigning and getting Rice, his driver, on the ballot as his replacement, and "quality of life" issues, especially unrestricted development and insider zoning changes, enraged some residents.

The near miss by Rice, who fell 268 votes short of an outright win, emboldened rather than demoralized his opposition. He ran 3,363 votes ahead of Sposato, but Sposato's four general election rivals, who were united in their detestation of the ward's political status quo and of Rice, coalesced behind Sposato, who scored a huge runoff upset, winning 5,651-4,423 (with 56.1 percent of the vote).

Third, to get an incumbent into a runoff, the challenger needs a salient issue. In the South Side 6th Ward, Roderick Sawyer had the name recognition as the son of longtime alderman and acting mayor Gene Sawyer and the issues to use against incumbent Fredrenna Lyle, who was first elected in 1999. Sawyer ripped Lyle for poor constituent service and chided her for refusing to say the Pledge of Allegiance at council meetings and for spending time spearheading efforts to abolish the death penalty. Lyle won with 53 percent of the vote in 2007. In the 2011 municipal election, Lyle got 45 percent of the vote to 25 percent for Sawyer, but Sawyer prevailed in the runoff 5,109-5,005, with 50.5 percent of the vote.

In the West Rogers Park 50th Ward, the irascible Berny Stone kept his constituents amused and entertained from 1973 onward. After winning the 2007 runoff with 53 percent of the vote, Stone, at age 83, ran again in 2011; he got 37 percent of the vote in the municipal election, and he lost the runoff to Debra Silverstein 5,952-3,746, getting just 38.6 percent of the vote. Silverstein framed the campaign perfectly: Do you want 4 more years of Berny?

Fourth, turnout is lower in runoffs, so challengers, who have spent every dime to finish second in the municipal election, have to have the financial resources to keep their organization alive and to flood the mailboxes.

In past City Councils under former mayors Richard M. Daley, Michael Bilandic and Richard J. Daley, aldermen simply voted as they were told. In the current council, the division is between the pro-Emanuel faction (about 40 aldermen) and the anti-Emanuel faction. The dissidents are part of what they call the "Progressive Caucus," and they include Sposato, John Arena (45th), Scott Waguespack (32nd), Bob Fioretti (2nd) and Ric Munoz (22nd); occasionally, Ameya Pawar (47th) and Proco Joe Morena (1st) show some backbone. Nobody else makes waves.

Given the city's looming pension crisis and the likelihood of serious property tax hikes to replenish four underfunded city pensions, being anti-Emanuel is good protective coloration for 2015. The city's pension debt is $32 billion, roughly six times the current city budget of $5.5 billion. The General Assembly's "pension fix," signed by Governor Pat Quinn, requires Chicago to pay $750 million toward the deficiency over 5 years, through 2019, but Quinn and Emanuel cut a deal, since no Chicago Democrat wants to vote for a property tax hike prior to the 2015 election. Quinn authorized Chicago to raise its phone tax by 56 percent, which will generate $50 million in 2015, to be applied to the pension hole. Then, in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019, Emanuel and the re-elected council can sock property owners with $175 million annually in tax levy hikes.

A tax hike vote in December would create a decidedly hostile, anti-incumbent environment in 2015. "Everybody and his uncle would run on a no-tax-hike platform," joked one Northwest Side political strategist. "There'd be 25 runoffs" in that case.
As the chart indicates, aldermanic mortality is directly correlated with mayoral turnout. The higher the turnout, the more aldermen lose. Monster turnouts in 1979, 1983 and 1987 cost 26 aldermen their jobs.

If an anti-tax "wave" erupts in Chicago in 2015, it would easily shave 10 to 20 percent off the base of any pro-tax alderman.

Seven aldermen (Quinn, Burke, Mell, Reilly, Tunney, Suarez and Pat O'Connor) were unopposed in 2011. Mell has since quit. Eight aldermen (Moreno, Maldonado, Burnett, Ervin, Reboyras, Laurino, Osterman and Moore) won with more than 70 percent of the vote.

nother nine aldermen (Dowell, Burns, Hairston, Harris, Balcer, O'Shea, Munoz, Waguespack and Austin) won with more than 60 percent. That means that, absent a pro-tax vote, all 23 are safe. Emanuel would need 26 to 28 votes to pass a tax levy hike.

Then there are the "marginals." Six incumbents (Foulkes, Thompson, Thomas, Cochran, Solis and Cullerton) won 2011 runoffs, and 10 others (Fioretti, Beale, Pope, Cardenas, Lane, Brookins, Zalewski, Graham, Colon and Mitts) won with 50 to 60 percent of the vote. Under the 2011 remap, effective in 2015, Foulkes and Thompson were put into the same South Side ward, and Cullerton and Sposato were put into the same Northwest Side ward. Two new Hispanic-majority wards were created. Among freshmen elected in 2011 (Mary O'Connor, Silverstein Cappleman, Pawar, Arena and Smith), all face tough races.

The outlook: "Just Vote No" is the operative mantra. Every alderman is in a "Me First" mode. Fioretti likely will challenge Emanuel for mayor, and a tax hike would give him enormous traction. Expect the can to be kicked down the road, thereby minimizing carnage in 2015.

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

Aldermanic Attrition Chart

Year Mayoral Turnout Incumbents Re-elected "Re-elect Percent Incumbents Defeated
1963 510,000 42 97.1 1
1967 480,000 37 86.7 3
1971 590,000 33 91.7 3
1975 768,866 37 86.7 3
1979 830,188 35 77.8 10
1983 1,288,102 37 84.1 7
1987 1,162,330 38 80.9 9
1991 656,971 33 89.2 4
1995 515,351 30 91.0 3
1999 578,778 34 94.5 2
2003 442,782 46 90.8 4
2007 424,357 38 82.7 8
2011 582,494 31 88.5 4