April 11, 2018



Ira Silverstein was not just defeated on March 20. Instead, the 20-year Democratic state senator was resoundingly repudiated, getting an abysmal 29.9 percent of the vote in the four-candidate 8th Illinois Senate District primary, losing 138 of the district's 166 precincts. He lost 19 of 40 precincts in the 50th Ward, his political base, 38 of 39 precincts in the 39th Ward, and 67 of 71 precincts in the suburbs.

The winner was Ram Villivalam, a 31-year old lobbyist and field organizer for the Service Employees International Union, known as SEIU Healthcare, who received 14,689 votes, or 51.3 percent, to Silverstein's 8,586 votes, with 1,491 votes for David Zulkey and 3,864 for Caroline McAteer-Fournier. In the 45 years I have written this column, no incumbent other than former Cook County Board President Todd Stroger has been beaten so badly.

The reason for Silverstein's demise can be summarized in two politically toxic words: Sexual harassment, which is defined as (1) conduct, either through words or actions, (2) by a person in authority or employer, (3) which the recipient finds to be "offensive." It can't get much more vague than that.

Texts and e-mails, most just flirtatious but not obscene, some late at night, from Silverstein to a female Springfield lobbyist during 2015-16, were at some later date deemed "offensive" and the lobbyist filed an "ethics" complaint with the legislative Inspector General. After an expedited investigation during December-January, the IG exonerated Silverstein of the "sexual harassment" allegation, but found that he engaged in "conduct unbecoming a senator." At that moment Silverstein became, in penitentiary parlance, a "dead man walking."

Villivalam, who had over 25 mailings to "hard D's" and "soft D's" - meaning households in which one resident voted in at least one of the last three Democratic primaries - spent at least $400,000, most of which came from public sector unions. He had two especially devastating mailings. One showed a black cutout of a man before a computer monitor with the headline "This is what your state senator does late at night!" Then a half-dozen of the more salacious messages were printed. The second was a partial reproduction of a Chicago Tribune article that reported on the IG finding, with the "conduct unbecoming" highlighted, and the tagline: "This is your senator."

The far North Side/close-in suburban district contains 166 precincts, of which 95 are in Chicago, and 71 in the suburbs. It contains all of the 39th Ward (Sauganash, Edgebrook, Mayfair, Forest Glen and part of Albany Park), all of the 50th Ward (West Rogers Park), 12 precincts in the 40th and 41st wards, and a few precincts in three other wards. It also contains 42 precincts in the Niles Township (Skokie, Lincolnwood, east Niles) and 29 precincts in the Maine Township, west of Harlem (Niles, Morton Grove).

*In the 39th Ward's 39 precincts, Villivalam, who resides in Mayfair, won 38, getting an outright majority in 26 and a plurality in 12, crushing Silverstein 3,538-1,443 (with 560 and 1,130 for the other two); that was a margin of 53.1 to 21.6 percent. Silverstein got a plurality in one precinct.

Alderman Margaret Laurino (39th), the city council's most outspoken proponent of sexual harassment training, endorsed Silverstein, and State Representative John D'Amico (D-15), who runs the Laurino-D'Amico political operation, said that he was neutral.

"People were ready for a change," said Casey Smagala, a 2019 candidate for alderman against Laurino, who said he personally worked in 34 precincts for Villivalam in the ward.

Given Villivalam's 2-1 win, and given Robert Murphy's 2016 defeat of the Laurino-D'Amico candidate for Democratic committeeman, "she (Laurino) definitely has problems," Smagala said. Murphy will also be running for alderman in 2019.

In the 50th Ward, where Silverstein is Democratic ward committeeman and wife Debra Silverstein has been alderman since 2011, the senator won 3,494-3,080, or 47.4 percent, with 206 and 593 for the others. Silverstein won 21 precincts, 17 with an outright majority, and four with a plurality, with almost all of those precincts in the southwest corner, which has a large Orthodox Jewish population. Silverstein is an Orthodox Jew.

Elsewhere in the multi-cultural ward, which has a majority population of Asian Indians, Pakistanis, Chinese, Koreans, Thai, Japanese, Vietnamese, Greeks, Mexican Hispanics, Central American Hispanics, Assyrians and Muslims in the northern part along Devon Avenue, Villivalam ran strong, winning 10 precincts with a majority and nine with a plurality.

