May 8, 2019


There's a take-out underway in the 39th Ward, and it is not of the pizza or Chinese variety. The target on the political menu is Democratic committeeman Robert Murphy, who lost the ward's April 2 aldermanic runoff 7,469-5,876, winning 17 of 45 precincts and getting more than 60 percent in just five.

The hungry "take-outers" are a trio of ambitious ward politicians: Alderman-elect Samantha Nugent, state Representative John D'Amico (D-15), and 2019 primary loser Casey Smagala, who finished third behind Nugent and Murphy with 27.5 percent.

Their goal encompasses both self-interest and self-preservation, which means FINISH THE JOB, which means eliminating future competition NOW by ousting Murphy in the March 20, 2020, Democratic primary. That may be easier said than done, and may not be at all doable if more than one of the three run for the post.

"I'm giving thought to running" for committeeman, D'Amico said, who is the state representative since 2004 and nephew of retiring Alderman Margaret Laurino (1994-2019). D'Amico is also the grandson of the late alderman Tony Laurino (1965-94). Murphy "clearly does not reflect the views of a lot of (ward) voters," said D'Amico. Of the anti-Murphy trio, D'Amico expects that only one will run. "We will work it out," he said.

Smagala, age 30, who campaigned relentlessly throughout 2018 and up through Feb. 26, finished first in 13 precincts. He said he is excited at the prospect of being committeeman. "I really want" the job, he said. Both D'Amico and Smagala endorsed Nugent over Murphy, as did cop Joe Duplechin, who finished fourth. The vote breakout was 4,396/3,914/ 3,644/1,287 for Nugent, Murphy, Smagala, and Duplechin, respectively, on Feb. 26, with Nugent getting 33.2 percent to Murphy's 29.6 percent, with Smagala just 270 votes behind. On April 2, Nugent topped Murphy 7,469-5,876, getting 55.9 percent.

"I'm focused on my (new) job," Nugent said, adding that she "hasn't thought about" either the committeeman post or Murphy. Nugent is learning the tricks of her trade very quickly. That was an emphatic MAYBE. The alderman's conundrum is self-evident: Can she trust either D'Amico or Smagala, if committeeman, to work with her and not against her?

Murphy's three-cycle electoral odyssey was supposed to have culminated in a 2019 win. "I'm the front-runner," Murphy told me last autumn. In 2015, Murphy lost to Laurino 5,981-4,815, getting 42.8 percent, after a fervent anti-Laurino "50 years is enough" campaign. Murphy then announced for committeeman in 2016, prompting the alderman's husband, Randy Barnette, to retire, and defeated Pat Molloy, the Laurino-D'Amico candidate 6,075-5,034, getting 54.7 percent. Murphy positioned himself as the reform/social activist champion, but his campaign fatally fizzled the moment Laurino announced her retirement.

Murphy instantly became the INSIDER OUTSIDER, the party functionary and past loser, whereas newcomer Nugent was the OUTSIDER INSIDER, a fresh face with a resume who was backed by D'Amico, and newcomer Smagala was the OUTSIDER OUTSIDER, the charismatic Millennial who represented generational change but was no Democratic socialist. (In fact, Smagala previously interned in Laurino's office.) Murphy had to retool and reinvent himself real quick. He didn't.

TURNOUT AND TURNAROUND: Each city ward has a rough population of 54,000. The 39th Ward has 33,111 registered voters, and 2019 turnout was, respectively, 13,241 and 13,345, or about 39 percent. Turnout in the 2018 governor race was 19,509 and in the 2016 presidential race was 22,845. J.B. Pritzker won 13,187-5,447, and Hillary Clinton won 16.005-5,701. 2019 was the first aldermanic election in the 39th Ward since 1965, when Tony Laurino first won, without a Laurino on the ballot. That's 14 straight victories. The elder Laurino, who was called the "alley alderman," built his machine by amassing a bundle of patronage jobs and by being obsessively attentive in providing city services. Marge Laurino carried on the service tradition.
The 2019 election was about whether the voters in the ward wanted a Laurino-style non-Laurino as alderman, or a reformist/legislator type. Nugent/Smagala/Duplechin were the former, the good housekeepers and Murphy was the latter, the systemic reformer.

So the runoff was all about turnover and turnaround. The Murphy versus anti-Murphy primary vote was 3,914-9,327, or 29.6 percent versus 70.4 percent. Anticipating a similar 13,000-plus runoff turnout, Murphy was in a huge hole. To win, he needed about 6,700 votes, or 2,800 more than his Feb. 26 total. Conversely, Nugent needed 2,300 more votes. The combined 4,931 votes cast for Smagala and Duplechin, or 37.2 percent, were the key.

