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Can an “Unbecoming” Ira Silverstein Hold his Senate Seat?

Russ Stewart 1 February 2018 No Comment
The career of state Senator Ira Silverstein (D-8) is hanging by a thread – or, more accurately, by two signatures on his nominating petitions and by how much money Ram Villivalam can raise and spend, and how negatively anti-Silverstein he wants his campaign to be. Made toxic by allegations of sexual harassment during 2015-16,
Silverstein got some much-needed good news recently.


First, Special Legislative Inspector General Julie Porter made a finding on Jan. 25 that Silverstein’s e-mails to Denise Rotheimer, a lobbyist who wanted him to sponsor a bill that would benefit her client were just, as the IG put it, “teasing and flirtatious.” They didn’t breach the threshold of “sexual harassment.” But he did “behave in a manner unbecoming of a legislator in violation” of the legislature’s ethics laws.
And the IG stated that Silverstein should have been “more cautious and conscientious” in his communications with lobbyist Rotheimer as “he knew” that she “was depending on him to advance legislation.” At this rate, the next great leap forward will be that a lobbyist who is “friendly” with a legislator, or who gives that legislator money or buys drinks and dinner, will have the right to sue for specific performance or breach of contract if that legislator doesn’t get that lobbyist’s or that special interest’s bills passed. That doesn’t work.
And second, Silverstein has thus far withstood a challenge to his nominating petitions by those allied with his principal opponent, Villivalam, a former lobbyist with SEIU Healthcare, who is endorsed by the AFL-CIO, the Evanston organization of Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky (D-9), plus congressmen Mike Quigley (D-5), Brad Schneider (D-10), and Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-8). Silverstein said that he has been endorsed by Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, plus the mayors of Niles, Morton Grove and Lincolnwood, and by State Representative Lou Lang (D-16), the Niles Township Democratic committeeman.
The minimum requirement for a candidate for state senator is 1,000 valid nominating petition signatures, with the maximum being 3,000. Silverstein submitted 1,996, of which 994 were found to be invalid by an election board hearing officer. That finding has been appealed for judicial review to the Cook County Circuit Court, and the court’s ruling, which is expedited – since the primary is March 20 – can then be appealed to the Illinois Supreme Court.
It is highly unlikely that the Circuit Court will overturn the administrative finding, which entailed weeks of hearings. Well over 1,500 of Silverstein’s signatures were challenged, mostly on the pretext that they were “not signed in their own proper person,” which means forged, or that they were not registered or didn’t live in the 8th District. The board has or retains experts who compare the petition signature with that of the voter on file. If the objection is sustained, then the candidate has the right to submit a notarized affidavit from the voter who signed the petition, or bring that signer to a hearing to testify. Silverstein said that he spent most of the Christmas and New Year’s weekends gathering affidavits, and thereafter brought in more than 50 people to authenticate their signatures.
But the operative question here is this: How does a 20-year state senator, who is also the 50th Ward Democratic committeeman, whose wife Deborah is the 50th Ward alderman and a loyal cog in the Emanuel Machine, fall from grace so far so fast?
“I depended” on other Democratic committeemen “to get me signatures,” Silverstein said, and they obviously did
State Representative John D’Amico (D-15), who represents the western half of Silverstein’s senate district, is on the 2018 ballot for re-election, is the nephew of Alderman Marge Laurino (39th), and runs the 39th Ward Laurino political operation, was quite blunt: “A lot of my captains would not circulate for him (Silverstein),” as sexual harassment stories were rife in late 2017.
I’m surely it’s purely coincidental that Villivalam’s wife was a former staffer in the alderman’s office and ran Laurino’s successful 2015 aldermanic re-election campaign against Robert Murphy, getting 53.2 percent.
Murphy then rebounded in 2016 to win the ward Democratic committeeman’s post, once held by Laurino’s husband, against a Laurino-backed candidate with 54.3 percent. Murphy is positioning himself to run for alderman against Laurino in 2019, but is reluctant to endorse Villlivalam.
“My organization has made no decision” as to endorsing Villivalam over Silverstein, but he disses Silverstein for his “abuse of power,” his “lack of judgment,” and demands that the senator resign, he said.
