May 13, 2015


When Nick Sposato was elected alderman of the 36th Ward in 2011, in a major upset of the then-reigning Banks-DeLeo Machine, he had multiple “Swords of Damocles” hanging over his head. In ancient Greek mythology, Damocles was seated at a feast under a sword hanging by a single hair, so as to understand the perils of a ruler.

XXAmazingly, that hair is still intact, and Sposato is still alderman – albeit from a newly-created ward. His saga is the stuff of legends. “I Love My Alderman” is the mantra.

XXFirst, the 36th Ward, centered on Galewood, Montclare, Belmont Heights (Harlem-North Avenue), and up the Cumberland Avenue corridor to Montrose, was under the thumb of Bill Banks, elected alderman in 1983, chairman of the powerful Zoning Committee when he resigned in 2009. Banks and ally State Senator Jim DeLeo, ruled unchallenged during the 1990s and 2000s through a combination of financial, physical and psychological intimidation.

XXBetween the two of them, they usually hauled in about $1 million annually in campaign donations. Developers and zoning lawyers found $100 tickets to Banks’ annual fundraisers irresistible, and DeLeo was the go-to guy in Springfield for the gaming, restaurant and liquor industries. In addition, Banks, despite Skakman and the evaporation of city patronage, could still field 5-6 workers in every  precinct, and count on Elmwood Park allies to furnish more if needed. And lastly, it wasn’t smart to cross the Banks/DeLeo Machine. There would be consequences. Obviously not broken kneecaps, but recalcitrant developers and/or constituents would suffer a noticeable decline in the quality of their business, residential or personal life.

XXIn 2007, Sposato, a Chicago firefighter, filed to run for alderman. “I wanted to give voters a choice,” said Sposato reflectively. “They (Banks-Deleo) stayed in power because voters didn’t have any choice.” In the 6 aldermanic elections from 1983 to 2003, Banks was unopposed in 4; in the 6 elections for Democratic committeeman from 1984 to 2004, Banks was unopposed in all; after being elected state senator (unopposed) in 1992, DeLeo never had an opponent in 5 subsequent primaries or elections.

“It wasn’t that they were doing a good job,” said Sposato. “It was that everybody was afraid to challenge them.” Banks tried and failed to knock Sposato off the ballot.

XXAs expected, Sposato got crushed, receiving 23.8 percent of the vote in his woefully underfunded and unorganized campaign. Sposato spent $40,000 ($25,000 from himself) and had about 20 workers; Banks spent $300,000 and had about 200 workers. Banks won 8,291-2,599 (76.2 percent). In any other ward, Sposato’s loss would be a humiliation; instead, it was an epiphany. Banks’ steamroller malfunctioned. Even though Banks won all 55 of the ward’s precincts, 2,599 people had the audacity to vote against him. After Sposato’s loss, the sun still shined, Sposato still had his CFD job, and the Banks/DeLeo Machine began to implode.

XXIn 1983, Banks had 16,192 votes; in 1995, Banks had 12,012 votes; in 1999, Banks had 13,534 votes; and in 2003, Banks had 8,291 votes. The trajectory was clear: Banks’ base was crumbling. In a ward with a population of 55,000, and 28,000 registered voters, only 29 percent voted for Banks.

XXAfter resigning in 2009, Banks prevailed on Mayor Rich Daley to appoint chief-of-staff John Rice (who was really his driver) as successor, and DeLeo retired in 2010.  In 2011, 5 anti-Rice candidates filed for alderman, including Sposato. Rahm Emanuel’s money machine (and the public-sector unions) poured funds into adjacent wards, but Banks/Rice ran an old-fashioned campaign, with workers going door-to-door and ordering voters to vote for Rice; they didn’t do any negative mailings. Big mistake.

XXIn the primary, Banks-backed Emanuel won the ward with 50.1 percent (7,182 votes), Rice got  48.1 percent (6,756 votes), 426 less than Emanuel, while Sposato took 24 percent (3,373 votes), and the rest of the anti-Rice field got 3,923 votes. Rice got 1,535 fewer votes than Banks in 2007, and the anti-Banks vote nearly tripled, from 2,599 to 7,289. A Rice-Sposato runoff ensued. The 4 losers endorsed Sposato.

XXNothing in politics is more pernicious that failing to win when you’re supposed to win. Rice was supposed to win outright. Ward voters, heretofore resigned to the status quo, suddenly became emboldened. We can get rid of these guys, they thought. And they did. Despite 5-8 workers in every precinct, tons of mailings, and less-than-subtle intimidation at polling places, Rice was resoundingly rejected. Sposato won 5,651-4,423 (56.1 percent); Rice got 2,333 fewer votes than in the primary, and Sposato won 41 of 55 precincts. It was miraculous.

