May 6, 2015



Chicago's black-majority wards, especially on the West Side, being politically "in the game" is not just a passing fancy, it's a lifestyle and a lifetime pursuit. It's 24/7, and even a stint in the "Big House" does not diminish one's ardor.

The 29th Ward, centered on the Austin neighborhood, is an example of how malfeasance, misfeasance and nonfeasance are not a bar to holding or regaining public office. Moral turpitude? So what. Lose an election? So what.

Those in the game build their alliances loosely and shift their alliances quickly. Opportunism trumps past animosity.

In the 29th Ward, Danny Davis and Ike Carothers are back in the game. Once mortal enemies, they are now bosom buddies. Once on the sidelines, bordering on irrelevance, they now have a new pawn in the game: Chris Taliaferro, who beat Alderman Deborah Graham on April 7. Carothers was once Graham's mentor and sponsor.

Once the lair of political bosses Al Horan and Bernie Neistein, and once heavily populated by reliably Democratic Jewish voters, the 29th Ward delivered 3-1 margins for Democrats in the 1940s and 1950s; now it delivers 9-1 margins. Barack Obama got 93.5 percent of the vote in the ward in 2012. After World War II, blacks from the South moved in and the Jews moved to Albany Park, Skokie and points north, but "plantation politics" persisted: white committeemen controlled the jobs, while black aldermen did what they were told.

Robert Biggs, a black undertaker, ran for alderman in 1963, lost to a white candidate (Tom Burke), and then sold out to Neistein, a lawyer and the absentee committeeman who lived on the Gold Coast. Neistein dumped Burke and slated Biggs in 1967, and Biggs won, becoming the first black alderman in a ward that had been majority black for 20 years.

Neistein was indicted in 1972 in a racetrack scandal, and he didn't file for re-election as committeeman. Amazingly, no one else filed. Neistein had a very good year: He won re-election as a write-in candidate, and he was acquitted. Biggs died in 1972, and Neistein tapped LeRoy Cross as alderman and Willie Flowers as committeeman.

In 1979 the Bilandic-Neistein-Cross-Flowers machine imploded. Jane Byrne won the ward 5,055-4,014 (with 55.7 percent of the vote), and anti-machine teacher and social worker Danny Davis forced Cross into a runoff, which Davis won 4,266-3,660. "Plantation politics" was extinct -- or was it? The Byrne-McGowan machine immediately surfaced. Iola McGowan, a community activist, was allied with Davis, but then Byrne appointed her to the Chicago Park District Board and made her the new 29th Ward "boss," and all patronage jobs flowed through her. Davis was ostracized. In 1980 McGowan ran for committeeman against Davis and Flowers, and with Byrne's aid she won with 51 percent of the vote.

Then along came Harold Washington in 1983, and the 29th Ward was convulsed. Davis embraced Washington, and McGowan stuck with Byrne. It was over before it began. Washington buried Byrne and Rich Daley in the ward 13,593-3,112-1,110. Davis was king, and McGowan was road kill. Davis was re-elected with 82.5 percent of the vote. In 1984 Davis trounced McGowan for committeeman 7,128-3,235 (with 68.8 percent of the vote), but Davis also lost congressional primaries in the West Side 7th District in 1984 and 1986. In 1987, against Cross' former aide, Davis won re-election with 84.7 percent of the vote. Washington died in late 1987, and Davis' "clout" waned. Daley was elected mayor in 1989 (getting just 1,485 votes in the ward, to 14,776 for Tim Evans), and he built his own political infrastructure. Davis bailed out, ran for Cook County commissioner in 1990, and won.

Back from the recycle bin, McGowan ran for alderman in 1991, with Daley's covert support. In the ward, McGowan was disdained for being a "blondie." Davis backed Sam Burrell for alderman, and he won 4,504-4,068 in the runoff. That year Davis made an ill-advised bid for the Democratic mayoral nomination, losing to Daley 407,730-198,815, with 32.8 percent of the vote.

Burrell struggled to entrench himself. He got 31.3 of the vote percent in the 1995 municipal election (to 22.8 percent for McGowan and 31.1 percent for Floyd Thomas). Burrell defeated Thomas in the runoff 5,361-4,662, largely with Davis' support. In 1996, when Cardiss Collins retired, Davis ran for the open 7th U.S. House District seat, beating three black aldermen and a county commissioner and amassing 33 percent of the vote in a nine-candidate field. Davis bolted for Washington just in time, as his 29th Ward base collapsed. Burrell was no longer an ally. In the 1996 committeeman's race Davis faced Ike Carothers and Burrell, and he won with 44 percent of the vote.