As it turned out, Murphy grew his vote by 1,962, from 3,914 to 5,876, while Nugent grew her vote by 3,073, from 4,396 to 7,469. Of the Smagala/Duplechin voters, an estimated 62 percent broke for Nugent. That insured her 1,593-vote, 55.9 percent win, as evidenced in the precinct results.

In the runoff, Nugent won 27 of 45 precincts, to Murphy's 17 (with one a tie). Of Nugent's 27 W's, seven were by more than 70 percent and 10 by 60 to 70 percent. Of Murphy's 17 W's, five were by more than 60 percent. On Feb. 26, no contender won any precinct outright, but Murphy finished first in 15, Nugent in 17 and Smagala in 13. In the runoff, of the 30 precincts in which Nugent or Smagala finished first, Nugent won all but four, and flipped one Murphy precinct.

BASE: Geography matters. Nugent lives in Sauganash, Murphy in Forest Glen, Smagala in Albany Park, and Duplechin in Gladstone Park. Neighbors vote for neighbors. In the runoff, Nugent won her precinct 306-101, or 75.2 percent, while Murphy won his home precinct 233-163, or 60 percent. In the area east of Elston and west of Pulaski, between Devon and Foster, which includes 18 precincts in Gladstone Park, Sauganash, Forest Glen and Edgebrook, Nugent won 16. She also won the two precincts in Peterson Park, north of Peterson and east of Ridgeway, and the two precincts north and east of the Bohemian National Cemetery. North Mayfair and Mayfair was a draw, with Nugent winning 6 of 11 precincts, all closely.

Murphy's only bright spots were in Albany Park, where he won all three Lawrence-Pulaski precincts; east North Park, around Northeastern Illinois University, where his anti-eminent domain stance won him 5 of 6 precincts (and a tie in one); and four precincts in the very liberal Old Irving Park/West Walker area, east of Six Corners, where Arena's endorsement mattered.

MESSAGING, MAILING AND MOTIVATION: The key to Nugent's win was just old-fashioned, retail precinct work. "I was a total unknown, but I knocked on (an estimated) 48,000 doors" from April 2018 to March 2019, she said. The average ward has 12,000 to14,000 dwelling units, including rental, condo and detached residential homes. Many are inaccessible to door-knockers and many times not all voters are home. Nugent's strategy was not one hit but a multiplicity. She went back to the same dwelling several times. "When you talk to the same voter at least twice, that's a definite vote," she said.

Nugent's message was quality of life, public safety, good schools and neighborhood services. "I never went negative" on Murphy. Nugent spent over $250,000, and pumped out 20 mailers during the runoff, with households often getting one per day. Most are repetitive, and most get tossed. The cost of each mailing is about $15,000. But the psychology is effective because it's a daily reminder. Murphy did go negative, with 12 mailers and he attacked Nugent as a "political insider" due to the fact that she took money from past Laurino donors.

IDEOLOGY: Murphy supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primary, and Sanders beat Clinton in the ward 7,103-6,172, winning 27 precincts. Murphy also supported Jac Charlier against D'Amico in the 15th Illinois House District, which has 38 precincts in the 39th Ward. D'Amico won 5,207-3,934, carrying 30 precincts. Charlier said he "hasn't made a decision" about a 2020 re-run. If D'Amico ran against Murphy he would be on the ballot twice, which always causes confusion. Another key 2016 race was for state's attorney. Kim Foxx won the ward 5,301-5,115 over beleaguered Anita Alvarez, a 42.2-40.7 percent margin that shows a definite conservative/pro-police base in the ward.

This year internal (ward) affairs trumped external (national) affairs. Self-interest was paramount for those who voted, the majority being property owners with children. In the runoff, Murphy produced lawn signs hyping "Murphy-Lightfoot," but there was no rub-off.

Top finishers in the 14-candidate mayoral primary were Daley (2,548 votes), Lightfoot (2,387), Preckwinkle (1,527), Vallas (1,476), Mendoza (1,288) and Joyce (1,243) - which showed no particular pattern. In the runoff, however, Light-foot buried Preckwinkle 10,523-2,798, getting 79 percent.

It is quite common for a newly elected alderman to run for Democratic committeeman, particularly if that committeeman was or was allied with the deposed alderman. Pat O'Connor (40th), Arena (45th), Nick Sposato (then in the 36th) and others did exactly that. It is a pre-emptive strike to weaken and/or eliminate future opposition. Murphy did it in reverse, losing for alderman (in 2015) and then winning for committeeman (in 2016), thinking he was weakening Laurino. What he did, however, was hang the "politician" label on himself.

Nugent needs to be very careful, lest she do the same.