October 24, 2018



Alderman John Arena (45th) is the kind of self-righteous politician who does not suffer fools gladly, and, based on my interactions with him, he deems everybody who does not agree with him a "fool."

Webster's Dictionary defines "fool" as a person with little or no common sense, minimal wisdom, poor judgment, or, more obnoxiously, a stupid person or simpleton.

The developing Northwest Side 45th Ward aldermanic race, in which Arena is seeking a third term and faces five or six opponents in 2019, is all about "Who is fooling who?" Or, more succinctly, who can turn out the votes of their non-fools? Arena's critics consider Arena and his supporters to be fools, and vice versa.

Announced opponents who are currently circulating petitions include Bob Bank, Marilyn Morales and Jim Gardiner. Other possible candidates include Guy Daley and Ammie Kessem. None have significant name recognition, significant money or a significant voter base.

Therefore, the general political perception is that Arena is unassailable - defined as a politician who cannot be successfully attacked or his re-election denied. Arena won in runoff elections by 30 votes in 2011 and by 1,225 votes in 2015.

Arena has had almost 8 years to entrench himself, and he has been a visible presence at community meetings, block parties, chamber of commerce functions and business openings. He can take credit for economic development, which means bringing new businesses into the ward, as well as infrastructure improvements to streets, alleys, parks and schools. He has compiled a modestly anti-Emanuel voting record, which resonates in a ward where the mayor has never really been especially popular.

But most astutely he has solidified his ideological and geographic base. Arena is a Bernie Sanders Democrat in a ward where the socialist senator beat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary, and Arena was elected as a Sanders delegate to the Democratic National Convention, getting 6,042 votes in the ward. Arena also was elected Democratic committeeman in 2012 and 2016.

The alderman resides in mostly liberal Portage Park, in the ward's south end, which also includes part of Independence Park, where he ran up sufficient pluralities in the 2011 and 2015 runoffs to overcome the anti-Arena margins of John Garrido in more conservative Jefferson Park and Gladstone Park in the ward's central and north end.

The thrust of Arena's 2019 campaign can be summarized in three words: AVOID A RUNOFF. The incumbent must get 50 percent-plus one in a crowded field on Feb. 26 to avoid an April runoff with the second-place finisher, which would put him in a precarious position as the multi-candidate mayoral race will certainly go to runoff, and voter turnout will be very high. The goal of the anti-Arena field is to FORCE A RUNOFF, which means they must aggregate 51 percent among them. That is doable.

The 45th Ward, which runs from Addison to Peterson, west of Elston, mostly along the Milwaukee Avenue corridor, had a 2010 census population of roughly 53,000 residents. At present there are 34,262 registered voters, of which 23,938 turned out in the 2016 Trump-Clinton contest, with Clinton winning the ward 16,082-6,587. That meant there were 10,324 non-voters. In the 2015 Emanuel-Garcia and Arena-Garrido runoffs, the votes were, respectively, 9,341-6,428 and 8,488-7,263, with ward wide turnout at 15,768. Arena endorsed Garcia. But even with two high-profile races on the ballot, there were 15,881 non-voters. In the 4-candidate 2015 primary, Arena received 5,914 votes, or 45.5 percent, so he upped his runoff total by 2,574 votes.

The same occurred in 2011, where Arena was second in a 7-candidate primary field with no incumbent running with 22.7 percent, and then upped his vote total from 6,083, or 50.1 percent, in the runoff. There was no mayoral runoff. There were 19,688 non-voters.
But given that ward registration was 31,817 in 2011 and 31,649 in 2015, roughly 75 percent of the ward's voter base either didn't vote for Arena or didn't vote at all. If voter turnout hits 18,000 or above, beyond the parameters of his base, Arena could lose.

Arena understands his predicament, realizes 2019 will be a referendum on him, and has crafted his message accordingly. He is running on his record, not his ideology, saying that he has "brought in new businesses" - Binny's, Culver's, Community, Frunchroom, two Starbucks restaurants, and five independent coffee shops. He also has Marino's Auto occupying the Gateway Chevrolet site, although it is currently nothing more than a large storage lot for vehicles. He claims that he "led the way" to procure $25 million to rehab the Jefferson Park Transit Center, to rehab Blue Line stations at Addison, Irving Park and Montrose, to install five Divvy stations, to create bike lanes on Milwaukee, Foster and Lawrence, and, relative to ward schools and parks, to build a new annex at Prussing, an Early Education Center at St. Cornelius (whose opening has been delayed several years) and new turf fields at Hitch, Prussing, Farnsworth, Beaubien and Schurz. He also said that he has added 20 classrooms to area schools, built a $1 million ADA-compliant playground expansion at Independence Park and made improvements at Dickinson Park.

