November 7, 2018



There are actually people who aspire to create more work for themselves. The medical term for this affliction is neurotic, or more commonly characterized as obsessive-compulsive.

Politicians, however, are the exception. They relish in creating more work for themselves - or, more accurately, for their underlings - provided that it gets them more votes, more power and especially more publicity. And add to that more staff and more campaign contributions from the special interests that they seek to satisfy.

Consider the obscure office of Chicago city treasurer, a 4-year elected job that pays $133,545-a year and is on the 2019 ballot. Incumbent Kurt Summers is retiring. The job is a no-brainer, entailing collecting fees and fines paid daily to the city, the city's share of property taxes from the county treasurer and the city's share of the sales tax from the Illinois Department of Revenue. That $6 billion is then banked wherever the treasurer designates, spread among multiple institutions which generate interest and thereafter accessed by the city finance department and controller as needed to pay the city's workforce, contractors, debts and pensions. How hard can that be?

Yet the developing field of 2019 aspirants for Summer's job is intent on piling on more work, such as using those funds to affect social and environmental policy. The candidates include outgoing Alderman Ameya Pawar (47th), who is honoring a two-term limit pledge; certified public accountant Peter Gariepy, who lost the 2018 primary for county treasurer but has ties to "progressive" politicians; and state Representative Melissa Conyears-Ervin (D-10), who is married to West Side Chicago Alderman Jason Ervin (28th). Gariepy is white, Pawar is Asian Indian, and Conyears-Ervin is African American. Race and base will matter, but whichever candidate creates the most rhetorical fluff and buzz will win.

Pawar, who briefly ran for governor, was first out of the gate with a promise that he will "fight income inequality" in Chicago by investing taxpayer dollars in affordable housing and child care centers, and will cut private banks out of the aforementioned $6 billion by creating a "Bank of Chicago" to receive, loan and later disperse those dollars. Never mind if those beneficiaries default. Conyears-Ervin, who has an MBA from Roosevelt University, said that the treasurer should "be a consumer advocate" and that banks who are depositories must be "investing in the community," meaning granting loans locally. Gariepy is more conventional, proclaiming himself a "progressive" Democrat but that a "higher office" - like mayor or the city council - should implement office-changing proposals like Pawar's. Running against Maria Pappas in the 2018 primary, Gariepy received 68,225 votes in Chicago, or 17.2 percent.

As of Sept. 30 Gariepy had $144 on-hand, Pawar a hefty $305,987, and Conyears-Ervin $140,885. Most of Pawar's money was generated in 2017 during his brief governor campaign. Gariepy spent about $122,000 in his bid against Pappas.

Summers has established several neighborhood-friendly programs, with a set-aside of $100 million for neighborhood projects, an EST protocol for environmental and social projects, and $20 million for capital in "under-served" areas. But that's just a drop in the bucket.

New York City has an elected "Public Advocate" office, which means the incumbent's sole job is to stir up trouble - and headlines - for somebody or some entity for some dastardly deed. That's not the treasurer's job.

An elective treasurer's office, whether statewide, in Cook County or in Chicago, has had a long and colorful history, which can be summarized as follows; GET THEM OUT OF OFFICE BEFORE THEY STEAL TOO MUCH. Illinois imposed term-limits on treasurers before that word was even coined.

The 1818 Illinois Constitution created the office of treasurer as an appointed job, but in 1848 it became elective, with the occupant limited to one 2-year term. That was done for good reason. Up through the 1920s the treasurer had sole discretion as to where to deposit state funds, and how to apportion the interest. Len Small (R) was elected treasurer in 1904 and 1916, and governor in 1920. He was indicted in 1921 for conspiracy and embezzlement. He had deposited state funds in a long-dormant Kankakee bank, loaned the money to Chicago meat-packers, generated 6 percent interest, and paid the state 2 to 3 percent, pocketing the difference. He was acquitted of criminal charges, but found liable to repay the state $1,025,434 at his civil trial. In 1959, the Constitution was changed to a single 4-year term, and in 1969 re-election to unlimited terms was mandated.

