August 15, 2018


"Disconnection" is a beautiful thing, especially for Alderman Debra Silverstein, who is seeking reelection to a third term in Chicago's West Rogers Park 50th Ward in 2019.

As for the mayor, there is no disconnection. "I'm endorsing" Rahm Emanuel, Silverstein said. As for her husband, state Senator Ira Silverstein (D-8), who is also the 50th Ward Democratic committeeman, disconnection is paramount for the alderman. The 20-year senator was ensnared in an alleged "sexual harassment" situation, was found by the legislature's Inspector General to have engaged in "conduct unbecoming a senator," and lost the 2018 Democratic primary to Ram Villivalam 14,689-5,586, getting 29.9 percent of the vote.

The senator's problem arose when he agreed to sponsor a bill drafted by a crime victim's rights lobbyist, then got rather chummy with her, allegedly sending her e-mails and text messages, many late at night during 2015-16, none of which were particularly salacious. But then the lobbyist went public - and Silverstein was toast. In the current #MeToo environment, male officeholders accused of any activity which could be deemed "sexual harassment" won't be an officeholder for long. Unless you're Donald Trump.

Debra Silverstein is confident, however, that voters will disconnect her from her husband's travails. "I have a proven record. I have served well for almost 8 years. They (the voters) will judge me on my record," she said. And that includes new street-scaping along Devon Avenue, library and school upgrades, a new playlot at Armstrong school, Thillens Park renovations, and a new park at McCormick and Devon. "I spend my entire ($1.32 million) menu on streets," she said. "My focus is on constituent service."

With the 2019 nominating petition-circulating period commencing on Aug. 28, Silverstein has no declared opponent as of yet. But they're definitely some ominous warning signs. First, the 50th Ward is extraordinarily diverse and its politics are very fluid. Somebody is going to file. Second, the senator performed miserably in his home base 50th Ward, with just 47.4 percent in a 4-candidate race, and getting neither a majority nor a plurality in 19 of the ward's 40 precincts. And third, after ousting Berny Stone as committeeman in 2008, and as alderman in 2011 (with his wife), the senator let the Democratic organization atrophy and grew complacent. That was evident last March. The alderman is going to have to either build her own precinct organization, or raise a lot of money real quick for direct mail. As of June 30, she had $112,566 on-hand.

The 50th Ward is ethnically diverse, but the dominant voting bloc is Jewish, particularly Orthodox Jews, who are concentrated in the area just west of the North Channel, east of Kedzie and north of Devon, in the homes around Winton Towers. The ward's population "is about 25-30 Jewish," the alderman said, with a like number of Asian Indians and Southern Asians, and a growing Russian-Croatian and Hispanic population, but "about half the voters are Jewish," she said. The Silversteins are Orthodox Jews, and that demographic segment is growing, as Orthodox Jewish families tend to have numerous children, are culturally conservative on matters like school choice, are in their support of Israel, and gave the senator solid support in the primary. The alderman can expect likewise in 2019.

The ward, dating back to the 1940s, has had a succession of Jewish aldermen, with Republican Jack Sperling serving from 1955-73 (and beating future sheriff Dick Elrod in one nasty election), and then Democrat Berny Stone (1973-2011). The Daley Machine, having failed to defeat Sperling in 1955, 1959, 1963, 1967 and 1971, finally wised-up and slated lawyer Sperling as a Democrat for the Circuit Court in 1972, and Sperling became a judge. In the ensuing 1973 special election, the acerbic Stone, a lawyer who worked as a real estate supervisor in Elrod's sheriff's office, beat "independent" Ted Berland, and went on to win renown with his tongue, once calling fellow alderman Luis Gutierrez a "pipsqueak" and his aldermanic foes "bupkis," which is Yiddish for absolutely nothing, or nothing of value.

County Commissioner Jerome Huppert was elected ward Democratic committeeman in 1956, was a Daley ally, and was chairman of the board's finance committee (a powerful post, now held by John Daley). But his failure to unseat Sperling was unforgivable. With Sperling elevated, Huppert had his alderman of choice, but Stone soon moved out of Huppert's office and conducted ward business out of his law office and a mobile home. Huppert retired in 1980 and backed state Senator Howie Carroll for the post, who went on to handily beat Stone in the primary. The two made peace, and all was swell until Ira Silverstein, a local attorney, got into the political mix. Silverstein ran for state representative in 1988, losing to appointed incumbent Lou Lang, whose political base was in Skokie, 7,682-7,315, a margin of 267 votes.

