All Politics is Local: Six races you should watch

This November 4, Chicagoans will head to the polls in what may be record numbers to vote for favorite son Barack Obama (and a few for the old guy). Many will neglect to vote for anything below U.S. Representative in the belief that it doesn’t matter. In a way, they couldn’t be more wrong. Local offices directly affect our lives in countless ways, and sometimes elections are decided by less than 50 votes. This issue, the Chicago Weekly presents a guide to six of the more interesting local races on ballots across the South Side. Although we are not endorsing candidates, we trust you’ll make the right decisions.

Cook County State’s Attorney
The October 21 arrest of former police commander Jon Burge on charges of obstruction of justice and perjury comes at an awkward time for Cook County State’s Attorney hopeful Anita Alvarez. Burge was the prime suspect for a police torture scandal that resulted in the forced confessions of hundreds of people under extreme duress, including the use of cattle prods and electric shocks. He couldn’t be charged on those counts because of the statute of limitations–despite being notified several times in the ’80s and ’90s, the state’s attorney’s office never prosecuted Burge. The attorneys during those years? Richard M. Daley, current mayor of Chicago, and Jack O’Malley. Dick Devine, the current state’s attorney, was assistant state’s attorney under Daley; Daley also hired Alvarez. Since Alvarez is running on a platform that promises to bring a fresh vision of integrity to the office (where she’s already been working for twenty-two years), voters may wonder, “What gives?”

Alvarez brushed off some of the blame. “When the allegations first surfaced, I was still in undergrad,” she reminded Chicago Reader reporter Mick Dumke. Yes, but they continued for decades after. “More could have been done,” she concedes, though she doesn’t name names. Her Republican opponent, Tony Peraica, seized on the issue as an example of the “complete failure” of the state’s attorney office and painted her as an insider who did “absolutely nothing.” Alvarez, however, points to the things she did do: “We created a new unit for professional standards–even if it should have been created thirty years earlier. Videotaping of interrogations–I’ve been part of those things. That’s important to note. I’ve been part of these changes and they’re not going away.”

Despite the scandals, Alvarez is likely to win the race. She’s got the support of a powerful Democratic party apparatus, while there’s little Republican party apparatus to speak of (the disparity in their campaign funds speaks powerfully: Alvarez has raised $463,276 since the February 5 primary, while Peraica has raised $57,150). She’s not directly implicated in the torture scandal, and the Pilsen native has notable success stories: the successful prosecution of the famous Girl X case, in which Cabrini-Green resident Patrick Sykes tortured and raped nine-year-old Toya Currie, leaving her wheelchair-bound, blind, and mute for the rest of her life. She’s got the endorsement of Senator Dick Durbin, and having Barack Obama at the top of the ticket certainly won’t hurt.

This hasn’t discouraged Peraica from running a relentless campaign against what he sees as “corruption on steroids” in the city’s Democratic machine, making the state’s attorney race one of the few in Cook County where a Republican has a chance–albeit slim–of winning. His strategy involves associating Alvarez with Democratic insiders, many of whom have donated money to her campaign, and colorful tactics like encouraging supporters to flood comment boards of local papers’ websites. He’s also gone after Green Party candidate Thomas O’Brien, calling him a “shill for the Democrats” put into the race by Alvarez and Devine in order to lure discontents away from Peraica. He points to the mere $385 in campaign funds that O’Brien has raised as proof that the campaign is not legitimate. O’Brien responds, “It’s hard to raise money when you’re a third-party candidate. I don’t have a lot of money, and I don’t have a lot of friends with a lot of money.” But Alvarez and Peraica do–and that means the Cook County state’s attorney race will be bloody to the end. (Katie Buitrago)

Illinois Senate 14th District
Emil Jones, Jr., has spent over three decades climbing the ranks of Illinois Democratic politics. He was elected as a state representative in 1972, a state senator from the 14th district in 1983, Senate Minority Leader in 1993, and President of the Senate in 2003. Now, at 73, Jones has decided to step down. This idea must have struck him quite suddenly, because he only announced his retirement this past August–far too late to hold a primary, leaving the 34th Ward Regular Democratic Organization with no option but to choose Jones’s questionably qualified son, Emil Jones III, to succeed him on the ballot. Jones III is 30 years old and earns almost $60,000 per year working as an administrator in the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity for his father’s strongest ally, Governor Rod Blagojevich, although he does not even have a college degree. When questioned about the hints of nepotism, Jones, Jr. (who is black) points to other Chicago political dynasties like the Daleys and Madigans (who are white), and claims that he is being singled out for criticism on account of his race. Meanwhile, Jones III’s campaign website quickly runs out of accomplishments to point to and resorts to his high school volunteer work at Roseland Hospital.

