July 16, 2014



As 2014's mid-summer doldrums arrive and the 2015 Chicago municipal elections loom, "underwhelming" is the operative adjective.

"Underwhelming" describes the records of Chicago's two baseball teams. Both the White Sox and the Cubs will finish with record in the bottom third among the 30 Major League teams.

"Underwhelming" characterizes the 4-year record of the administration of Rahm Emanuel and the mayor's political acumen. For a guy who learned his politics at the knee of Bill Clinton, Emanuel has been a disappointment.

"Underwhelming" encapsulates the level of candidate interest in seeking aldermanic or citywide office in 2015. The municipal general election will be on Feb. 25, so the process of gathering signatures on nominating petitions will begin in August. More candidates are announcing that they're not running than are declaring that they are running, and the serious anti-Emanuel mayoral aspirants -- Alderman Bob Fioretti (2nd) and Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis -- are equivocating, prevaricating and stalling. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who would be Emanuel's most formidable foe, is insistent that she won't run, even though polling shows her leading the mayor. Most recent polls show Emanuel's job approval rating and re-election projects to be "underwhelming" -- under 40 percent.  Also running is Robert Shaw, a former Board of Review commissioner who is not taken seriously.

"Underwhelming" emphasizes the abysmal fund-raising of various mayoral and aldermanic candidates. Emanuel raised $1,438,649 through March 31, has $7,391,991 on hand, and likely will post another $2 million in the June 30 disclosures. In various Northwest Side wards, both incumbents are challengers are struggling.

"Underwhelming" also depicts the state of mind of Chicago voters. With the city facing $32 billion in pension debt, $200 million in indebtedness looming from Daley-era interest-rate swaps, and millions of dollars having to be refunded due to defective administrative hearing procedures, a fiscal Armageddon is imminent. Chicagoans' mentality replicates the kick-the-can-down-the-road philosophy of former mayor Rich Daley -- never make a tough decision today if it can be delayed until tomorrow. Find some money now, somewhere, don't raise taxes, get re-elected, and then bail out.

History eventually will portray Daley as one of Chicago's least candid, least competent and most disingenuous mayors.

Here's a look at developing -- or, in some cases, non-developing -- contests.

Mayor: Just pull the trigger. Just say yes. Lewis and Fioretti won't run if Preckwinkle does. Fioretti won't run if Lewis does, since he needs union funding. Fioretti has been flitting around the city, with weekly fund-raisers, but the money goes to his aldermanic account.

nfortunately for him, his ward was split up among four other black-majority Near South Loop wards. Fioretti was the only white alderman representing a black-majority ward. Now he has the choice of either running for mayor or trying to beat an incumbent black alderman in a 75 percent-plus black-majority ward.

Lewis seems to be serious about running. Unfortunately for her, being African American has no special appeal to South Side and West Side black politicians. If she runs, she will be the "pro-union candidate," not the "black candidate." The city's 19 black aldermen, of whom 12 are women, have a plan. If Lewis runs, they will vigorously coalesce behind Emanuel. After saving the mayor's "bacon," delivering 50 to 60 percent of the vote for Emanuel in their wards, they will present their IOUs. The mayor will owe them big during the 2015-19 term. If Preckwinkle runs -- and she has two weeks after her Nov. 4 re-election to secure 20,000-plus petition signatures -- every black committeeman and alderman will fall into line, especially all of Preckwinkle's South Side "gal pal" aldermen. That would put Emanuel at serious risk.

In 2011, in a six-candidate mayoral field, Emanuel won 63.5 percent of the vote in the city's 20 black-majority wards. Of course, he faced desultory black opposition, from Carol Moseley Braun, Doc Walls and Patricia Van Pelt Watkins. Emanuel's principal foe was Gery Chico, a Hispanic and a onetime Daley aide with minimal appeal to black voters.

41st Ward: "Underwhelming" also portrays first-term Alderman Mary O'Connor in the Far Northwest Side ward, which had a Republican alderman for 42 of the past 68 years. Other descriptions attaching to O'Connor, age 55, who is the ward's Democratic committeeman, include nondescript, low-key, non-bombastic, invisible and Emanuel cipher. Since her 2011 election, O'Connor has not bucked Emanuel on a single City Council issue. A statement issued by her office asserts that O'Connor was "not elected to fight with the mayor, but to bring back tax dollars to the ward," adding that "over $100 million" has flowed into area schools.

O'Connor "has a positive relationship with the mayor, and they work together," the e-mail says. However, the alderman expresses "concerns" about raising the minimum wage, banning plastic bags and using TIF funds for pensions.

