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Hey Norridge is Pretty Well Run, Shouldn’t Madigan be Looting It?

Russ Stewart 26 February 2013 10 Comments

Tom Benigno, Illinois deputy Secretary of State, is running a goody-goody campaign for village president of Norridge. And that, as a strategy, is a sure ticket to defeat.

In the 40 years I’ve been writing this political column, I’ve observed and analyzed a vast number of goody-goody campaigns and candidates.

Norridge

You know the type: A candidate so dreamy and delusionary that he/she fervently believes that being a friendly, sincere, competent, compassionate, loveable, wonderful, modest, semi-saintly human being, utterly devoid of hubris and megalomania, selflessly committed to “serving” all of humankind, and dedicated to building a Utopia on earth, makes him/her irresistible to voters. Of course, they want to do it their way, since they alone know best, and they are making a tremendous “sacrifice” to lead the unknowing into the pastures of bliss. Of course, they lose. And, of course, they can’t understand why.

Most voters esteem politicians as only slightly more desirable than cockroaches and bedbugs. They are a nuisance tolerated, never eradicated, and never trusted. Most especially, voters have a built-in antenna for goody-goody candidates. If he/she says “trust me, I’ll do what is best for you,” it’s a sure signal that he/she is either clueless, or lying.

A candidate must understand the voters’ psyche. He/she must give them a reason to expel the idiots who are in, and replace them with the idiots who are out. He/she must have a rationale for running, a campaign theme, and a hypothesis for governing. He/she must promise to fix something, cleanse something, or scrub out somebody. It’s called the “Brillo Test.” Voters demand proof of misdeeds, misfeasance and/or mis-governance.

Fast forward to Norridge, a vibrant western Cook County suburb of 14,572, home of the Harlem-Irving Plaza (HIP), oceans of commercial sales tax revenue, an annual budget of $19.5 million, 150 jobholders, no unions, no TIFs, a $5 million reserve fund, no indebtedness, a S&P AAA-rating, and no revenue stamps on home sales. If it was a corporation, it would be ripe for a hostile takeover – which is precisely what Benigno and his backers, including Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan (D) and former state senator Jim DeLeo (D), are doing.

Since its founding in 1949, Norridge has had three mayors: Joe Sieb (1951-1998); Earl Field, who took over after Sieb died; and Ron Oppedisano, who became mayor after Field died in 2009, is undergoing treatment for leukemia, and is retiring in 2013. The potential successors are James Chmura, the village chief financial officer, and Benigno, who has been Jesse White’s chief-of-staff since 1999, earning $156,676-a-year – a job he intends to keep.

Benigno’s line of attack on the incumbent administration, Oppedisano, and Chmura is non-existent. “Moving Norridge forward” blares one of his flyers. “Continuing the tradition of good public service” trumpets another. Absolute pablum. “I won’t take a salary, pension or benefits,” Benigno promised. Of course, he already has a salary, pension and benefits, and, after working 9-to-5 daily in the Thompson Center, Benigno promises he would be on-the-job in Norridge evenings and Saturdays. He’ll be a veritable Superman, devoting up to 60 hours weekly to public service.

I interviewed Chmura, running on the “Norridge Improvement Party” ticket, which was the moniker used by Sieb, Field and Oppedisano in past elections. “We do not need state or Chicago politics or politicians to run our village,” fumed Chmura. “We do not need outsiders raising our taxes or padding our payrolls.” And, he added, ask Benigno what he would “do better than we are doing now?” I did.

“I have an improvement agenda,” insisted Benigno. “We must get back to the community.” And, the clincher: “I have a record of service.” Wow. That’s goody-goody.

The village president’s job pays $60,000, which is less than the $63,000 Chmura now earns. “I will be a full-time mayor,” pledged Chmura, age 63, a former IRS agent who has lived in Norridge since 1983, and has been employed since 1998. Benigno, age 57, has lived in Norridge since 1996, and has a different take. “(Norridge) residents need access to village services evenings and Saturdays. I will expand (village) hours, and be there for them.” Plus, he noted, none of Norridge’s mayors have been full-timers: Sieb owned a plumbing company, Field an ambulance service, and Oppedisano a tax service. “They worked part-time,” he said.

That’s well and good. Park Ridge’s mayor is paid $12,000 annually, and Niles’ $4,000. That’s definitely part-time pay. Benigno sidesteps that issue by promising to serve without pay. The Norridge job will be, emphasized Benigno, “the capstone of my career. I want to be (village) president for life.” With Democrat White, who is black and will be age 80 in 2014, running for re-election to a fifth term, and sure to win, Benigno will be on the state payroll until 2018 – which means he can retire with a 20-year state pension of about $125,000 annually.