Of course, during the primary, the local Republican Party had no idea it would face a 30-year-old newbie rather than the most powerful man in the Senate. This may explain why it chose Ray Wardingley, a perennial candidate and (as press coverage never fails to note) former clown who has been nominated numerous times before for positions including alderman, U.S. Representative (four times, in districts 1 and 3), and mayor. In the heavily Democratic South Side, he has always run as a Republican, and he has always lost. On his campaign website, he describes himself as a “Benevolent Leader,” and spins his clown work into a positive (“unlike the typical drab career politician…”). He points to accomplishments like leading a “roller-skating rally” from Chicago to Springfield to raise funding for children with leukemia and heading the Neighborhood Watch program in Beverly-Morgan Park, where he “fought crime on a firsthand basis.” Truly, this year’s 14th district state senate race is a clash of the titans. (Sam Feldman)

Illinois House 2nd District
It’s 2008, and Ante “Tony” Marijan is gripped with election fever–but not of the typical nail-biting, obsessive-poll-checking variety. He doesn’t have time for that; he’s too busy running as a candidate himself. In February he was elected Green Party committeeman of the 11th ward; in April, he won a slot on a local school council. Now, Marijan hopes to continue his winning streak with a victory in the race for 2nd district state representative.

Just getting on the ballot was a victory in itself. Running against incumbent Edward Acevedo, a Democrat who’s held the position since 1995, involves going up against the legendary Chicago machine. Said machine was responsible for getting Acevedo’s Republican opponent thrown off the ballot on a technicality. “They make it very difficult for anyone to even run against them,” Marijan admits. “They didn’t knock me off because they didn’t think enough of me.”

It wouldn’t be surprising if that was the case. Marijan is, after all, a Green Party candidate. “There’s been a two-party system in place for about a hundred years, and third parties are always looked down upon,” he notes. And it doesn’t help that his party is often stereotyped as a bunch of “screwball hippies,” as Marijan himself puts it. But ever since Green candidate Rich Whitney won 10% of the vote in the 2006 gubernatorial race, the party has been legally established (and in Marijan’s eyes, legitimized) in Illinois. In fact, there are more Green Party candidates in Cook County this election than there are Republicans. “I think that’d be the [Green Party’s] goal, to overtake the Republicans as the second party,” he quips. And “with gas prices through the roof,” traditional Green Party issues, such as renewable energy concerns, are now beginning to permeate the greater public’s consciousness.

Still, Marijan’s victory is hardly a sure thing. Despite endorsements from both the Sun-Times and the Tribune–and in spite of allegations of Acevedo’s drunken run-ins with a cop–voters have had a tendency to keep voting the incumbent in. “Acevedo has been in power thirteen years; he’s gotten a lot of people jobs,” he admits. Marijan also trails in resources compared to what Acevedo and the Democratic machine can muster. But at least he can point out with pride that, as a Green Party candidate, he takes no money from corporations.

Nevertheless, as Marijan plainly puts it, “it’s really up to the voters to decide.” And despite the left-leaning nature of both candidates, the two differ on some key points, such as whether or not the nuclear moratorium should be lifted (Acevedo says yes, Marijan no). While Marijan emphasizes his dedication to more “traditional” issues such as school funding and CTA expansion, he also promotes some less conventional viewpoints as well. For instance, he’d like to impose term limits on all political offices (a move that he acknowledges is “probably not going to happen”). He’d also like to bring increased transparency to government, promising to host weekly meetings in his office so the public can come in and speak with him directly about the issues.

Officials “need to be as closely connected to the people as possible,” he states. “That’s something I feel Acevedo has gotten away from…That’s a main concern that is stressed, that he’s nowhere to be found.” Marijan, on the other hand, despite being a tax consultant, a paralegal, 11th ward Green Party committeeman, and a school councilman, is ready for the challenge. As he proudly proclaims: “I would be a full-time state representative.” (Sean Redmond)

Illinois House 26th District
The current incumbent of the Illinois House of Representatives’ 26th District (which stretches from 74th Street all the way up to Division Street along the lakefront), Democrat Elga L. Jeffries, took office in 2006 when former representative Lovana Jones passed away during her tenure. But Jeffries lost her chance for a second term when she lost the Democratic primaries to Will Burns earlier this year. Now, the race is between two candidates with very different political backgrounds. Burns is a University of Chicago alum (he holds a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from the UofC) who has served on the staffs of current Illinois Senate President Emil Jones Jr., and presidential hopeful Barack Obama. As it says on his website the two key issues Burns aims to address are an increased regulation of gun violence and making education more accessible.

Running against Burns is Sylvester “Junebug” Hendricks, the Republican and self-proclaimed “OBAMAican” candidate. Hendricks’ nickname comes from the fact that he was born in June, and his website is appropriately decorated with animated ladybugs. But don’t let them fool you into underestimating him: Hendricks has spent most of his life in and around the 26th district, where, most recently, he served as a Local School Council Community Representative for ten years. Hendricks further asserts that he is not a politician but an “advocate, concerned citizen, reformer, and a grandparent.” All admirable qualities, but in the face of Burns’s impressive credentials and widespread support–a long list of endorsements (including Mayor Daley, Kwame Raoul, and the Sierra Club) sits on the front page of his website–they probably won’t be nearly enough to give Burns a sweat. (Tiffany Kwak)

Metropolitan Water Reclamation District
The race for Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner may seem unglamorous, but it’s crowded, with nine candidates contending for three posts. And as with all aspects of the MWRD, its weirdness is under most people’s radar. Established in 1889 to manage the city’s water supply, the District’s first project was building the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, then using it to reverse the Chicago River and send cholera-laden water downstate rather than into Lake Michigan, the city’s drinking water source. More recently, the MWRD has overseen the $3 billion construction of the rainwater-catching Tunnel and Reservoir Project as well as the world’s largest water treatment plant. If your eyes are glazing over, you’re not alone. Like most utilities, the MWRD’s profile is microscopic when it’s functioning smoothly enough to avoid outrage. That notwithstanding, this year’s race promises to be an interesting clash.

