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Grass Has Grown Under Mary O’Connor’s Feet

Russ Stewart 26 March 2015 No Comment

There is an ancient political saying: Don’t let the grass grow under your feet. That means not standing still. It means broadening one’s voter base and universe of support. It means using and maximizing one’s incumbency.

In the Far Northwest Side 41st Ward, where Alderman Mary O’Connor is completing her first term, the proverbial grass under and around her feet is knee-high and choked with weeds. Despite 4 years of incumbency, the bland, colorless and reliably pro-Rahm Emanuel O’Connor has not “grown” her circle of support. Despite facing two unknown, underfunded opponents on Feb. 24, O’Connor is in an April 7 runoff.

Incredibly, O’Connor got fewer votes in 2015 than she got in 2011, and she won even fewer precincts. In the 2011 municipal election, in a field of 11 candidates, O’Connor, the ward’s Democratic committeeman, finished first with 6,132 votes (30.5 percent of the total cast). In the ensuing runoff with Maurita Gavin, the chief of staff to outgoing Alderman Brian Doherty, O’Connor won 7,354-7,104 (with 50.9 percent of the vote), a margin of 250 votes, and won 21 of the ward’s 57 precincts. On Feb. 24 O’Connor got 7,122 votes (47.7 percent of the vote) — 232 fewer than in the 2011 runoff — and won a majority in just 17 of the ward’s 47 precincts. Clearly, the grass is growing.

O’Connor’s election foes were firefighter Anthony Napolitano and businessman Joe Lomanto, who finished with 6,343 votes (42.5 percent of the total) and 1,457 votes, respectively. O’Connor outspent Napolitano roughly $100,000 to $30,000. Yet the anti- or non-O’Connor vote was 7,800, which was 678 more than O’Connor’s, and Napolitano actually got a majority in 10 precincts.

Mark Twain once said that reports of his death were premature. So, too, are political obituaries for Mary O’Connor — at least until April 8. However, if O’Connor loses on April 7, her demise will be attributable to four factors — her slavish support of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Brian Doherty’s masterminding of Napolitano’s campaign, O’Connor’s inertia and the O’Connor-Mulroe 41st Ward Democrats’ abysmal failure to build a precinct infrastructure. Napolitano’s mailings rip O’Connor for her “98 percent pro-Emanuel” voting record.

On Feb. 24 Emanuel won the 41st Ward 6,553-4,265 over Chuy Garcia, in a turnout of 15,121. That meant that only 43.3 percent of those who voted backed the mayor. Of the 8,568 voters who didn’t back Emanuel, only about 750 voted for O’Connor. Nobody expects Garcia to top Emanuel in the ward on April 7, but it will be close. A vote for Garcia is a vote against Emanuel, and a vote for Napolitano is a vote against Emanuel. In 2011 Gery Chico topped Emanuel in the ward 49.9 percent to 42.3 percent. If Garcia wins the 41st Ward, O’Connor is a goner.

“Brian’s the guy,” one admiring Napolitano’s campaign strategist said of Doherty, who was the ward’s alderman from 1991 to 2011. “He brought us all together.” Doherty is Napolitano’s “field coordinator,” meaning that his job is to put people in precincts and have those people find pro-Napolitano voters. “Our base is solid,” Doherty said, referring to Napolitano’s 6,343 votes. “They will vote again on April 7. The Lomanto voters will support us. A lot of city workers and their families who didn’t believe we could win and didn’t vote will come out to support us. If we can turn out 10 to 20 more voters per precinct, we win.”

Doherty acknowledged that a procession of would-be aldermen consulted with him during the past 2 years, seeking his advice or support to run against O’Connor. “I gave them my 100/100 lecture: $100,000 in funding and 100 precinct workers,” he said. “That discouraged almost everybody.”

Not Napolitano. Every Chicago ward has a population of roughly 55,000. The 41st Ward, encompassing Norwood Park, Edison Park, Oriole Park, and part of Edgebrook, has 34,339 registered voters. According to city statistics, the 41st Ward has as many city workers, including police officers and firefighters, as the 19th Ward. One Napolitano operative said that that “sphere of influence,” which includes current workers’ families as well as retirees, aggregates to about a quarter of the vote — at least 4,000. Add to that the public sector unions and the ward’s solid base of Republicans, and O’Connor’s defeat borders on the inevitable.

Over 4 years, on every critical issue, O’Connor was with the mayor. She differed only on the plastic bag ban and the minimum wage hike, but unions were particularly enraged when Emanuel laid off 80 janitors at O’Hare Airport (which is in O’Connor’s ward) just before Christmas, and she uttered no objection. It was “Mary No-Peep.” The Service Employees International Union, which is virulently anti-Rahm, is already up with anti-O’Connor cable televisions ads, and mailings will follow.

