June 27, 2018


Unlike other public officeholders, Chicago aldermen focus on minimizing attrition and not maximizing addition. An alderman's path to reelection is simply doing something tangible for the constituents, and doing it well and fast. For everybody else, the path to reelection is saying something that is more placating and palatable to the constituents.

An alderman's $108,000-a year job is to win the "War of Non-Attrition" - which means providing enough services so as to not dissatisfy enough constituents to get booted out of office. In short, win the "War of Non-Attrition."

"People want their problem fixed yesterday," said Alderman Nick Sposato (38th), referring to such mundane housekeeping matters as fallen tree branches, dysfunctional refuse carts, bulk pick-up, illegal parking or clogged sewers.

"If it's not 'fixed' right away, they blame me," Sposato said, even though 311 calls go to the city bureaucracy, over which the alderman has no control.

"I don't know why anyone would want this job," said Sposato, who is seeking reelection in 2019, what he promises will be his last term. "Being an alderman is now 24/7," he said, noting that social media and cellphones enable disgruntled constituents to communicate with their alderman anytime.

"I'm 'on-call' from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. " he said. "And if I don't promptly return a voice mail or an e-mail, people get angry." And that means attrition.

It's a whole new world. Officeholders in older days used to strive to "turn around" a letter within 24 hours. Now they need to "turn around" an e-mail or a voice mail within an hour.

An additional source of attrition is the alderman's voting record. Is he or she supportive of Mayor Rahm Emanuel? Did the alderman support property tax, water fee and phone fee hikes to bail out the four under-funded city and CPS pension funds? Did the alderman support the mayor's budgets, which rose from $6.3 billion in fiscal 2012 to $8.2 billion in fiscal 2018? Is the alderman backing Emanuel's reelection? And, most importantly, are public safety, education and city services in the ward acceptable?

The operative adage is that "the first is not the worst." That means an alderman has to be really inept and alienate a lot of voters to not win a second term. It's the third or fourth term that is the worrisome, and by then, the alienation peaks. Once into a fifth term, which means 20-plus years, the alderman is iconic and a fixture in the ward, having won the "War of Non-Attrition." Voters are in a "comfort zone."

Sposato, a firefighter for 18 years, was originally elected in 2011 from the old 36th Ward, which encompassed Montclare and Galewood, once heavily Italian-American but currently trending Hispanic. Sposato lost in 2007 to incumbent Bill Banks, but ran again in 2011 against appointed incumbent John Rice, Banks' chief-of-staff and driver, and, in a 6-candidate primary, finished second with 24 percent, and kept Rice under 50 percent, forcing a runoff. The "Banks-DeLeo Machine," which was flush with nearly $500,000 in campaign money due to Banks' chairmanship of the City Council zoning committee, was no match for the rigors of time. Banks was elected alderman in 1983 and by 2011 voters were weary. Sposato won the runoff with Rice 5,615-4,423, or 56.1 percent.

Sposato entered into the City Council with zero clout, and there was pressure to create another Puerto Rican-majority ward on the Northwest Side, along with the existing 30th, 31st and 35th wards. The council's 2011 remap chopped the east end of the 36th Ward, east of Harlem Avenue and south of Roscoe Street, and appended it to the south end of the 38th Ward, south of Irving Park Road, to create a new Hispanic-majority 36th Ward, which was won by Gilbert Villegas in 2015. Villegas is the chairman of the Latino and Veterans caucuses.

Sposato's home, along the Cumberland corridor, was placed in the new 38th Ward with Alderman Tim Cullerton, whose family dynasty had controlled the seat since 1935, when P.J. Cullerton first won. The expectation was that Cullerton would easily dispatch Sposato.

It didn't work out that way. Cullerton abruptly retired, and the Cullerton Clan, led by Democratic committeeman Patti Jo Cullerton, fielded Heather Sattler, daughter of an aldermanic staffer. The result, in a 7-candidate field, wasn't even close. Sposato, with a heavy vote in the west end - his former ward - received 53.6 percent, winning with 5,992 votes. The new ward runs from Cumberland Avenue to Laramie, between Lawrence Avenue and Belmont Avenue, with a spear up the Cumberland corridor to Foster (west of Cumberland). It is 20 percent Hispanic.