The question is how much collateral damage Ira Silverstein's plight and defeat will inflict on the alderman, who is up for re-election in 2019. The Silverstein brand name has been tarnished. What is clear is that the Silversteins have no on-the-ground precinct operation, and that their fund-raising is not at the level needed to win against a blizzard of mailers. As of Dec. 31, Ira Silverstein had $96,707 on-hand, and Debra Silverstein had $96,925 on-hand. A whole bunch of multi-cultural candidates will file for alderman, forcing a runoff. Plus, Debra Silverstein has voted loyally with Mayor Rahm Emanuel - so that will be another cross to bear.

In the suburbs, especially in the Niles Township, which has a still-large Jewish population (which is dwindling and being replaced by a diverse multi-cultural array similar to the 50th Ward), State Representative Lou Lang (D-16), the township's Democratic committeeman and political boss, threw Silverstein, his colleague of 20 years, under the proverbial bus. Lang, in office since 1987, remains dominant due to the fact that he had $1,537,347 on-hand as of Dec. 31, thereby causing a certain reticence to challenge him and his anointed candidates for local offices. The township also contains the Village of Lincolnwood, which has a growing Korean, Vietnamese and Chinese population, but still a sizeable Jewish population, with Orthodox Jews a heavy presence in the east end, around Devon-Kedzie avenues.

Of the township's 42 precincts, Silverstein won three, losing to Villivalam 5,292-2,326 (with 347 and 1,170 for the other candidates). That would have happened even if Lang had not endorsed Villivalam. At one point, Silverstein thought he had Lang's support, and even sent out a mailer claiming Lang's endorsement, which Lang said was false. But Lang, ever the opportunist, still harbors aspirations to be Illinois House speaker, and he was under Springfield pressure to get rid of Silverstein. Lang delivered.

There comes a tipping point, however, where sheer money no longer matters. Alderman Ed Burke (14th) discovered that on March 20 when his brother, State Representative Dan Burke (D-1), lost renomination to Aaron Ortiz, a 26-year old unknown, despite Ed Burke having $9,369,630 on-hand as of Dec. 31. Burke will be out as alderman in 2019. At some point in the very near future, if not now, Niles Township's non-Jewish voting population will exceed that of the voting Jewish population, and Lang will be out. It happened in the 2017 Lincolnwood mayor's race, where Lang-endorsed incumbent Gerald Turry lost to Barry Bass. Skokie could be next in 2021.

In the Maine Township, where all of the 29 precincts are in D'Amico's House district, including Niles and Morton Grove, Silverstein lost 28 of those 29, with Villivalam on top 1,755-824 (with 180 and 546 to the others).

In the 12 precincts in the 41st and 40th wards, the total vote 931-434-173-362, with Silverstein winning one 40th Ward precinct.

Silverstein's other problem can be summarized in one word: complacency. He never bothered to build a political firewall, or any political network outside of the 50th Ward, and he never bothered, over six election cycles since 1998, each including both primary and election, to campaign anywhere outside of the 50th Ward. He was "Mr. Nowhere Man." He succumbed to the "Howie Carroll Syndrome," named after his predecessor, who was senator from 1972-98 and also 50th Ward Democratic committeeman. Carroll, like Silverstein, was a big shot in Springfield, in the Democratic leadership, and never seriously challenged in his district - and never seen in his district outside the 50th Ward, and rarely even there. After ousting the late Bernard Stone as committeeman in 2008, and as alderman in 2011, the Silversteins went into shutdown mode.

When Carroll, at age 56, decided to run for Sid Yates' open congressional seat in 1998, he was opposed by Jan Schakowsky, then an Evanston state representative, and J.B. Pritzker, the hotel heir who is the 2018 Democratic nominee for governor. It wasn't even close. Carroll, despite 24 years in office, had negligible name ID and no goodwill, got barely half the vote in his 50th Ward, the western wards, and the Niles Township, and Schakowsky got 77 percent of the vote in her base in Evanston. Schakowsky won 31,443-23,963-14,256, with Schakowsky getting 45.1 percent to Carroll's 34.4 percent.

As a columnist I attend numerous political parties and events, which are great information-gathering sources. Laurino has been alderman since 1995, and D'Amico the state representative since 2004, and I've been to dozens of Laurino's annual corned beef-and-cabbage dinners, and most of D'Amico's summer cocktail parties, which are always well-attended, often by the mayor. But I never saw Silverstein AT ANY OF THEM. And D'Amico's district is half of Silverstein's district, and the 39th Ward is 23.4 percent of Silverstein's district. Silverstein was MIA.

When crunch time came, there was no network of people to step up for Silverstein, who really knew him or cared about his plight. In 20 years, Silverstein did not associate himself with any issue or cause. Villivalam defined him, and he went down.