July 29, 2015



In the Byzantine, convoluted, treacherous, macho, nepotistic world of Hispanic politics in Chicago, where testosterone is never in short supply, there has always been an "El Hombre Grande" -- the big man -- and there always are plenty of tiny men and tiny women.

As a result of embarrassing setbacks in 2014 and 2015, Joe Berrios is no longer "El Hombre Grande." That title now belongs to state Representative Luis Arroyo (D-3), who is soon to be the 36th Ward Democratic committeeman. Berrios, despite being the county assessor, the county Democratic Party chairman and the 31st Ward Democratic committeeman, is now a tiny man.

According to sources in the North Side predominantly Puerto Rican wards, where Berrios has long been dominant, only the intercession of Arroyo's mentor, former alderman Dick Mell, acting at the behest of Alderman Ed Burke, Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan and Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, is delaying Berrios' demise. Why is that? Burke, Madigan and Cullerton have law practices that concentrate heavily in commercial property tax reduction. As is customary, the law firm handling the assessed valuation appeal, whether before the assessor's office or the Board of Review, gets a fee equal to one-third of the first year's property tax reduction. That equates to hundreds of thousands of dollars, for the big boys and other lawyers, who pick up a few scraps and who show their appreciation by donating to Berrios and other Democrats.

Of course, every dollar not paid by well connected corporate commercial property owners is passed along to residential property owners. Every taxing body submits a revenue request early in the tax year. The owner's first tax installment is 55 percent of the previous year's total tax. During the period of January to April, a blizzard of appeals are filed with the assessor's office, and then with the Board of Review. Millions of dollars in reduced valuations are granted. When the second installment is due, residential property owners get a 10 to 15 percent kick because commercial property owners are paying less than projected, and the big boys make it happen.

Berrios is part and parcel of this system. The big boys need him, and now they're saving him. Berrios was elected as a state representative in 1982, Illinois' first Hispanic legislator. He was part of the 31st Ward machine built by Tom Keane, who went to jail. In 1988 Berrios was elected as one of three commissioners on the Board of Tax Appeals (now the Board of Review), an obscure but powerful entity which can reduce one's property taxes by 20 to 50 percent after a 90-second "hearing" in a room in the County Building crammed with 200-plus lawyers and a bunch of staffers (all of whom aim to please), amid chaos. To be sure, more than "clout" is needed. Appellants must submit appraisals, profit/loss statements or vacancy affidavits to secure a reduction, but rare is the instance where there is no reduction. There is almost as much money being made on the sixth floor as there is on Chicago Mercantile Exchange.

While a he was an appeals board commissioner, Berrios always managed to raise $300,000 to $500,000 in campaign funds annually, mostly from lawyers who practiced before the board. That solidified his hold on the 31st Ward, where he became the committeeman in 1992. Berrios' ally, Ray Suarez, became the alderman in 1991. Berrios got his daughter Toni elected the area's state representative in 2002. According to press reports, he put 18 to 20 family members on his or some public payroll. He upgraded to assessor in 2010, when Jim Houlihan retired, winning the Democratic primary with 35 percent of the vote. When Tom Lyons died in 2007, Berrios became the county party chairman.

For the big boys, having an assessor that they have gotten elected is more important than the Board of Review. The assessor's office, with minimal fuss and publicity, can with no oversight reduce a property's assessed valuation before the tax bills are even calculated. The Board of Review reduces it after the tax bill is issued.

"He wants one more term, and Mell is trying to get it for him," one insider said of Berrios, whose term as assessor expires in 2018. So, too, do the big boys, who are ever so eager to keep Berrios in office until 2022.

