March 20, 2019


All politicians should prepare an exit strategy. They can either quit before they lose, and go voluntarily, or they can lose, and go involuntarily. Chicago aldermen Patrick O'Connor (40th) and Deb Mell (33rd) have opted for the involuntary option, and both are poised to lose in their April 2 runoff.

There are different types of defeat, which range from anticipated-but-respectable to abject to ignominious, the latter being defined as humiliating, bordering on degrading. O'Connor and Mell are running against self-proclaimed "democratic socialists" in wards where there is still a majority of affluent whites. Their re-election should be a slam-dunk. Hence, for either to lose would be a humiliating culmination to their respective careers.

O'Connor, age 64, the council floor leader and acting Finance Committee chairman, has been the alderman since 1983 and the 40th Ward Democratic committeeman since 1984. He has been re-elected to the council eight times, with his closest race being in 2015, when he won with 58.4 percent in the two-candidate primary, carrying 28 of 39 precincts. He had $159,430 on-hand as of Dec. 31.

Mell, age 50, is the scion of the Mell Dynasty, which dates back to 1975 when her father Richard Mell won the seat. When dad resigned in 2013, the mayor appointed Deb Mell, then a state representative, as his replacement, but the Mells' dominance was rapidly eroding. Deb Mell was elected in 2015 with 50.2 percent, carrying 11 of 28 precincts, and avoiding a runoff by a handful of votes. And Aaron Goldstein ousted Dick Mell as committeeman in 2016. Mell had $216,998 on-hand as of Dec. 31.

The incumbents' opponents are Andre Vasquez in the 40th Ward and Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez in the 33rd Ward. Both are political neophytes and espouse a socialistic ideology that should be antithetical to the financial interests of those living in the $800,000-plus homes along the North Branch of the Chicago River and inward. Nevertheless, each has a base. Vasquez in the northeast portion of the 40th Ward, in Bowmanville and Andersonville, and Rodriguez-Sanchez in the west section of the 33rd Ward, which is heavily Hispanic. The ward has a Hispanic population majority but a white voting majority. Vasquez had $18,872 on hand as of Dec. 31.

Vasquez performed creditably and Rodriguez-Sanchez performed spectacularly on Feb. 26, with Vasquez getting 2,683 votes, or 20.1 percent, and Rodriguez-Sanchez getting 4,598 votes, or 42.1 percent. But the incumbents did not do likewise. O'Connor got 4,446 votes, or 33.2 percent, topping a 5-candidate field in a 13,353 turnout, and Mell got 4,515 votes, or 41.3 percent, finishing second in a 3-candidate field in a 10,935 turnout. As a 2015 comparative, O'Connor got 5,601 votes, or 58.4 percent in a 9.590 turnout, and Mell got 4,103 votes, 50.2 percent in an 8,171 turnout.

The trend line is clear: Turnout was up by 2,764 in the 33rd Ward and 3,763 in the 40th Ward, and the anti-O'Connor base grew from 2015's 41.6 percent to 66.8 percent, and the anti-Mell base grew from 49.8 percent to 58.7 percent. That trajectory portends disaster. It means that O'Connor in the runoff has to garner at least 25 percent, or 2,000 votes, from the 8,907 who voted against him on Feb. 26, and Mell has to garner 10 percent, or 1,100 votes from the 6,420 who voted against her. Good luck with that.

An alderman has some power, but their responsibilities are limited to providing ward housekeeping services and not necessarily legislating and casting controversial votes. They get $1.3 million in annual "menu" funds to spend on ward infrastructure upgrades at their discretion, or $5.2 million over a 4-year term. They have an annual staff and office allotment of $250,000. They have an $11 billion city bureaucracy at their beck and call. They earn $107,000, so they can devote themselves full-time to the job. They have the capacity to generate significant donations from special interests and they can generate consistent publicity under the guise of "official duties." So how can they lose?