"I've increased home values by 10 percent, and attracted new families to the neighborhood," he said. "People being priced-out of Logan Square and Lincoln Square are moving here" because of the amenities, he added.

Arena also takes credit for an increase in beat officers assigned to the 16th (Jefferson Park) Police District, although he is never present with aldermen Nick Sposato (38th) and Anthony Napolitano (41st) at "Support the Police" rallies in front of the police station in the last 3 years.

The touchiest issue is Arena's determination to build mixed-use developments in the ward, which he said would "create density," meaning a concentration of residents in specific areas who will shop locally, thereby benefiting local businesses. Arena's critics are dubious, and they view his planned mixed-use sites as part of his publicly declared plan to "desegregate the Northwest Side."

In particular, the 5150 N. Northwest Hwy. project, with 75 mixed-income units, has created an anti-Arena backlash in and around the site, with "density" being characterized differently - namely: its impact on already-overcrowded local schools. The 7-story project has been approved by the City Council and now awaits only the issuance of low-income housing tax credits. It also should be noted that Arena's office filed dozens of complaints against city workers who criticized the project, with Arena alleging that their comments were racially charged.

"People were 5-1 in favor" of 5150 at recent hearings, said Arena. Of course, that didn't include those outside the doors, namely the more than 6,000 people who signed a petition against the project. There would be15 market-rate units and 60 affordable below-market units, which would include CHA-subsidized apartments. Fifteen of the units would be guaranteed for veterans, who along with the disabled would be given a preference for the other units.

However, there are doubters.

BOB BANK: A longtime anti-Machine dissident, Bank ran for Democratic committeeman against Tom Lyons in 2004, getting 1,845 votes, or 20.6 percent. When Arena's supporters tried to take over the Jefferson Park Neighborhood Association in 2016, Bank stepped in as president for 2 years, and the Arena clique then formed Jefferson Park Forward. "Arena is a bully," said Bank. "He wants everything his way." As for 5150, Bank claims it is "not in character with the neighborhood" and exceeds the "4-story agreed limit," adding that "we have plenty of 'affordable housing' in the ward." Bank lives in Jefferson Park, has accumulated 800 petition signatures (a minimum of 500 is needed by the Nov. 26 filing date), and has raised $2,000.

MARILYN MORALES: "The ward is becoming much more culturally and ethnically diverse," said Morales, who is of Puerto Rican heritage and has spent 25 years with the Chicago Park District, currently as a regional manager. Over 40 percent of grade-school students at area schools come from Puerto Rican and Mexican-American families, she said. She calls herself a "public service Democrat" and chastises Arena for "talking down" to constituents. "He (Arena) voted to hike property taxes and water and garbage fees. We need to 'clean house' in City Hall. We need new leadership." Morales lives in Jefferson Park, has gathered 1,500 signatures and raised $5,000.

JIM GARDINER: A firefighter for 13 years, Gardiner still teaches special education in CPS on his days off. His father was an ironworker, and he was "brought up in a pro-union family" in Gladstone Park. "There is a definite disconnect between him (Arena) and (the people in) the ward. We need (ward) leadership that listens. Arena doesn't." On 5150 and other mixed-use projects, Gardiner said that a priority should be given to ward residents "who have lived here for more than 3 years" and that veterans in the ward should be pre-qualified for new developments. "My biggest concerns are for the people of the ward," he said. Gardiner ties Arena to Emanuel, saying both are responsible for "exploding property taxes" and "excessive spending." Gardiner lives in Gladstone Park, has gathered an impressive 2,800 signatures and has raised $7,700.

GUY DALEY and AMMIE KESSEM are both Chicago cops, with Kessem a police sergeant in the 16th District. She is currently running for state representative as a Republican in the Illinois 19th House District against incumbent Rob Martwick (D), an Arena ally, which gives her some name recognition. If she gets more than 40 percent on Nov. 6, an aldermanic run would be feasible.

Arena has $44,388 on-hand and is a favorite of public-sector unions, particularly the Service Employees International Union, which spent more than $600,000 in both 2011 and 2015 to beat Garrido.

Don't be fooled, as of now, Arena is a heavy favorite to win a third term.