That isn't going to be easy. In his political base, the Belmont Cragin-Humboldt Park-Avondale-area 31st Ward, Berrios is politically toxic. His reputation for favoritism, nepotism and cronyism has prompted widespread voter revulsion. In 2014 Toni Berrios lost the primary for state representative to Will Guzzardi by 1,833 votes (while carrying the 31st Ward by just 272 votes), even though Madigan and Berrios pumped upwards of $700,000 into her campaign. This year Suarez, despite having $1,307,009 on hand as of Jan. 1 (along with Berrios' $1,255,015), lost re-election to Milly Santiago, who was backed by Mell and Alderman Nick Sposato. Suarez spent $335,265 and Berrios spent $277,050, to $60,172 for Santiago, and he still lost by 79 votes. In the mayoral race, Berrios and Suarez publicly backed Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who lost the 31st Ward 5,265-3,192. The Democratic Party chairman couldn't deliver his own ward. In the adjacent, newly created, 36th Ward, the Berrios-Suarez machine tried to thwart Arroyo and ram Omar Aquino down the voters' throats. Arroyo backed Gil Villegas, who beat Aquino 4,594-3,656 in the runoff.

For Berrios, that's strike four, but he's not out.

Enter Mell. The presumption is that Santiago, now alderman, will run against Berrios for committeeman in 2016 and that Berrios, to keep Arroyo busy in his 36th Ward, will run Aquino against him for committeeman. That would be a battle of epic proportions. If Berrios lost for committeeman, he couldn't be the county party chairman, and if he's not the chairman in 2017, he won't be slated for assessor in 2018.

However, that won't happen. Mell has brokered an intricate deal whereby Santiago and Aquino stand down, Berrios, Arroyo and Sposato run unopposed for committeeman in March, Suarez gets slated for a 2-year term on the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, Guzzardi, who surprisingly has been a loyal cog in the Springfield Madigan machine, gets a free pass in 2016, and Berrios, who has a penchant for stuffing the bench with Hispanics, will not get to pick the nominee for any of the three 6th District subcircuit vacancies. The slated judicial candidates will be Anna Loftus, Richard Cooke and Carlos Claudio.

Of course, Berrios will abdicate his throne to Arroyo, who now has the most potent precinct organization in the Puerto Rican wards, able to field up to 300 workers. Arroyo, who was long allied with Mell (but not Berrios), proved his chops several years ago.

Mell, then an alderman, created a new Hispanic-majority 36th Ward which included Arroyo's home in the old 36th Ward, represented by Sposato, who was pushed into the 38th Ward. Arroyo was supposed to be the new alderman, but then Berrios decided that he wanted to name the alderman and that it would be the 26-year-old Aquino, the son of Suarez's best buddy, so a swap was engineered: Arroyo stayed in Springfield, his son Luis Arroyo Jr. got the 8th County Board District seat in 2014 (with Berrios dumping Edwin Reyes), and Aquino was to get the aldermanic spot in 2015. However, the deal collapsed.

Arroyo decided he was not going to concede his 36th Ward to Berrios. He recruited Villegas and Santiago. Although Arroyo quietly endorsed Emanuel, he had his workers (in both wards) link Santiago and Villegas with Chuy Garcia. It worked.

Among the collateral casualties of Berrios' demise are several of the Hispanic aldermen who once were part of Mell's and Berrios' pro-Emanuel "Gang of Five" -- Suarez, Rey Colon (35th), Joe Moreno (1st), Ariel Reboyras (30th) and Roberto Maldonado (26th). Suarez lost to Santiago, who is anti-Emanuel, and Colon lost to Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, who also is anti-Emanuel. Villegas, Arroyo's alderman, has pledged to be an independent, and Moreno, who has evolved into being anti-Emanuel, is pondering a run against Berrios for assessor in 2018. Wait for the big boys to weigh in on that bright idea. As for Maldonado and Reboyras, they will go with the flow, according to the Hispanic source, meaning that they're Arroyo's new best buddies.

But what about the big man? That's U.S. Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-4), age 61. In 1986 Gutierrez ran as the pro-Harold Washington candidate and won the 26th Ward aldermanic seat. When the 4th U.S. House District was created in 1992, stringing together the North Side Puerto Rican wards west to Cicero and Berwyn and east to the South Side Mexican-American wards, Gutierrez won it. The district is 72 percent Hispanic. Under the federal Voting Rights Act, once a majority-minority district is created, it cannot be eliminated. Puerto Ricans grouse that Gutierrez spends too much time on immigration, but that solidified his Mexican-American base. Gutierrez is unbeatable.

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