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