January 15, 2020


The best thing that can be said about the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District is that it professionally, competently, consistently and literally accepts a lot of solid human waste from a lot of people and then gets rid of it.

Like about 125,000 tons, or 280 million pounds of solid waste per year. That comes from 10.3 million receptacles, amounting to 77 million pounds per day. That's a lot of crap.

The second best thing that can be said about the MWRD is that it is also bladder-conscious, treating 500 billion gallons annually of human effluent as well as liquid business waste product, or about 1.4 billion gallons per day, with a capacity to collect and treat up to 2 billion gallons, including rainwater overflow. The district serves 5.25 million residential and 4.5 million commercial and manufacturing entities. That's about 130 gallons per capita of bodily liquids, or 5 gallons per household per flushing per day. Collect and dispose.

All this "stuff" has to go somewhere other than Lake Michigan, so the MWRD collects the effluent, treats it, dumps it in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, thence to the Mississippi River, and thence through New Orleans to the Gulf of Mexico. Just think, every flush contributes to those 500 billion gallons of treated nutrients dumped into the aquatic ecosystem, washing up on those beautiful Florida and Caribbean resort beaches.

The solid waste doesn't travel so far. It gets dried at the Stickney plant in vast vats, and then gets trucked to farms downstate for fertilizer, becoming part of the soil ecosystem. Everyone helps to make the food more "organic."

But, quite intentionally, the MWRD is also politician-friendly. Politicians intuitively know that one should never waste the opportunity to profit from getting rid of waste.

The MWRD's budget was $1.22 billion in 2019 and it $1.15 billion in 2020. It employs 1,953 workers, who are hired on merit and protected by civil service, with the operating engineers at the Des Plaines, Skokie, Schaumburg, Stickney, Hanover Park and Lemont plants being members of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 399. There is no patronage hiring. There are no no-bid or sweetheart contracts. There are no scandals (yet). But what really matters is not waste management and disposal but who gets the nine elected part-time MWRD commissioner positions, of which three are elected every 2 years.

They are sweetheart jobs, an enduring instance of political "feather-bedding," which is the time-honored practice of creating useless jobs to prevent unemployment. They are paid $70,000-a year, have a 6-year term, a free car, full health benefits and pension credits, an office at 100 E. Erie with two or three staffers, and a work load which consists of 22 3-hour public meetings per year, which computes to a pay rate of $1,060-per hour. Otherwise, they just sort of hangout, whenever and wherever they want.

Their job is neither legislative nor policy-making. The president, paid $80,000, is elected by a majority of the nine commissioners and prepares a bi-weekly operational summarization, which is submitted to the commissioners at the meeting. The annual budget is then finalized by the board's finance committee, which is chaired by another commissioner, who is paid $75,000.

The MWRD runs by itself, with all operations overseen by a high-paid general superintendent. Other than flooding issues, which were largely cured by the $3.81 billion Deep Tunnel (TARP) project, the MWRD's operations are just to COLLECT and DISPOSE. But every 2 years in the Democratic primary a frenzy of activity surfaces. It's ELECT and COLLECT time. And voters get to pick some utterly unknown but lucky person who will get $420,000 over 6 years. It's nice non-work if you can get it, and could be a steppingstone to other office.

Ex-commissioners who bettered themselves include Jerome Cosentino (to state treasurer), Aurelia Pucinski (to Clerk of Court), Patrick Daley Thompson (to Chicago alderman), Martin Sandoval (to state senator who later resigned amid federal probe) and Cynthia Santos (to the Illinois Pollution Control Board). Flops include longtime president Terry O'Brien, who lost to Toni Preckwinkle in a 2010 bid for county board president, and current incumbent Mariyana Spyropoulos, who loaned herself $500,000 but then folded her 2020 campaign for Clerk of Court.

The path to this pot of gold requires no qualifications, such as being an engineer, chemist, lawyer or accountant, or experience. Money is meaningless, as nobody is going to spend a million dollars or more for a meaningless post. In short, voters are clueless. They know not for whom they vote. It's all about FACTORS, such as ballot position gender, race, ethnicity, Democratic party slating, media endorsements, name ID from prior races, and, quite critically, sheer persistence. Just keep on running every 2 years until the FACTORS align right.