And he’ll get another county pension. Prior to his current gig, Benigno worked for county government. Benigno had been a Chicago precinct worker, with ties to the 36th Ward, where he was a pal of DeLeo. His father, Ned Benigno, ran the county’s forestry department. Here young Benigno met White, protégé of longtime county board president George Dunne (1969-90). White had a second job as Dunne’s aide during the 16 years he served as an Illinois state representative.

In 1992, when Carol Moseley Braun ran for U.S. Senator, White won the county recorder’s post. In 1994, Benigno shifted onto White’s payroll. In 1998, White ran for Secretary of State, and looked a loser until the frontrunner, cancer-stricken state senator Penny Severns, withdrew and endorsed him. In the Democratic primary, White, with a surge in Chicago’s black wards, beat Orland Park police chief Tim McCarthy, 484,798-384,603 (55.8 percent). In the election, White faced the well-known Al Salvi, the Republicans’ 1996 U.S. Senate nominee, and creamed him by a 437,206-vote margin (55.5 percent), winning Cook County by 573,358 votes.

Benigno in 1999 moved onto the state payroll, as White’s deputy Secretary of State, the office’s number two job. Without dispute, White has been a scrupulous, veracious and competent officeholder – for which Benigno deserves some credit. Akin to a major corporation, the office has 3,700 employees and an annual $400 million budget. “We’ve cut wait lines (and) improved counter services. We’re on-line,” said Benigno. “And we’ve been scandal-free.” Compared to the corruption under George Ryan’s tenure (1991-98), White’s 15-year reign has been positively pristine. ”I have administrative skills,” added Benigno.

He’s also padded White’s payroll with family: His wife, 3 children, aunt, cousin and nephew. “My wife no longer works there,” claimed Benigno.

Unfortunately, tying himself to White, and running on the record of his daytime job, won’t cut it. “He has done nothing in the community,” said Chmura of Benigno. “People don’t know him.” However, after Benigno spends $100,000, bombards Norridge’s 4,900 households with eight mailers, and has an army of outsiders – family, friends, political cronies and 13th and 36th Ward precinct captains – trooping through the 10 precincts, they definitely will. “I won’t force any of my employees to work for me,” insisted Benigno, but said his 65 cousins will be in evidence.

What are Benigno’s issues? “There’s no (Norridge) downtown,” he said, stating that he wants to help develop the 3-acre property occupied by the shuttered Norridge Theater and Lenell Cookies on Harlem Avenue. He said he can get federal and state grants to fix the flooding along Lawrence west of Cumberland. He wants more funding for Meals-On-Wheels, more playgrounds, a senior transport program, and “resource-sharing” with Harwood Heights and Norwood Park Township. “There’s a lot to be done. I’ll be an activist president,” Benigno pledged.

Chmura scoffs at Benigno “There’s nothing wrong with Norridge. Crime is low. We have 37 police officers. Property taxes are low. The (Norridge) tax levy is only 20 percent of the total (tax) bill, and increased only 1.2 percent in 2012. We have low water and electric rates, and low vehicle sticker fees. HIP generates $22 million annually in sales tax revenues, of which we receive a share. We are economically sound. Making him (Benigno) president won’t be an ‘improvement.’”

With a campaign budget of $30,000, Chmura anticipates three mailings and counts on up to 150 volunteers. But he can’t count on the Martwicks, Norridge’s royalty, for assistance. Martwick the Elder — Sir Robert, tax appeal attorney extraordinaire and Democratic township committeeman since 1969 — and Martwick the Younger — Prince Rob, the area’s Democratic state representative (whom I dubbed “Silver Spoon Rob”) — are both “neutral.” Said the Prince: “I have to work with everybody. I’m not taking sides.” If he wins, Benigno promises not to run against Martwick for committeeman in 2014.

Expressing disappointment, Chmura noted he was always loyal to the Martwicks. “Maybe it’s because of Madigan and White,” he mused.

Prediction: Norridge has 7,400 registered voters, of which 40 percent are of Polish ancestry, and a quarter seniors. In 2009, Oppedisano got 1,513 votes unopposed, and in 2005 Field got 1,947 votes unopposed. On April 9, Benigno will fail the Brillo Test. Chmura will win 53-47 percent..

Russ Stewart is a political analyst for the Chicago Daily Observer

E-mail Russ@russstewart.com or visit his website at www.russstewart.com.

10 Comments »

  • Bob said:

    This author is clearly pro Chmura. When a candidate says something like, “there’s nothing wrong with Norridge”, that raises a flag. For me, that’s the slogan of an incumbent candidate willing to rest on his past record. Without such a record, it is the words of someone content with the status quo and content to simply “mail it in”. Norridge deserves someone who is not content with the status quo.

