June 17, 2020


There are three things that the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) does well.

It disposes about 280 million pounds of solid waste that Cook County's citizens flush down the toilet every year. It treats and sends to the Gulf of Mexico the 500 billion gallons of effluent that annually inundates Chicago's and the county's urinals and thence sewer systems. And it pays their nine elected commissioners exceedingly high salaries and benefits for part-time work. They also gross about $1,080 per hour to attend 22 board meetings per year.

And one more thing: They squabble. They connive for trappings of power and scraps of recognition. And they are oblivious to the fact that people don't know who they are, don't care what they do (although functional plumbing is a good thing), and that a quarter of voters (about 150,000-plus) determine who gets elected because they know for whom they vote, and that's because they read media endorsements and/or blindly vote the party slate. Otherwise factors such as gender, race, ballot position and name familiarity are decisive, as each is a component part of a demographic base.

The most recent squabble was in the March 17 Democratic primary, which featured 10 candidates for three 6-year commissioner posts. There were 1,914,242 total 2020 votes cast for all the candidates, ranging from a low of 3.2 percent for Deyon Dean to a high of 18.1 percent for Kim Dubuclet (see chart). Total countywide registration is 3,094,725, and the primary turnout was 917,813, or 29.6 percent.

The next squabble will be in January, when MWRD president Kari Steele will likely be challenged by commissioner Debra Shore, a self-proclaimed "progressive environmentalist" from Evanston. Shore wants to transform the MWRD from an agency of mere waste disposal into a cutting-edge, EPA-like agency of activism...or something like that, which can generate visibility for her and her cause. The great hoax is that the MWRD is a department that provides CLEAN water. What it really does is get rid of UNCLEAN water and waste.

The next to last squabble was in Jan. 2019 when Shore's coup to dump 4-year president Mariyana Spyropoulos partially backfired, with Steele beating Shore 5-4 in a commissioner's vote, with Spyropoulos siding with Steele. If there is a place where there can be much ado about nothing, it's at the MWRD.

This year, as in 2016, 2012, 2010 and 2008, there was the usual primary squabble, but the Democratic slate again scored a trifecta (one slatee lost in 2018, 2014 and the 2016 vacancy). The three 2020 winners were slated incumbents Kim Dubuclet (346,370 votes) and Cam Davis (288,471), plus newcomer Eira Corral Sepulveda (247,055), the Hanover Township clerk. Dubuclet was formerly Toni Preckwinkle's chief-of-staff and ran nearly 100,000 ahead of Sepulveda and 58,000 ahead of Davis. The slate was listed 5-6-7 on the ballot. Their percentages were, respectively, 18.1, 15 and 12.1. The slate had Tribune and Sun-Times' endorsements.

Also note that the chief also-rans - dumped commissioner Frank Avila and Heather Boyle and Patricia Flynn - weren't far behind, with 215,741, 216,447 and 222,191 votes, respectively. Their percentages were 11.3, 11.4 and 11.6. Flynn, whose father works at the MWRD and who was endorsed by Operating Engineers Local 399 (the MWRD collective bargaining union), trailed Sepulveda by 19,864 votes. Boyle, a Des Plaines official, and Avila each lost by about 26,000. The three were 3-4-8, with Boyle the first woman on the ballot, and Flynn following Sepulveda.

Demographic overlaps were the key. The victors needed to run first or second in their bases, up 2 to 3 points over the second-placer and much more over the field. And then finish 2 to 3 in other candidate's bases. It's called the over/under theory, with a target of 20 percent in 2020.

In Chicago's 18 African-American majority wards, Dubuclet's base, she finished first in 17, but her range was always within 15 to 23 percent, getting 20 percent-plus in eight wards. Davis topped Dubuclet 15 to 16 percent in the South Side 16th Ward, and his range was 13 to 21 percent with the black demographic, getting 18 percent-plus in nine wards.