A decade later, when Carroll made an ill-fated run for retiring Sid Yates' 9th District congressional seat, Silverstein ran for Carroll's state senate seat, which encompassed the 50th and 39th wards, Lincolnwood and most of Skokie and part of the 40th Ward. His opponent was the slated Randy Barnette, 39th Ward Democratic committeeman and husband of Alderman Margaret Laurino. But the congressional race sealed Carroll's doom, as he faced Jan Schakowsky, then an Evanston state representative, and J.B. Pritzker (who is now running for governor), spiking a huge turnout among Jewish voters in the east end and Skokie, and a lower turnout in the west end. Carroll lost 33,443-23,963-14,256, a Schakowsky margin of 7,480 votes, primarily because she won her Evanston base with close to 77 percent, while Carroll barely got 50 percent in the 50th Ward. Despite 28 years in Springfield, Carroll was invisible and complacent, and never built a political base - which is exactly what Silverstein did in his 20 years in Springfield. In the state senate race, buoyed by the large Jewish vote, Silverstein beat Barnette 9,469-8,625, a margin of 844 votes, with 4,724 for Michael Ian Bender (now a judge). After Carroll lost he gave the committeemanship to Stone. And Ira Silverstein then beat Stone for committeeman in 2008, and backed his wife for alderman in 2011. In 2007, Stone barely won reelection, topping Naisy Dolar, 6,015-5,310 in the runoff. Clearly, Stone's days were numbered.

Like Huppert before him, Silverstein soon became estranged from Stone, whose political base constantly crumbled as his Jewish precinct captains retired from their city or county payroll jobs and moved. A flood of Third World immigrants inundated the ward during the 1990s and 2000s - Asian Indians, Pakistanis, Greeks, Assyrians, Iraqis, Chinese, Vietnamese, Filipinos, Thais, Malaysians, Cambodians, Hispanics, Croatians and Russians - driving business growth along Howard, Touhy and especially Devon Avenue. Many of those immigrants were or are non-citizens, many of those who are citizens live elsewhere (like Lincolnwood and Skokie), and the voter pool didn't much change. About half the ward's housing stock remained rental. Of the ward's 54,000 residents, only about 25,000 are registered voters, or 46 percent. And, in the 2018 Democratic primary, turnout was 18,788, with Silverstein getting 3,494 votes to Villivalam's 3,080 in the ward.

The ward runs from the North Branch of the Chicago River east to Ridge, and from Howard south to Peterson. The 2011 remap added part of Peterson Park in the southwest corner, around Lincoln-Devon. There is a large gentile population near Saint Margaret Mary Church at Jarvis-Western, and the six Winston Towers precincts on Kedzie south of Touhy, which include nearly a thousand units, the majority occupied by aging Jewish voters.

The outlook: Voters' memories fade quickly, and by 2019 Ira Silverstein will be a former senator. In the 2015 election Debra Silverstein got 5,024, or 64.4 percent, and in 2011 she trounced Stone in the runoff 5,952-3,746 votes. Unless an opposition candidates emerges soon, the alderman will win a third term easily.

In another matter, Democrats have until Aug. 23 to find a candidate to run for state representative in the 20th District against Republican incumbent Mike McAuliffe, who defeated Merry Marwig (D) in 2016 in a race in which $5 million was spent. McAuliffe won 25,739-20,142. Marwig filed for a 2018 rematch, won the March primary unopposed, but then quit.

The Democratic committeemen from the district, by a weighted-vote based on the 2018 primary, can choose her replacement, but only if a formal "notice of meeting" is filed by Aug. 16, the committeemen meet on or before Aug. 23, and their choice is ratified by Toni Preckwinkle, the county party chairman. In March's primary, 5,742 votes were cast in Chicago - in the 41st Ward and 38th wards -­ and 4,699 were cast in Maine Township, so it will be committeeman Tim Heneghan of the 41st Ward who has the preponderance of the weighted vote and will choose whomever Speaker Mike Madigan dictates. In 2016, Madigan, through various party entities, spent $2 million to beat McAuliffe. The 2018 Democratic nominee, if any, will start with zero name recognition, no on-the-ground precinct apparatus, and no $2 million. McAuliffe is a lock to win another term.

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