Local governments took heed. Both Cook County and Chicago treasurers were limited to a single 4-year term, and investments were tightly controlled. But MAKING MONEY NOW was transformed into MAKING MONEY LATER. Treasurers used the depositing of county and city funds in banks to curry favor and land lucrative post-term jobs with happy banks. The 1969 Constitution allowed state treasurers to be re-elected, and the county and city permitted the same after 1970. There was no more in-and-out, and incumbents were now able to raise campaign money from the banks into which they deposited funds. That sounds like a great "reform."

Incumbent Summers, who is a protege of County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, was appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2014 to replace Stephanie Neely, who resigned. Neely had been appointed by Mayor Rich Daley in 2006 to replace Judith Rice, who resigned. Rice's predecessor was Miriam Santos, once a star of Chicago politics who was hyped as a future mayor. But she was indicted and convicted, and resigned. The feds caught her on tape, the most memorable comment being that those doing business with her office should "belly up" and donate to her 1998 campaign for attorney general, which she lost.

Clearly, recent city treasurers are voluntarily and somewhat closely adhering to the tradition of the office, which is to get in, make the contacts, get out, and make some serious money. Summers folded when he knew Preckwinkle was in the mayoral race.

Two recent city clerks - Walter Kozubowski in 1993 and James Laski in 2006 - were convicted on federal corruption charges. Kozubowski for taking $476,000 in kickbacks from six "ghost payrollers" over 12 years, and Laski for taking $50,000 in kickbacks in the Hired Truck scandal. Only one city treasurer has ever gone to jail, and that was Santos, who was appointed in 1989 to succeed Cecil Partee, a former state senator first elected in 1979. Santos was convicted in 1999 on corruption and bribery charges, went to jail, had the conviction overturned and then pled guilty to lesser charges - thereby forfeiting her office but avoiding re-incarceration.

When Governing magazine did a profile on Summers, it called his office a "backwater." That same term can be applied to the clerk's office.

Summers had contemplated runs for governor in 2018 and mayor in 2019, but realized that he was mired in anonymity and had little money. His Sept. 30 cash-on-hand was only $173,070. Summers, a Harvard MBA, will land a lucrative job with some bank when his term expires.

Historically, since Anton Cermak established the Chicago Democratic Machine in 1931, Democrats ethnically balanced their citywide ticket. The party's coalition included those of Irish, German and Eastern European (Czech, Slavic, Bohemian) extraction, and that meant one of each of the three had to have a city slot. After Cermak was assassinated in 1933, Ed Kelly and the Irish took over, and a German-American got the clerk's post. The advent of Richard J. Daley upset the configuration; it was now Irish/Polish/Jewish for mayor/clerk/treasurer, respectively, an early incarnation of ethnic correctness.

Clothing store magnate Morris B. Sachs and Marshall Korshak held the treasurer job. In 1971 Daley slated African American 7th Ward alderman Joe Bertrand, making the configuration Irish/Polish/ black. Bertrand was dumped in 1979 for Partee, and the party's post-Daley city slate was 11th Ward white/Polish/black. Despite Jane Byrne's 1979 defeat of 11th Warder (Bridgeport) Mike Bilandic, the slated Kozubowski (then Bridgeport's state senator) and Partee won. In 1983, despite the Harold Washington movement, both got re-nominated.

Now the configuration is white/ Hispanic/black for mayor/clerk/ treasurer, with one being a woman. The clerk's post, after Laski's departure, went Hispanic. Subsequent occupants were Miguel del Valle, then state Representative Susana Mendoza after del Valle ran and lost for mayor, and now Anna Valencia, an Emanuel protege, after Mendoza got elected state comptroller in 2016. Mendoza is expected to run for mayor. The post-2019 configuration is in flux, and could include two blacks, or two Hispanics, or two whites in the three city offices.

The nominating petition filing deadline is Nov. 26, and the candidates need to file at least 20,000 signatures. It comes down to this: Chicago voters need to elect a treasurer who won't quit and won't get indicted.

Good luck with that.

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