D’Amico carefully said that there are “mixed reviews” about his colleague Silverstein and that “perception is everything.” Said D’Amico: “I am not now taking a position” in the senate race.
A ballot challenge is potentially catastrophic to any candidacy. First, there is the embarrassment factor. How can he or she be credible (and electable) if he or she can’t even get 1,000 valid signatures? That raises serious questions about the candidate’s base, or lack thereof. Second, a petition challenge drains a candidate’s resources, diverts time, and delays focusing on issues. Money is going for attorney fees, not mailings. And third, nobody and/or no entity are going to donate if the candidate may not be on the ballot. Silverstein cannot seriously campaign until he knows he is on the ballot, and that may not be until mid-February, and Villivalam’s lawyers will drag out the appeals.
Having made it onto the ballot, in all likelihood Silverstein will stay on the ballot. But the question now becomes whether he will stay in the Illinois Senate. As of the Dec. 31 disclosure filing, Villivalam had raised $133,327 and Silverstein $32,550. According to D’Amico, Villivalam is out campaigning daily and knocking on doors, but has not unleashed any mailings. Silverstein said he is doing likewise.
Also on the March 20 ballot are David Zulkey, a young attorney from Sauganash whose lawyer father was a longtime political operative of former state Representative Ralph Capparelli, and Caroline McAteer-Fournier. Both submitted close to 3,000 signatures. Knocked off the ballot was Zehra Quadri, a staffer for state Senator Dan Biss, who is running for governor and is part of the Schakowsky organization, circulated petitions but did not file, leaving Silverstein as the only Jewish candidate. The senator said that 25 percent of the electorate in the 8th District is Jewish, and 45 percent of Democratic voters are Jewish.
The district extends from Clark Street to the east to Nagle-Milwaukee to the west, and contains 104 precincts in Chicago and 61 in the suburbs, including all or parts of Skokie, Lincolnwood, Niles, and Morton Grove. There are 42 precincts in Lang’s township, and another 29 in Maine Township (mostly Niles and Morton Grove). Silverstein wins on March 20 only if he carries the 50th Ward and Niles Township by 60/40. That is not a given.
Silverstein was elected state senator in 1998 in an upset, beating the slated Randy Barnette, Laurino’s husband, 9,469-8,625, or 41.5 percent, 4,724 votes going to Michael Ian Bender, now a judge. Silverstein has had no contested races since, and had solidified his 50th Ward by helping to oust Barnard Stone as committeeman and then in 2011 as alderman. But then Silverstein succumbed to the pernicious “Howie Carroll Syndrome,” named after his predecessor who was a “BMIS” – meaning Big Man In Springfield – but was an unknown man in his district.
Carroll was in leadership, like Silverstein until recently. Carroll had a busy law practice, in which he was a “rainmaker,” getting lots of clients due to his prominence. Carroll, a sometime ally of Stone in the 50th Ward, had no effective Republican opposition. And Carroll, like Silverstein, ignored his constituency. He never bothered to campaign, especially not door-to-door. He sent out a newsletter each year. He rarely attended any local events. And in 1998, after 26 years as senator, he got his clock cleaned when he laid claim to Sid Yates’ open congressional seat.
In a primary which featured the then-boyish J.B. Pritzker, now running for governor who was then working on being a billionaire, along with Schakowsky, then an energetic Evanston state representative, Carroll totally bombed. Schakowsky won 31,443-23,963 over Carroll, or 45.1 percent, with 14,256 for Pritzker. Schakowsky won because her Evanston base delivered 75/25 percent for her, while Carroll barely got a majority in his 50th Ward. Carroll never established himself. He never gave voters a reason to vote for him, and never identified himself with any salient issue. Just like Silverstein now.
Ironically, the Carroll-Schakowsky-Pritzker contest elicited a huge Jewish turnout in the 9th District’s east end, which gave Silverstein an 844-vote win over Barnette. Twenty years may have passed, but the Laurino-D’Amico clan remembers. March 20 is payback time.
There was a Cook County probate judge, since retired, who prominently and perceptively displayed on the bench a sign which said “SILENCE IS NOT BAD.” Silverstein is testing that admonition. His public relations advisors are telling him to say nothing. In short, don’t explain, don’t clarify, retract, qualify or amplify. Just pretend that nothing happened.
We’ll find out if that is a wise strategy on March 20.

Russ Stewart is a political analyst for teh Chicago Daily Observer

image Shel Silverstein

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