In 1999 Burell was toast, getting just 15 percent of the vote in the municipal election; Davis backed erstwhile foe Thomas. Carothers got 44 percent, forcing a runoff with Thomas, whom he beat 5,178-3,783 (with 57.8 percent of the vote). Carothers was the new boss. In 2000 Carothers ousted Davis as committeeman 4,943-4,124, proving that aldermen have more clout than congressmen.

DNA was Carothers' doing and undoing. His grandfather Ike Sims was a state representative from 1966 to 1974, and the committeeman in the adjacent West Garfield Park 28th Ward. His father William became the 28th Ward alderman and committeeman in 1976, but he lost in 1983 after he was indicted for (and later convicted of) extortion. After 1999 Ike Sims looked like a comer, emerging as the most vociferous pro-Daley black alderman and chairing the City Council police committee. He groomed two black proteges, Emma Mitts, whom Daley appointed the east Austin 37th Ward alderman in 2000 after incumbent Percy Giles went to prison in the "Silver Shovel" probe, and Graham, whom Carothers made a state representative in 2002.

When the Hired Truck Program scandal surfaced, Carothers' name appeared on the infamous "clout list," with more than 100 job requests. The feds charged him with income tax evasion and bribery, and he pleaded guilty in 2010. Daley appointed Graham to replace him, and Graham and state Senator Don Harmon, the Democratic committeeman from Oak Park, anointed Camille Lilly for the House seat. A Graham-Harmon alliance was forged, with Harmon raising the money and Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan supplying the manpower.

However, Graham proved to be inept. First, she had a shaky political base. She ignored the remnants of Carothers' organization, and she made no secret of her intention to grab Davis' congressional seat -- whether or not he retired. As such, she alienated the ward's Davis and Carothers factions, once adversaries who now were united in their anti-Graham hostility. In 2011 she won the municipal election in an eight-candidate field with 52.1 percent of the vote. Davis ran for committeeman in 2012, and Graham prevailed 3,138-2,977 (with 51.3 percent of the vote).

Second, Graham was "imperious, insensitive and invisible," according to Mike Nardello, the founder and chairman of the Northwest Community Coalition. "Her idea of economic development was more pawn shops, liquor stores, bars, nail shops, payday loan stores and fast food joints," Nardello said. Despite significant Austin community opposition, Graham brought in another pawn shops, increasing the total in the area to five. "Pawn shops bring criminals into the neighborhood," Nardello said. "Graham refused to understand that." In Mitt's adjacent 37th Ward, she at least brought in a Wal-Mart. In addition, Graham supported Mayor Rahm Emanuel in council votes.

Third, the 2011 ward remap did Graham no favors. In the Emanuel faction's zeal to eject Alderman Nick Sposato (36th), they dismembered his ward and added 11 predominantly white precincts from Belmont Heights, Galewood and Montclare (around Harlem and North avenues) to the 29th Ward, making it 25 to 30 percent white. A third of the ward was new, Graham was unknown in the predominantly white areas, and she was detested by many voters in her Austin base.

Graham faced seven opponents in the Feb. 24 municipal election, the most formidable being attorney and police sergeant Taliaferro, white attorney Larry Andolino and Indian-American assistant state's attorney Bob Galhotra, all from Galewood. Taliaferro's problem was his surname, which didn't sell in Austin. His mother is African American and his father is Italian American. Nevertheless, he got 2,435 votes (22.5 percent of the total), to 4,395 (40.7 percent) for Graham, prompting an April 7 runoff.

For the runoff, Graham (and Harmon) brought in Madigan's field operation and flooded Austin with black workers and mailboxes with negative pieces claiming Taliaferro "would have three jobs" if he won. Hey, isn't Alderman Ed Burke (14th) making nearly a million a year as a lawyer? And you can't be on two city payrolls. Emanuel and Pat Quinn walked precincts for Graham, to no avail.

Nearly all of the anti-Graham, anti-Emanuel voters united behind Taliaferro. Davis and Carothers are "back in the game," and the Northwest Community Coalition proved itself to be a major player. Taliaferro prevailed 6,262-6,002 (with 51.1 percent of the vote). Taliaferro won the 11 Galewood-Montclare-Belmont Heights precincts 3-1, and he lost Austin 60-40. He won 20 of the 44 precincts in the ward.

Taliaferro already is in the orbit of Davis and Carothers, and he will take out Graham as committeeman in 2016. Davis wants his former chief of staff, county Commissioner Rich Boykin, to succeed him (note that ex-con Carothers ran against him in the 2014 primary). Harmon's congressional hopes are dead on arrival, but you can count on the fact that, at least in the 29th Ward, today's allies will be tomorrow's enemies and vice versa. The Davis-Carothers-Taliaferro machine will be targeting Lilly and Harmon in 2016.

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