However, Republicans are the key. The ward went 9,914-9,326 for Democrat Pat Quinn for governor in 2010, and Quinn beat Bruce Rauner 9,465-8,814 in 2014. Mitt Romney got 46.7 percent of the vote in 2012. A quarter of the ward’s voters are hard-core Republicans who have been ignored by, and who have no affection for, O’Connor. Doherty’s erstwhile ally, state Representative Mike McAuliffe (R-20), the ward’s Republican committeeman, has a nonaggression pact with the Democrats by which doesn’t back anybody against O’Connor and state Senator John Mulroe (D-10), and they back nobody against him. McAuliffe is conspicuous by his absence in this contest.

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However, Doherty is the proverbial bull in the china shop. He went to Dan Proft, a Republican who runs a conservative political action committee, and got the money to mail to every Republican household a piece “recommending” a vote for Napolitano. It worked. The incongruous Republican/anti-Rahm/pro-union/city worker coalition was a majority on Feb. 24. O’Connor’s polling showed her with 58 to 60 percent of the vote, and she was stunned by the outcome.

Early voting accounted for almost 4,400 ballots, or almost 30 percent of the vote. The Napolitano source said that he got 75 percent of the early voters, attributing that to several factors — that his precinct volunteers, primarily firefighters, were out in the ice and snow during January, that he always had someone stationed outside the Roden Library handing out fliers to early voters, and that O’Connor didn’t begin her 12 mailings until halfway through the early voting period. “She ran an inept campaign,” the source said. One of the alderman’s talking points was that she “brought in over $100 million in school upgrades” and “$30 million in water main improvements” during her term. “I started those when I was alderman,” Doherty said.

The outlook: A recent Fraternal Order of Police poll had 70 percent of police officers in the ward supporting Garcia, which means that they also will vote for Napolitano, who has made no endorsement for mayor. Turnout will not exceed 15,000. Whoever can best energize their base will win, with Lomanto’s 1,457 votes critical. To win, Napolitano needs all of them. Give a slight edge to Napolitano.

31st Ward: In the heavily Puerto Rican Belmont-Cragin ward, the grass has long since become a jungle, and Alderman Ray Suarez’s predicament makes O’Connor plight seem rosy by comparison. Suarez has been an alderman since 1991, he had $1.3 million in campaign funds on hand as of Dec. 31, and he is an ally of ward boss Joe Berrios, the county assessor, the ward Democratic committeeman and the county Democratic Party chairman, who had $1.2 million in hand.

Yet, Suarez got a piddling 2,769 votes (48.0 percent of the total cast) on Feb. 24, and he faces a runoff with Milly Santiago, a former Telemundo Channel 44 broadcaster, who had 2,137 votes (37.1 percent). Suarez’s political collapse is startling. In 2011 he was unopposed and got 5,508 votes, and in 2007 he got 4,526 votes. In the municipal election, he got 2,739 fewer votes than in 2011. The ward has 21,429 registered voters, but only 5,899 turned out. That means that 87.1 percent of the ward’s voters either didn’t vote or didn’t vote for Suarez.

The alderman’s fast fade is attributable to two factors: his slavish support for Emanuel and the growing perception that the “Berrios Machine” is no longer invincible. Emanuel won the ward in 2011 2,446-2,232 over Chico, but he lost it 2,947-2,323 to Garcia, who has endorsed Santiago, as have U.S. Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-4) and state Representative Will Guzzardi (D-39). Clearly, the “fear factor” has evaporated. Instead of being Darth Vader, Berrios is looking more and more like Rodney Dangerfield. Guzzardi beat Berrios’ daughter in the 2014 primary, losing the 31st Ward 1,445-1,233. If Suarez is ousted in the runoff, Santiago will surely challenge Berrios for committeeman in 2016, and if Berrios is defeated, he’ll no longer be eligible to be county chairman, and if he’s not chairman in 2018, he won’t be able to engineer his slating as assessor. A lot is riding on the Suarez-Santiago outcome.

The outlook: Suarez won 20 of 41 precincts on Feb. 24. Santiago, invigorated by her showing, is attracting money and volunteers. Her theme is almost Obama-like: “Change.” Berrios said his polling has Emanuel and Suarez at close to 60 percent, while other sources predict Garcia will win the ward 2-1. If that occurs, Santiago will prevail.

Another factor is the battle in the open 36th Ward between Omar Aquino, a protege of Berrios and Suarez, and Gil Villegas, an ally of state Representative Luis Arroyo, a Berrios rival. Because Berrios is bogged down in his own ward, he can’t send his workers into the 36th Ward. That gives an edge to Villegas.

**
Russ Stewart is a political analyst for the Chicago Daily Observer

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

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