The field of nine pits equal numbers of Green and Republican challengers against incumbent Democrats Frank Avila, Kathleen Therese Meany, and Cynthia Santos. Though machine politics aren’t what they were in decades past, shenanigans abound. A representative sample: when the tradition of giving unadvertised MWRD jobs to the children of aldermen and District employees was uncovered this summer, Daley appointee and MWRD Superintendent Richard Lanyon’s explanation that job seekers need “to make the contacts they should” rivaled “we don’t want nobody nobody sent” for succinct shamelessness. Or there’s Santos’ absenteeism from board meetings and use of public money for her tuition at Northeastern Illinois University. But even though Republicans didn’t and still don’t stand a chance, aggressive fundraising and grassroots support may help the Green Party in this year’s elections.

So with three candidates on the ballot, what would a successful Green insurgency do? According to frontrunner and DePaul/Columbia/School of the Art Institute professor Nadine Bopp, its first goal would be reducing the amount of water MWRD treats by keeping rainwater in the ground and out of the sewers–no easy task in a city covered in impermeable surfaces. She’s also fond of the thermodynamically-iffy process of plasma gasification. Another major issue for the Green slate is antibacterial treatment for all MWRD effluent. Currently, the District is fighting a state mandate for it, which Avila (a veteran civil engineer with perfect attendance at board meetings) argues would cost around a billion dollars with minimal impact on public health. For his part, Avila is one of the best-liked commissioners. That’s not to forget the Republican candidates from the suburbs, predictably and impotently enraged over obscurantist hiring and endless tax levies. Then again, it would probably help their cause if more than one of them bothered to publicize their run. But this is Chicago, and I have a word limit. So it goes. (Michael Joyce)

Cook County Circuit Court Clerk
Holding an elected office usually has its fair share of perks, but having one’s own security detail and chauffeur is rarely a privilege of those at the county level. Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown enjoys just that, however–a fact that has met much criticism from her opponents in this year’s election campaign and, along with other alleged instances of misuse of public funds, inspired two taxpayers to file a civil lawsuit against her. “It’s corruption at its most bold,” says Diane Schapiro, the Republican candidate for the office and a Cook County employee for the past thirty-two years. She says of her workplace, “The current administration is running it into the ground.” With the “antiquated equipment” and careless attitude of many employees, court files are often misplaced–causing inconvenience at best and, at worst, wrongful arrest.

Schapiro also claims that Brown presides over a “pay to play” system of employment, “receiving payments for employees” in exchange for hiring them. Brown’s September birthday party raised some questions to this end: As the Chicago Tribune reported, it was organized mostly by Circuit Court Clerk employees, with the object of raising funds for Brown’s campaign. Entry to the event, held at a boutique hotel, was $125, with the option of achieving “friend” or “platinum” status with a donation of $1,000 or $25,000 respectively.

With an annual operating budget of over $100 million and a workforce of over 2,300 employees, the job of circuit court clerk is not for the faint of heart. That’s one quality Brown can’t be accused of possessing, considering she ran against the all-powerful Richard Daley in the last mayoral election–just the most recent venture in her very ambitious biography. From humble beginnings on a Louisiana farm, where she and her seven siblings helped pick cotton, Brown went on to work at a major Chicago bank, a utility company, and a “Big Eight” accounting firm, as well as the CTA, where she served as General Auditor for nearly a decade. She became the first African-American to serve as Clerk of the Cook County Circuit Court when she was elected by a large margin in 2000. In 2004, she again won handily.

Though she lacks such an extensive resume, the third candidate in the race for Circuit Court Clerk has also confronted her fair share of adversity: Last year, Paloma Andrade ran independently for alderman against Ed Burke, a Democrat whose clout in the 14th Ward is comparable to Daley’s in Chicago. A mother of four, she decided to run because, she says, “He’s not really working for the people. The community is not receiving the share for what we pay for property and taxes.” What she got for her efforts was “harassment, intimidation,” and a lawsuit that sapped the time and resources meant for her campaign. She fought it out through several levels of court, finally winning both the right to be on the ballot and ten percent of the vote.

Now Andrade is running as the Green Party candidate. Both she and Schapiro are running on plans to update the court’s technology, retrain employees, and clean up corruption: things that Brown claims she’s already done or is doing, but which could almost certainly use some more work. Judging by the extravagance of Brown’s birthday party and her success in the last two elections, neither of her challengers is likely to unseat her. But who knows–there may be discontent brewing, both with “systems analysts” and the officials who employ them as drivers. (Robin Peterson)

Graphic by Ellis Calvin