In 2011, when Republican Alderman Brian Doherty retired after 20 years, the floodgates opened. Eleven candidates sought the post. Doherty and his ally, state Representative Mike McAuliffe (R-20), the ward's Republican committeeman, backed Doherty's aldermanic aide, Maurita Gavin, who got 25 percent of the vote in the general election. O'Connor, who had beaten the venerable Ralph Capparelli for Democratic committeeman in 2008 by a vote of 5,744-4,383, consolidated party support, which, in conjunction with her many years as a caterer and chamber of commerce leader, got her 30 percent of the vote, to 25 percent for Gavin. O'Connor prevailed in the runoff 7,354-7,104. In a ward with 37,025 registered voters, 19.8 percent of them embraced O'Connor.

Once elected, O'Connor did what most 41st Ward politicians have done for generations -- make a deal. O'Connor and her ally, state Senator John Mulroe (D-10), cut a nonaggression pact with McAuliffe wherein they give the Republican a pass for state representative and McAuliffe fields no candidate against Mulroe and, in 2015, against O'Connor. Gavin is now a staffer for Alderman Nick Sposato (36th), so she's out of the picture.

In a ward with a population of roughly 53,000, clogged with at least 2,000 city workers and nearly 1,000 police officers and firefighters, getting elected alderman should loom as a source of upward mobility as well as a pay hike. Barack Obama carried the ward in 2012 13,134-11,048 (with 53 percent of the vote), his worst showing in Chicago. There clearly is an anti-Obama, anti-liberal, anti-Democratic, pro-Republican base, but it won't surface in 2015.

Back in the 1970s, former alderman Roman Pucinski used to proclaim that the 41st Ward was a "suburb in the city." Now, it's the "conspirators in the city."

"O'Connor lacks a community identity," Chicago police officer Kelli Kaelin said. Kaelin said that O'Connor is too political and that "many are displeased" with her. However, Kaelin, a 9-year patrol officer whose husband is a firefighter, after spending months pondering an aldermanic challenge, decided not to run, citing family obligations.

With Kaelin out, the only active candidate in the field is Anthony Napolitano, a firefighter. Two questions remain: Did McAuliffe push her out and how much money will Emanuel pour into re-electing O'Connor? Campaign filings indicate that O'Connor had a paltry $19,944 on hand. With McAuliffe doing nothing and with Emanuel spending whatever it takes, here's an easy prediction: O'Connor wins.

45th Ward: After a tumultuous 2011 general election and runoff, in which John Arena beat John Garrido by 30 votes out of 12,136 cast, the much-anticipated 2015 rematch seems to have underwhelmed the voters. Arena has crafted a record as an Emanuel critic and a union ally, meaning he will benefit from $300,000-plus in "independent expenditures" from public sector unions such as the Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, as he did in 2011, but unfilled potholes and middling city services have convinced others that Arena's combativeness has adversely affected their quality of life.

It is presumed that Michelle Baert, who fashions herself as the "45th Ward Mom," will be the pro-Emanuel candidate and get $300,000-plus from his campaign. Baert has been attacking Arena, but her past Republican voting history will be blasted by the unions. Garrido, a police lieutenant, may find himself marginalized by the war of the political action committees. As of April 1 Garrido had $75 on hand, to $34,521 for Arena and $15,149 for Baert.

39th Ward: Discontent with Alderman Marge Laurino is "underwhelming." Mike Stirk, a North Mayfair Improvement Association board member, called her a "terrible alderman," claimed she got him fired from his job, and then decided to move to Wisconsin and not run for alderman. Laurino faces desultory opposition from Joe Laiacona.

38th Ward: Council remappers cannibalized Nick Sposato's Galewood-Montclare 36th Ward, attaching the white precincts to Tim Cullerton's 38th Ward and the Hispanic precincts to a new predominantly Hispanic 36th Ward, where Omar Aquino, who is part of the Berrios-Suarez machine, will win. Alonso Zaragoza also is in the race.

The home of Sposato, who ousted appointed Alderman John Rice in 2011 by 5,651-4,423 (with 56.1 percent of the vote), is in the new 36th Ward, but he has purchased a residence in Cullerton's ward. Sposato has not yet announced his plans for next year. He can run in any new ward which contains a portion of his existing ward. As of June 30, Sposato had $44,205 on hand. Expect a Sposato-Cullerton race, and expect the unions and Emanuel to spend upwards of $300,000 to defeat Sposato.

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