  • John Powers said:

    “Norridge deserves someone who is not content with the status quo”

    or as stated in the headline

    “Hey Norridge is Pretty Well Run, Shouldn’t Madigan be Looting It?”

  • Frederick said:

    One candidate pledges to improve the town and offers new ideas. The other says there’s nothing wrong and has his people threaten and intimidate residents, local businesses, and village workers into supporting him. If your plan consists of telling people “we have to keep Chicago out of Norridge,” you have already lost my vote.

    People need to open their eyes. This is poor journalism. It is very biased. Change is needed. Sometimes change comes via clout.

  • Jerome said:

    The author failed to mention that Chmura has seen significant pay raises as Financial Director for Norridge over the last few years…
    hmmm…Financial Director who is in charge of village budgets…giving himself pay raises (plural) while Mayor Oppedisano was battling his illness. What a stand up guy…NOT!!!

  • Antonio Pavone said:

    As an Italian-American I have to say that I am embarrassed by the way Mr. Benigno is running his campaign. I was initially considering Mr. Benigno with the false sense that change may be good. However, I am tired of his relentless personal attacks on Mr. Chmura. His mailer today helped me make up my mind. When I saw the picture of Mr. Chmura pushing a shopping cart full of money that was blowing around freely in the wind it made me realize that Mr. Benigno is not the guy I want running Norridge. The campaign ad was very unprofessional. It is sad that Mr. Benigno has to resort to that type of mindless personal attack in lieu of talking about himself and what he can and will do for Norridge with a timeline if he is elected. Anyone can make empty promises. Mr. Benigno must have a lot of money to waste with these ads that don’t say anything about his own candidacy.

    Some of the parents picking up our children from school today were talking about Mr. Benigno’s negative campaign and nobody is pleased. We were hoping to hear more about what Mr. Benigno really has to offer and less of the typical political nonsense that we, as voters, have become accustomed to with the national elections. He has now become a bully in my eyes and has lost my vote. With regard to Mr. Benigno’s campaign ads, most of the photographs depicting parks and locations aren’t even in Norridge! Most of the people pictured in his ads aren’t even Norridge residents! And lastly, why would his banners be posted on the corner of Irving Park Road and Cumberland Avenue, which is Chicago, at least three to four blocks from our village limits? Mr. Benigno, Did you forget? You are running for Norridge, not Chicago!

    I started doing some research online and some of the things Mr. Benigno has proposed as “his ideas” have actually been in the works for some time. For instance, his proposal on developing the old Norridge Theater and surrounding area; this is already in the works. Property development takes planning, time and money for funding. Is Mr. Benigno going to fund it with his personal money and have it ready within his first couple of years if he gets elected? What is your time frame Mr. Benigno? Let’s talk about what you’re going to do and when, if elected! There are plenty of news articles referencing the Norridge Comprehensive plan. Anyone with a computer or access to the library can look it up: http://norridge.suntimes.com/news/15493419-418/norridge-moves-forward-on-comprehensive-plan.html . Mr. Benigno, in his own words relates that he wants to continue to provide the great service that residents have been afforded under the leadership of the late Mayor Earl Field and the current Mayor Ronald Oppedisano. Does Mr. Benigno realize that Mr. Chmura worked under both Mayors and has acted in their capacity when the need arose on several occasions? If things have been so good, then why would we want to change them? Currently, our property taxes are some of the lowest in the county, thanks in part to the sales tax revenue from the Harlem-Irving Plaza and the financial planning under Mr. Chmura. With the HIP’s expansion, negotiated in part by Mr. Chmura, this is only going to get better. This is a great neighborhood and I don’t want it to be anything like Chicago or run like the State of Illinois, which is financial ruins. Mr. Benigno is one of the two highest paid employees out of the top fifty highest earners working for the Illinois Secretary of State. As the Deputy Secretary of State he earns a reported $156,676.00; source: (http://databases.sj-r.com/salaries/state-of-il/department/secretary-of-state/). If you’re so concerned Mr. Benigno, how about offering a pay cut to help a struggling Illinois economy? Making your kind of money I wouldn’t take any additional money moonlighting as a part-time Village President either. We need somebody here full-time to take us into the future. Things in Norridge are great financially and service is excellent!. It’s a great community, even in Mr. Benigno’s own words. Let’s not destroy it!

  • Mateo said:

    Frederick said it! I have a friend who is a Norridge employee and Chmura is making lots of pressure to support him…when I hear this, I knew who I need to vote for and his name is not Chmura.