The last Republican MWRD win occurred in 1972, so the Democratic primary seals the deal. There are 10 contenders on the March 17 ballot, and they are listed as follows in their ballot order: (1) MICHAEL GRACE, a Lyons trustee who is the brother-in-law of Alderman Patrick Thompson, and is self-funding his campaign to $200,000; (2) MIKE CASHMAN, of LaGrange, who married into the now-forgotten Howlett clan, once a fledgling dynasty; (3) 81-year old incumbent FRANK AVILA, a civil engineer who was dumped by Democratic slatemakers last summer after three terms, is finance committee chairman, and was on the ballot in 1998, 2000, 2002, 2008 and 2014; (4) HEATHER BOYLE, teamed with Avila on her petitions, who is a Des Plaines official; and then the Democratic slate - (5) incumbent CAMERON (CAM) DAVIS, who was spectacularly elected in 2018 as a write-in, getting over 60,000 votes for the seat of a commissioner who died during the filing period; (6) incumbent KIM DUBUCLET, Preckwinkle's former county chief-of-staff, elected to a vacancy in 2018; and (7) EIRA CORRAL SEPULVEDA, Hanover Park village clerk.

And then comes (8) PATRICIA FLYNN, whose father works for the MWRD and is backed by Local 399, and (9) SHUNDAR LIN, a water chemist who ran as a Republican in 2018. Last is DEYON DEAN, the former mayor of south suburban Riverdale. Dean may or may not team-up with Avila-Boyle on a "reform" slate, his issue being that the mostly black south suburbs suffer from what Avila calls "environmental racism," meaning ongoing flooding and infrastructure deterioration.

There are certain dynamics: Turnout will be 1.4 to 1.5 million, with voters motivated by the presidential and state's attorney contests. MWRD is in the middle of the ballot, below the Foxx-Conway-More-Fioretti race and Clerk of Court, but above the presidential delegate contests. There are certain factors: Six men (Avila, Grace, Cashman, Davis, Dean, Lin); four women (Boyle, Flynn, DuBuclet, Sepulveda); two African-Americans (DuBuclet, Dean); two Hispanics (Avila, Sepulveda); and three slatees (Davis, DuBuclet, Sepulveda). And also two women with Irish surnames (Boyle, Flynn). Whoever has the best overlap will win.

And then there is reality: Todd Stroger was removed from the ballot for insufficient signatures. There are not yet any issues in the MWRD race to grab voter attention. Some past candidates have tried to hype environmentalism, portraying themselves as champions of "clean water." But area drinking water is purified by the City of Chicago and delivered to suburban municipalities. The MWRD's job is to get rid of impure water.

The Democratic Party will be sending out a sample ballot mailer to every countywide household, hyping Kim Foxx and Davis-DuBuclet-Sepulveda. Preckwinkle will make sure African-American committeepersons deliver for Foxx and the MWRD slate. North Lakefront and North Shore liberals will vote heavily for Foxx and Davis. The "controlled" or predictable party vote is usually a third in low-turnout primaries, but could drop to a quarter in a high turnout, as is expected in 2020. IUOE's Local 399 is supporting Avila, Flynn and DuBuclet.

Avila may have found a wedge issue. The Democratic slatemakers "disrespected all of Hispanics" by not slating him and Jesse Reyes for the state Supreme Court, he said. Son Frank Avila, an attorney who supported Willie Wilson for mayor, goes further: "The Democratic Party is racist and corrupt" and Preckwinkle, the county chairwoman, "must go," he said. "My dad is not a puppet." That is shrewd. Making the contest a referendum on Preckwinkle will generate some votes.

The outlook: Avila is a familiar name and is third on the ballot. He has been a fixture on cable TV and on the political circuit for two decades, and is a deprecating, likeable guy. Avila will get 80 percent-plus votes among Hispanics, but they are just 10-12 percent of the turnout. A lot of ill-informed but "progressive" voters will bypass the top two males and hit for him, Boyle and then DuBuclet. The more informed "progressives" will definitely hit for Davis-DuBuclet. Leftist and feminist female voters, after hitting for Elizabeth Warren, will opt for Boyle-DuBuclet-Flynn for MWRD. A chunk of black voters, after hitting for DuBuclet-Dean, will likely opt for Avila, but 50-60 percent will vote the slate.

My prediction: Except Avila, the other MWRD candidates are total unknowns. The top five will be Avila, Boyle, Davis, DuBuclet and Flynn. The winners will be Avila, Boyle and DuBuclet.

Send an e-mail to russ@russstew art.com or visit his Web site at www.russstewart.com.