February 6, 2019


As was said on Monty Python's Flying Circus, "And now for something completely different," an election prediction at the beginning rather than at the end of the column.

John Arena will not be re-elected on Feb. 26, and will be forced into an April 2 45th Ward aldermanic runoff. That is a likelihood bordering on certainty. And that begs the question as to whether Arena could or would be re-elected in that runoff - which is not a certainty.

The two-term alderman, who is loved by many ward residents and utterly despised by almost as many, will get 42 to 45 percent of the vote against his opponents - Jim Gardiner, Marilyn Morales and Bob Bank. Their job is to motivate and increase the anti-Arena vote to at least 50-percent-plus-one, which is what occurred in 2015 (see chart), when Arena received 45.5 percent in the primary.

The alderman, however, said he is "confident" of an outright Feb. 26 victory, citing internal campaign polls which put him "within striking distance" of 50 percent. Arena did not provide numbers other than that he has 80 percent name recognition and a 65 percent approval rating. Others are shopping around a poll that puts Arena in the mid-30s and Gardiner and Morales in the low 20s. This is clear: There is a 20 to 30 percent of undecided voter, which may be anti-Arena or just non-Arena. But if Arena doesn't win on Feb. 26, or get 45 to 49 percent, he will have real credibility problems on April 2 - and that's even if SEIU, AFSCME, CTU and the public sector unions come in with $500,000, which they will. In Chicago elections, an incumbent who doesn't fulfill expectations in the primary is a soon-to-be ex-incumbent.

(Several times in the past 8 years the alderman has told me that I'm "always wrong" in my predictions, and that "nobody reads" my column or the Nadig Newspapers in general. So there is a possibility that his condescension and optimism may have merit.)

What is a definite non-certainty is whether there will be an Arena-Gardiner or an Arena-Morales runoff. Wholly different dynamics - geography, ideology, gender, identity politics, funding and turnout - apply to each match up.

From what I can tell, Arena is not the kind of guy who is nice, warm, sweet, kind, gentle, humble and respectful of others' opinions. Arena derogates those who disagree with his progressive agenda, which includes desegregating the Northwest Side, as a "knuckle-dragging and generally subhuman puddle of DNA." (His quote.) Luckily for Arena, all those calloused-knucklers are not a ward majority.

Gardiner, a city firefighter, is appealing directly to the anti-Arena base, which consists of first responders, trade unionists, conservatives, Republicans, and those opposed to greater housing density and more affordable housing, such as what is proposed for the 5150 N. Northwest Highway project, which is nearing zoning approval. Morales, a Chicago Park District regional supervisor, is a Hispanic woman who is openly lesbian. "I am not running an identity campaign," said Morales, but the fact remains that her gender/ethnicity/sexual orientation makes her palatable to pro-Arena voters who find the alderman increasingly tiresome.

In an Arena-Gardiner runoff, Arena's base remains firm. In an Arena-Morales runoff, a quarter of Arena's base would suffer a guilt-trip if they didn't vote for Morales, who blasts Arena for lacking the "skill set" to be alderman.

The 45th Ward, consisting of Portage Park, Jefferson Park and Gladstone Park, was created in 1961. It has had a long line of get-along, go-along "machine" aldermen through 2011, the most recent being Patrick Levar (1987-2011). A combination of Rich Daley's departure, committeeman Tom Lyons' death, the ongoing collapse of patronage, and demographic change precipitated Arena's 2011 win. The Levar-backed candidate, Marina Faz-Huppert, got 19.5 percent in the primary. The top finisher was police lieutenant John Garrido with 32.4 percent. Arena, who was a graphics designer from Portage Park and the most liberal candidate, finished second with 22.7 percent. Had Faz-Huppert gotten 503 more votes, it would be Garrido running for a third term. That set up a DEFINING MOMENT: Who was now going to run the ward?

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) decided it would be them. Garrido had ill advisedly run in 2010 as a Republican for county board president, losing the primary. SEIU had their hook, and spent over $600,000 in mailings and cable TV demonizing Garrido as a "George Bush Republican." It worked, just barely. In a 12,136 runoff turnout, Arena won 6,083-6,053, a 30-vote margin. Arena carried 34 of 53 precincts, and prevailed due to his 55 to 60 percent margins in Portage Park, topping Garrido's Gladstone Park edge.

The alderman then faced a strategic 2015 choice: Either pander to the base, meaning progressives and public sector unions, or be more accommodating and moderate. Arena chose the former. For the alderman, "leadership" means pursuing the agenda that is best for him (i.e., getting re-elected), not necessarily best for the ward as a whole. Everything north of Foster is, for him, a knuckle-dragging wasteland.

"I have fulfilled my promises," said Arena, promising to codify ethical standards, reform TIFs, and "empower" the council during his next term. His most recent mailer boldly declared that he was opposed to the policies of Donald Trump and the practices of Ed Burke.

Any aldermanic race with an incumbent is a referendum on the incumbent's performance. Instead, 2015 was a re-run of 2011, with Garrido back, along with Michelle Baert, who ran as the "45th Ward Mom," appealing to females but not necessarily feminists, and lawyer Mike Diaz. Garrido counted on a "we-was-robbed" pushback, but had little money. It was 5,914-5,164 in the primary, with Arena getting 45.5 percent and Garrido 39.7 percent in a 13,008 turnout, with 1,726 votes for Baert. The SEIU then stepped in, rehashed Garrido's background, and, in a 15,768 turnout, produced an 8,488-7,263 Arena win. Arena won 29 of 48 precincts, all south of Foster. In the mayor's runoff, Emanuel beat Garcia 9,341-6,427, winning 46 of 48 precincts.

"I will appeal to my (Democratic) base," said Arena, who said he would spend $250,000 through Feb. 26. What is that base? He anticipates a 15,000-plus turnout, which is a lot lower than 2016's 24,464. The alderman received 5,914 votes in the 2015 primary, but 7,094 voted against him. Garrido got 7,263 runoff votes. Arena-endorsed Bernie Sanders got 7,457 votes in the 2016 presidential primary, but then 5,989 voted for Clinton. Anita Alvarez, then under the cloud of a Laquan McDonald cover-up, won the ward 5,406-5,204 over Kim Foxx. So 40 to 45 percent of 45th Ward Democrats, of which 13,817 voted in the 2016 primary, are not congenital leftists.

And then there are the ward's conservatives, of which 6,587 voted for Trump and 5,679 for Rauner. They constitute a solid 35 percent of the turnout.

Second prediction: Gardiner's recent order-of-protection incident with his ex-girlfriend will be rehashed, but there was no physical or verbal abuse. A no-contact order was entered. The trade unions donated $36,500 to Gardiner in January, and he has had four mailings and tons of signs in the neighborhood. Expect an Arena-Gardiner runoff. Expect SEIU to spend $350,000. And expect a 500-vote Arena win.

But remember this: Arena always expects me to be wrong. I could live with that.