  • Elizabeth said:

    Hey Antonio, this one and only supposedly negative (albeit factual) campaign mailing by Benigno is nothing when you consider the tactics that Chmura is using to “gain” votes:

    -intimidating village workers for support and to work as Chmura campaign “volunteers”
    -bullying village seniors and non-English speaking residents into displaying Chmura front yard signs (threatening those who won’t conform with zoning citations)
    -lies about Benigno’s plans to annex into Chicago…last time I checked, we residents get to vote on such a thing

    Chmura was quoted herein…”“There’s nothing wrong with Norridge”.
    Tell that to the people near the Harlem Irving Mall who routinely get sewer water in their basement and had the mall’s expansion shoved down their throats. Those things have Chmura’s fingerprints all over them. I say no thanks to Chmura.

    And last but not least…why does my Benigno sign keep disappearing from my front yard???

  • Jack said:

    So, Mr Pavone, now that Chmura has resorted to smear tactics and negative campaigning, what say you and the parents with whom you chat when picking up your kids from school???

  • Lifetime Norridge Resident said:

    As a resident for my entire life (more than 50 years), I have seen numerous improvements to this community. What I have learned over the years is that people demand more services, but hate that they come with costs. Sure, the 911 service and trash collection aren’t “free” but it sure is nice to not have to pay a bi-monthly or monthly bill to a third party just to get a taken for granted service. I’ve paid my property taxes for years, and never once complained more than frowning when they’d come in the mail. I know I have to pay for the services I use, the schools my children attended, and everything else this village supports. If we wanted poor streets and high crime, we would only have to not pay our taxes. I live within a few blocks of the HIP, and know many, many people who work for the village or have family working for the village. NOT A SINGLE ONE has complained about the Chmura/NIP pressuring them into support. The perception by the outside is that there are 25-30 village employees canvassing together because they’re pressured. They enjoy their jobs, and enjoy each other. Sure they make money, and sometimes even I think some salaries are a little high, but they are working for us. We are the employers, and when the employers ask for something to be done (which needs to be paid for via taxes), it gets done. The village employees are great public servants on a municipal level, and the finances within Norridge support the fact that this is a very well-run municipality. Take a look at Des Plaines, Park Ridge, Elmwood Park, Oak Park, etc. Comparably speaking, Norridge is at the top of services rendered and at the bottom end of taxes incurred. Why? Because of the HIP. Say what you want about expansion, but we’re in the middle of a recession, and how many villages and cities do you see building new revenue areas and bringing business in? I’ll wait…The point is that Norridge is a great community with leaders who often choose to put the residents before themselves. I personally support James Chmura and the Norridge Improvement Party, because I have witnessed their success in the past and hope they continue it. To change hands and give Norridge to a man who will work only nights and weekends as mayor is preposterous. A $60,000 salary isn’t too nice, although it’s good, but it is what we give a FULL-TIME mayor. Other municipalities who have part-time mayors provide a salary of $20,000-$30,000 (many of which have city managers), so there’s nothing wrong with a salary at $60,000.

    On a final note, I wish Tom Benigno would actually use pictures from Norridge in his mailers, or even American coins (look closely, they’re all foreign coins!). Photoshop skills and lying only get you so far, and I hope they don’t get a member of our state (yeah, Ill-Annoy, number one in the land…yeah right!) to lead our village the next four years. Best of luck to Mr. Chmura and trustee candidates, we need you now!

  • Jack said:

    ‘Lifetime’…Norridge’s Village President position is and always has been a part time gig. Sieb, Field, Oppedisano and now Diamond Jim Chmura. Each of the previous mayors/ Village Presidents had business interests outside their role in government. Heck, even Earl Field is still prospering from the grave…OK I should say his family is prospering…did you know that the Field family provides a $1.3 million dollar/no bid contract to Norridge for ambulance service??? But, Chmura was intent on keeping the presumed “outsiders” away from Norridge’s goose that lays the golden eggs and making sure that those inside his little circle of corruption (wait and see on that one) did not allow others into Norridge government…meanwhile, most Norridge employees are not required to live in Norridge…hypocritical don’t you think???
    Norridge is not a vacuum…case in point…when you have some major work done om your home…let’s say a roof replacement…would you think twice about selecting a business with a good reputation that has an address outside Norridge??? Of course not…you would bring in the best people and Tom brought in people with experience in running political campaigns…Chmura had non-Norridge residents working for him…maybe next time, Diamond Jim,’s challenger will fight dirty like he did.
    And as for using pictures from Norridge, it is against the law to use taxpayer resources (i.e. fire trucks) in any political ad…but, here again, Diamond Jim either has no regard or no knowledge of the law.
    Tom Benigno’s reputation is beyond reproach and the voters of Norridge swung and missed!!!

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