"A lot of black voters thought Cam Davis was black," noted political consultant Frank Calabrese. The Davis-Dubuclet-Sepulveda slate had some pull, but Sepulveda got 10 percent or less in 14 African-American wards. The also-rans were in the 9 to 12 percent range, although Flynn finished second in the West Side 24th, 28th and 37th wards, and Avila narrowly third in the South Side 7th, 16th, 17th, 18th and 34th wards and in the West Side 29th Ward.

The 12 Hispanic wards had a much lower turnout, and Avila topped the field in eight wards and tied Sepulveda in two. His range was 17 to 24 percent. Sepulveda finished second in nine wards, getting 15 to 18 percent. But Davis-Dubuclet were in the 8 to 15 percent range, and Dubuclet was first in the 1st and 35th wards. The Avila-Sepulveda Hispanic bulge offset only a quarter of their black ward deficit.

The white-majority progressive lakefront and Chicago riverfront wards, along with the suburbs, sealed the deal for the slate. In the 10 city wards Dubuclet got 19 to 23 percent in every ward, and Davis 18 to 20, with 15 percent in the 33rd Ward. Sepulveda was at 13 to 18, finishing second in the 33rd, and running 1 to 2 points behind Davis and 3 to 5 behind Dubuclet. A combination of slating/endorsements prevailed, and gender was a minimal factor. The combined Boyle/Flynn vote exceeded 20 percent in only the 42nd Ward.

The suburban MWRD vote was 826,966, compared Chicago's 1,087,276, but the slate got, respectively, 15, 18.1 and 12.5 percent (see chart) in the suburbs, with 119,819 votes for Davis, 143,760 for Dubuclet and 99,089 for Sepulveda. Both Boyle and Flynn topped her with 103,102 and 100,482 votes. Critical to the suburban outcome were liberal and African-American voters. The slate won Evanston 11,937-10,345-8,012, with Davis first and the also-rans under 3,500 each; Oak Park 8,100-7,373-5,910, with Dubuclet first and the also-rans around 3,000 each; New Trier 5,726-5,432-4,162, with Dubuclet first and the also-rans around 2,500 each. The 6 black-majority townships brought in the slate heavily, with Thornton at 11,796-10,852 for Dubuclet-Davis, Proviso at 10,695-9,643 and Rich at 8.091-7,676.

The outlying white city precincts were an afterthought. Flynn finished first in the 19th Ward, Boyle/ Avila/Sepulveda tied in the 13th Ward, with Avila first in the 23rd Ward. On the Northwest Side the conservative 41st Ward predictably went for Boyle/Avila/Flynn, but Dubuclet was first in the 45th and 40th wards and Davis first in the 39th, with Avila topping Dubuclet 3,038-2,916 in the 38th.

2018: The over/under was different with 4 candidates, as the target was 25 percent. Operating Engineers' Local 399 and 500 business agent Marty Durkan won a vacancy in 2016 with 38.5 percent, and the 2018 slate was Shore/ Steele/ Durkan who were 2-3-4 on the ballot, as Marcelino Garcia drew the top slot. With just four candidates, ballot position mattered. Shore's base was among progressives and LGBTQ, Steele's among blacks and Durkan's among unions. In a vote cast of 1,376,736, Durkan trailed Garcia by 26,770 votes.

Conspiracy theories abounded. The IUOE was apoplectic. Shore got 436,325 votes, and Steele 393,570, while Durkan was at 259,701 (18.9 percent). Durkan got 176,624 fewer votes than Shore and 133,869 fewer than Steele. Who was screwing whom? What is the value of slating?

In 10 of the African-American wards Durkan finished fourth, in 10 of the Hispanic wards Durkan finished fourth, in nine of the lakefront and riverfront wards Durkan finished fourth. Durkan lives in Edison Park, and finished first in his 41st Ward, third in the 45th and 47th wards, and fourth in the 38th, 39th, 40th and 50th wards.

Garcia, an ally of Shore, demonstrated that his over/under mattered. Hispanics propelled him to a 156,943-137,125 city win and a 129,517-122,576 suburban win. With Avila gone as finance committee chairman, rumors abound that Garcia will get the post and Sepulveda will vote for Shore.