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Ald. O’Connor’s Curious Residency in the 40th Ward

Daniel J. Kelley 30 December 2014 One Comment

Four years ago, Chicagoans were provided with minutely detailed news coverage and analysis of challenges to the mayoral candidacy of Rahm Emanuel on the basis of residency. It was a prolonged, seesaw battle that was litigated all the way to the Supreme Court of the State of Illinois which reinstated Emanuel after an Appellate Court panel had ruled that he was ineligible. The controversial decision was predicated upon an antiquated court opinion from the Reconstruction Era that seemed distinguishable on its face. The reasoning employed by the high court left many people scratching their heads.

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Fast forward four years. Another protracted electoral board case is pending (as of this morning) before the Chicago Board of Elections, the same body that conducted hearings related to Emanuel’s residency, but thus far the media has been unusually silent. Although the objection was filed on December 3, 2014, it appears that no newspaper coverage has been devoted to the matter. This is astonishing since the case concerns an important public official.

Alderman Patrick J. O’Connor of the 40th Ward is Emanuel’s floor leader on the Chicago City Council. The incumbent alderman is seeking reelection to his ninth consecutive term. By virtue of deaths, retirements and a few criminal prosecutions, O’Connor has become one of the most senior members of the City Council. He is second only to 14th Ward Alderman Ed Burke in terms of seniority. After several election cycles in which he was unopposed, O’Connor is facing a serious challenge from a candidate backed by the Chicago Teachers’ Union, Dianne Daleiden.

The 40th Ward was once centered in Albany Park, but a succession of redistricting decisions have radically altered its boundaries over a period of decades to such an extent that the ward lacks a solid identity or cohesion as a community. It has been less about incumbent protection than it has been a case of neighboring aldermen chiseling away at the perimeters of the 40th. Former 33rd Ward Alderman Richard Mell, who once played an important role in redistricting the city ward maps, aggressively advanced north until he had annexed almost the entire South end of the former 40th Ward. Much of the present day 40th is composed of precincts that formerly were in the old 50th Ward.

In the interests of full disclosure, I must add that Pat O’Connor is a former neighbor. I have sometimes supported his campaigns and attended some of his various fundraising events over the course of the past three decades. He is a friendly person who has been a fixture in local politics. During his long tenure numerous improvements have been made throughout the community, including the construction of a new public library, a new police station, a state of the art college prepatory high school and improvements to local parks.

O’Connor has had a curious and colorful career in that he has been most successful in ward elections (O’Connor is both the alderman and the Democratic ward committeeman), but his ambitions to seek other elected offices have been stymied. O’Connor declined an opportunity to be slated for Cook County Sheriff (the position was filled by 19th Ward Alderman Michael Sheehan and, subsequently, by Tom Dart) and challenged the appointed Cook County State’s Attorney Cecil Partee. Partee won the primary, but was defeated in the 1990 general election. Two years later, O’Connor secured the nomination, but lost the election to Jack O’Malley, the last Republican candidate to win a countywide election. When Rahm Emanuel exited the US Congress to serve as Chief of Staff to President Barack Obama, O’Connor was Emanuel’s preferred successor. In a special election which was notable primarily for a crowded field of candidates and low voter participation, Cook County Commissioner Mike Quigley secured the nomination and entered Congress. When Emanuel was elected mayor, O’Connor was chosen as the City Council Floor Leader.

The late George Dunne of Near North Insurance fame, a former Chicago Park District employee who also served in the Illinois General Assembly and as President of the Cook County Board of Commissioners inaddition to chairing the Cook County Democratic Central Committee, once confided to Milton Rakove that the primary incentive for most politicians is the opportunity to make money. Numerous attorneys, insurance brokers, realtors and undertakers have all profited handsomely from entering the political arena. To a degree, this has been the only tarnish on Pat O’Connor’s record. Members of his large extended family, including siblings, children and in-laws, have all secured public employment in various governmental agencies such as the board of education, the park district, the community college board and the sanitary district. Nepotism is a fine art in Chicago, so this is not unexpected.

Unlike many objections to the nominating petitions of candidates for elected offices, no allegations have been made about the sufficiency of the petition signature sheets that the alderman filed. The objection is based upon two legal issues. Allegedly, the candidate failed to file a Statement of Economic Interests with the Cook County Clerk, as required by law, and that the candidate is indebted to the City of Chicago for building code violations associated with a real estate investment. Either allegation or both, if proven, would render O’Connor ineligible for reelection and cause his name to be removed from the ballot. The case law on the mandatory requirement of filing an economic interest statement is voluminous.

Failing to file such a statement is fatal. The Cinkus appellate decision addresses the policy of disqualifying candidates who have unsatisfied municipal debts at the time that their nominating papers are filed. What makes the latter objection unusual is that the indebtedness is related to a condominium unit. If the alderman paid the condominium association his assessments and the association neglected to pay fines owed to the city, can this be attributed to the candidate since he owns a percentage interest in the condominium building and its common elements as well as an individual unit?

Further, complicating matters are allegations that the alderman and his wife, who is a realtor, have a business relationship with the condominium developer and may have applied for a property tax exemption for the condominium unit which they were not entitled to as it was not their principal residence. While none of this may be germane to the Election authorities, if true, it may resonate with the voters and may serve as a reminder of the stalled investigative probe of O’Connor which was rumored some months ago.

Another possible factor that may influence the outcome of the aldermanic election is whether or not the race develops into a local referendum on the unpopular mayor. This is a one on one contest and O’Connor is of course the mayor’s floor leader. If O’Connor is disqualified, all of these speculations would be rendered moot.

Given the complexity of the issues presented, it is easy to see this electoral board decision being taken up on judicial review regardless of how the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners rules. The election board assigned the case to Hearing Examiner Barbara Goodman who is a capable lawyer. Goodman’s recommended report has been referred to the three election commissioners. I expect the final decision in this particular case is going to be closely scrutinized by members of the election law bar in months to come.
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Daniel J. Kelley is an attorney who has also been qualified as a public member of various electoral boards in Cook County, Illinois.

One Comment »

  • Liz Brown said:

    It looks like the objectors are going to ask Election Board Commissioner Langdon Neal to recuse himself on this motion … appears he collected $230,000 in fees on a TIF deal in the 40th Ward. This could get very interesting!

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