Sposato, age 59, professes himself to be "conservative" on social issues and "liberal" on labor issues. He is outspoken on police oversight matters, having sponsored three "Support Our Police" rallies in front of the 16th District police station with Alderman Anthony Napolitano (41st), and being especially critical of the mayor's "Sanctuary City" immigration policy, particularly the $1.3 million allocated for the legal defense of arrested undocumented immigrants.

"They broke the law," he said. "They are here (Chicago) illegally. Why should taxpayers pay to keep them here?" Sposato was also critical of the mayor's "municipal ID" plan, under which illegal immigrants could flash that identification if stopped and/or arrested, and not be turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "We are legitimizing law breaking," he said.

As for the controversy surrounding President Trump deportation policies regarding illegal aliens, "the Obama Administration did the same," said Sposato.

Relative to various options being explored by Alderman Ariel Reboyras's Public Safety committee, Sposato opposes "yet another layer of oversight" of police conduct, atop the current Chicago Police Board and Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA). Having a commission choose the COPA members, or electing a "commissioner" from each of the 22 city police districts that would then choose the superintendent and provide oversight would be "absurd," he said.

He also said that there is a vast population disparity between the districts, and that electing commissioners would "further politicize" the police department. As for the plethora of city settlements in various "police over-reaction" cases, like the $16 million to Bettie Jones in the Rialmo case, Sposato noted that the city appropriates $100 million every year for such occurrences. "I think they (the city law department) should fight these claims," the alderman said. "But they already have the money to settle, so they do."

As for crime, Sposato consistently has advocated the hiring of more police officers, arguing that the current 11,500 level is insufficient. "But as many retire as we hire," he said. Crimes against property, such as home invasions, thefts, muggings, car thefts and robberies are up on the Northwest Side, but crimes against persons, meaning murders and shootings, are "largely isolated in Austin and Englewood," he added. The current policy - the Violence Reduction Initiative (VRI) - is that officers, on their days off, can work in high-crime districts, getting overtime pay. "Violence has become epidemic in America," he said.

Emanuel and Sposato have had a rocky relationship, with Sposato having the fifth most anti-Emanuel council voting record, ranking behind such colleagues as Napolitano and John Arena (45th). This is reflected in the current jousting for the Aviation Committee chairmanship, recently vacated by the 23rd Ward's Mike Zalewski. Sposato is vice-chairman.

"And my ward is the closest to the airport," he said. But the new $8.7 billion O'Hare expansion project makes the post quite powerful, and a source of significant campaign cash. Aldermen Roberto Maldonado (26th) and Proco Joe Moreno (1st) also want it. The mayor does the appointing, which is an oddity since on the state legislative and U.S. congressional levels the presiding legislative officer does that job. The council is 44 percent white, 36 percent black, and 20 percent Hispanic, yet whites hold just 31 percent of the 16 chairmanships, blacks 44 percent, and Hispanics 25 percent, said Sposato, who is not optimistic that he will get that appointment.

Sposato considers the new $70 million school under construction on the Read-Dunning site to be his major accomplishment. It will be a freshman academy for Taft High School with a student body of 1,200, as well as a "selective enrollment" academic center for 7th and 8th graders. "I worked closely with the mayor and CPS on this project," said Sposato. "He is to be commended."

But does that mean the alderman is endorsing the mayor in 2019? Sposato did back the mayor on 6 of his 7 budgets since 2011. Not necessarily, "but none of his opponents thus far are credible." Sposato will await the closure of filing in December before making a decision. It takes a minimum of 12,500 petition signatures to run for mayor, that means gathering about 30,000, and it takes 473 to run for alderman, which means gathering about 1,500.

This much is certain: Sposato will win a third term.

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