There are ways. They can get old and listless. They can get tiresome due to longevity or poor responsiveness. Or there can be demographic change, which can be racial, ideological and/or generational. That's what is happening in 2019 - racial in the 33rd Ward, and ideological and generational in both wards. Both aldermen can tout their "experience and competence," but that does not matter anymore. It's too late to reinvent themselves.

The incumbents' only option is go negative and demonize their opponent as a radical or extremist, but that would now backfire. First, it would give the opponents more visibility and credibility. And second, the "democratic socialist" agenda has become a sort of mainstream Democratic mantra - affordable housing, rent control, healthcare for all, liberal immigration policies, an elected school board, expanded police oversight, higher minimum wage, more taxes on the wealthy and corporations, greater diversity in government hiring and promotion, and the Green New Deal. Chicago will be the proletariat utopia on the Lake, the new San Francisco. And there are a lot of Chicagoans - as well as those in the 40th and 33rd wards -who don't think those ideas are crackpot.

O'Connor is on cable TV with I-did-this-and-this ads. Both incumbents are mailing heavily, with the same message. The 2019 Chicago election is a harbinger of the 2020 Democratic presidential race, pitting the party's establishment/mainstream liberal/status quo faction against the progressive liberal/ Green New Deal/democratic socialist faction, with a dollop of identity politics - gender and race - thrown in. That was obvious in the Feb 26 mayoral primary, with the Daley/ Vallas/Joyce/Chico/McCarthy/Wilson faction being status quo, and the Lightfoot/Enyia/Mendoza/ Preckwinkle faction representing change. The status quoers received a combined 260,984 votes, or 46 percent, and the changers got a combined 281,938 votes, or 50 percent of the 560,701 turnout. The remainder was split among minor candidates. Ideology and identity barely trumped practicality.

The April 2 Lightfoot-Preckwinkle runoff will present a similar change/status quo dichotomy, with Preckwinkle now being the more status quo of the two candidates. Where are the status quo voters going?

According to feedback I've gleaned, they are going with Lightfoot on the premise that she is a clean slate and won't perpetuate machine control. That mentality will trickle down to aldermanic runoffs. The change candidates will win.

There are certain predictive benchmarks: The 2018 Pritzker-Rauner and 2016 Trump-Clinton contests. The 2018 Berrios-Kaegi assessor primary race. The 2016 Sanders-Clinton presidential and Foxx-Alvarez state's attorney primaries. And, of course, the Feb. 26 aldermanic and mayoral outcomes. None bode well for O'Connor or Mell.

40TH WARD: Sanders' 8,090-6,602 2016 primary win over Clinton indicates that the leftist base is a slight majority in the ward. Sanders got 54.7 percent. The 2019 mayoral result confirms that fact. Lightfoot/Enyia/Mendoza/Preckwinkle got a combined 8,795 votes, or 58.9 percent, with Lightfoot finishing first with 4,027 votes, or 29.8 percent. The Daley/Joyce/Vallas/McCarthy/Chico/Wilson vote was 4,463, with Daley getting 1,626 votes, just 12 percent. Note that O'Connor got 4,446 votes.

Expect well over 75 percent of the non-O'Connor (or anti-O'Connor) vote for Vasquez and losers Dianne Daleiden (2,296), Maggie O'Keefe (2,058) and Ugo Okere (1,870) to go to Vasquez. O'Connor won a majority in six of 49 precincts. That will spell O'Connor's doom. Prediction: It will be close, but O'Connor will lose 53-47 percent.

33RD WARD: The 2016 Sanders-Clinton vote was 7,873-5,199, or 59.9 percent for Sanders. The 2019 mayoral vote was 7,221 for Lightfoot/Enyia/Mendoza/Preckwinkle, or 65.5 percent, and the establishment guys got just 3,060. That means only a third of the progressives backed Mell, who got a majority in four of 28 precincts. Lightfoot finished first with 2,768 votes, or 25.1 percent. Mendoza got just 1,463 votes, or just 13.2 percent in a half-Hispanic ward. The Hispanic vote didn't turn out. But that doesn't give Mell much hope on April 2. The anti-Mell leftist/Hispanic coalition will spell Mell's doom. She will lose 55-45 percent.