XXSecond, after winning, Sposato got placed atop the council’s “Squish List.” He had no clout. He was the “accidental alderman,” a one-termer. And he beat Banks, an insider. So when ward lines were redrawn in mid-2011 to create two new Hispanic-majority wards, a South Side black ward and a northwest side white ward had to go. Sposato’s was gone, chopped up among three wards: 45 percent was merged into the 38th Ward, where Tim Cullerton was alderman; 20 percent (11 precincts in Galewood-Montclare) was merged into the black-majority 29th Ward; and 35 percent (including Sposato’s home precinct) was merged into the new Hispanic-majority 36th Ward, where Joe Berrios would pick the next alderman.

“I had no input (into the remap process),” said Sposato. “Nobody asked my opinion. They just told me: ‘This is the new map.’ It was just like the old 36th Ward.”

Under the law, after a remap, an incumbent can run in any new ward which contains a part of his old ward. Realistically, Sposato’s only option was to move into that portion of the existing 36th Ward which became part of the new 38th Ward, and take on Cullerton, who was wired into the trades unions and always voted with Emanuel. He moved in 2014, buying a home around Cumberland-Montrose.

XXBut therein lay a huge tactical and ethical problem: Sposato was elected to serve the 36th Ward, as it existed in 2011, through 2015. Since 45 percent of his ward was now in the 38th, 55 percent of his constituents couldn’t again vote for him. “I chose to serve those who elected me,” he said.

Third, Sposato had been diagnosed with early-stage multiple sclerosis, which is a progressive  loss of muscular co-ordination, for which there is no cure. He could no longer walk precincts, and trudge up-and-down stairs, as he did in 2011. The Sword was about to fall.

XXBut then it didn’t. Cullerton announced his retirement just weeks before Sposato announced he was running in the 38th Ward. The unions – particularly the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the collective bargainer for city employees, and the Chicago Teachers Union, plus the police and firefighters unions -- quickly coalesced behind Sposato, who differed with the Emanuel Administration on such matters as the  school strike, school and library closures, privatization, police hires, charter schools, elected school board, council ethics, and pension reforms. On the minimum wage, Sposato sought $15,not $13 an hour.

The Cullerton Clan, which had a stranglehold on the aldermanic seat since 1935, was bereft of lagacies. There were no more Cullertons to run. They settled on Heather Sattler, the obscure daughter of Cullerton’s former chief-of-staff. Seven candidates filed, including Sposato, Sattler, Tom Caravette (who lost the 2011 runoff to Cullerton 4,761-3,119, getting 38.5 percent), Jerry Paszek, Mike Duda, Carmen Hernandez and Belinda Cadiz. A runoff was seemingly assured. Nobody would get 50 percent.

XXBut Sposato thought he could. He ran an astute, multi-faceted primary campaign. First, he became the RoboPhoneAlderman. Lacking physicality, Sposato was on his iPod 24/7. He returned every call, whether to his cell number (which he freely gave out) or office’s land-line, within an hour, even on weekends. Instead of walking, he was talking. And people were astounded: “My alderman called me!” they exclaimed. “I must be dreaming.” The goal was to solidify his base in the old 36th Ward precincts. Second, Sposato ran a “no-negativity” campaign. Nary an ill word about any foe. Every mailing was positive. As in 2011, he didn’t want to alienate the anti-Cullerton, anti-Emanuel field. Third, the SEIU weighed in with independent expenditures of about $150,000, funding 12 mailings (at $5,000 each), all of which stressed the alderman’s firefighting background, hyping “public safety.” The SEIU mailers effectively introduced Sposato to voters in the 24 old 38th and 45th ward precincts, and reinforced his support in the 17 old 36th Ward precincts. Fourth, Sposato raised and spent another $200,000, with 8 positive mailings. And fifth, through his contacts and union sources, Sposato built a fabulous “ground game,” with multiple workers in every precinct, identifying pro-Sposato voters.

His opponents lacked both funding and infrastructure. Caravette and Hernandez raised no money, and Sattler barely $40,000.

XXIt was a blowout for Sposato. Feb. 24 turnout was 11,156 and Sposato got 5,981 votes (53.6 percent), to 4,825 for the six others, with Sattler getting 16.1 percent. Sposato’s vote in the 17 old 36th Ward precincts was 3,667 - - an amazing 71.7 percent of the 5,111 votes cast. In the 24 old 38th and 45th ward precincts, Sposato got 38.2 percent. ‘I Love My Alderman” eradicated the Swords of Damocles , and also eradicated the Cullerton Clan..

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