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May I Buy A Vowel? A Look at an Oak Park Primary Challenge

Russ Stewart 15 February 2012 One Comment

Oak Park just ain’t what it used to be. And neither is Don Harmon, Oak Park’s Democratic township committeeman, 10-year state senator, and powerful Illinois Senate president pro tempore.

Although still a bastion of liberalism, trying economic times are eroding Oak Park’s habitually guilty minds. In the 2008 presidential race, Barack Obama (D) annihilated John McCain with 84.3 percent. In the 2010 gubernatorial race, Pat Quinn (D) triumphed with 74.7 percent, and in the Senate contest, Alexi Giannoulias (D) won with 73.6 percent. Conservatism in general, either fiscal or social, and Republicanism in particular, have about as much appeal as a case of halitosis.

In years past, every self-respecting, politically-correct liberal white Oak Park Democrat would automatically vote for a black over a white, especially for a female black, and even more urgently for a minority and/or woman over a white male whose surname ended in a vowel. To do otherwise would cause a paroxysm of guilt.

But times have changed. And such an aberration is exactly what may occur on March 20 in the Democratic primary for the newly-configured 78th District Illinois House seat. Unless Harmon, like Horatio at the bridge, piles up a huge Oak Park margin to rescue Camille Lilly, the obscure black incumbent, white challenger Mike Nardello may win.

“If Harmon doesn’t deliver well over 60 percent of the Oak Park vote for her (Lilly),” said Oak Parker K.L. Daly, Nardello’s campaign manager, “then Mike wins.”

Like everywhere else in Chicago and the Cook County suburbs, Oak Park property values have collapsed. Homes valued at $850,000-and-up as recently as 2007 are now well under $500,000, but property taxes continue to climb. “The issue is affordable housing,” said Nardello.

“Reckless and undisciplined spending, both at the state and local level, is making home ownership unaffordable,” added Nardello. “And I hold every public official, including Lilly, and particularly Harmon, accountable. The root of the problem is that we continue to elect the same old ineffectual politicians to office, and they fail to find solutions.”

Lilly was appointed to Deborah Graham’s (D) House seat in 2010 after Graham was appointed 29th Ward alderman, replacing Ike Carothers, who was convicted of bribery. Lilly, Graham’s protégé, was then, and still is the “vice-president of external affairs” for Loretto Hospital, a full-time job. However, according to a Lilly campaign staffer, Lilly does not get paid at the hospital for days spent in Springfield or elsewhere. Lilly was a “founding member” of the Austin Chamber of Commerce, and was the paid executive director until 2010. Sounds like she’s a 24/7 kind of woman.

Because Lilly was appointed to Graham’s seat after the March 2010 primary, she was unopposed in the 2010 election, and March 20 is her first competitive race.

This columnist made four phone calls to Lilly’s legislative and political offices requesting an interview. Lilly failed to respond.

“That’s not atypical,” said Daly. “She (Lilly) has no presence and no visibility in the district. She is totally unknown.”

Originally designed in 2001 to elect a black Democrat, the old 78th District was 39 percent black and 14 percent Hispanic, encompassing most of the black-majority 29th and 37th wards in Chicago, all of Oak Park north of Madison Street, and Hispanic areas around Melrose Park, River Forest and Maywood. Graham won the seat in 2002, and was never seriously challenged. The new 78th District, crafted by Speaker Mike Madigan (D), eliminates all territory west of Harlem and south of North Avenue, and adds Elmwood Park, River Grove and Franklin Park, largely white areas with growing a growing Hispanic population. According to 2010 census figures, the district is now 50 percent white, 30 percent black and 20 percent Hispanic.

Harmon, an Oak Park attorney, also had his 39th Senate district crafted for him in 2001, and won unopposed in 2002 and 2008, and with 76.7 percent in 2006. In primaries, he was unopposed in 2002 and 2008, and beat Nardello in 2006 with 78.8 percent. Harmon is a close ally of Senate President John Cullerton.

Harmon’s senate district contained both Graham’s 78th and Skip Saviano’s (R) 77th House districts. Saviano, a Republican from Elmwood Park, was a onetime aide to Democratic State Senator Jim DeLeo, and a principal of the Elwood Park Republican machine run by Mayor Pete Silvestri. Saviano’s district, 84 percent white and 22 Hispanic in 2001, included Elmwood Park, River Grove, Franklin Park, Northlake, Schiller Park, Rosemont, a piece of Chicago, and Bensenville in DuPage County.

A non-aggression pact was struck. Harmon officed with Saviano in Elmwood Park. Graham officed with Harmon in Oak Park. Harmon made sure Leyden Township Democrats gave Saviano a pass, and Saviano made sure Republicans never seriously contested Harmon. Harmon made sure that Oak Park propped up Graham, campaigning as part of the Harmon/Graham (and, in 2008, Obama) team. Having a black female face on his literature was helpful.

But the 2011 remap changed everything. Saviano, first elected in 1992, no longer buddy-buddy with Madigan, found his Elmwood Park base in Lilly’s 78th District, along with River Grove and Franklin Park. The new 77th District now lies west of Mannheim, including Northlake, Rosemont, Bensenville, Addison and parts of Elk Grove, Villa Park, Wood Dale and Elmhurst; it also picked Stone Park, Melrose Park and parts of River Forest and Maywood from the old 78th District, making it about half Hispanic. Madigan recruited and will fund a Saviano foe, Kathy Willis. Saviano has $378,094 cash-on-hand, and is unbeatable.

Nardello said he’s been “campaigning heavily” in Saviano’s old district, and that voters “don’t realize” he will no longer be their representative. “I try to educate them. If they want somebody like Saviano, they should vote for me.”

The contenders have very different profiles:

Nardello is presently director of finance for Chicago’s Family and Support Services department, grew up in River Grove, has a family business in Elmwood Park, graduated from Holy Cross highschool, and is a longtime resident of Galewood in the 36th Ward, where he lives with his wife and three children. He has a master’s degree in finance from DePaul University. He is a close ally of Alderman Nick Sposato (36th), who scored a huge upset in 2011 over the ward’s Banks’ Machine. Nardello expects that the minions of the Saviano-Silvestri in Elmwood Park will covertly aid him, as a Lilly win in 2012 could embolden Harmon and Leyden Township Democratic committeeman Barrett Pedersen, Franklin Park’s mayor, to take on Saviano in 2014. “I will resign my (Chicago) job if elected state representative,” pledged Nardello.

Lilly is the quintessential non-politician, viewing public office more as an entitlement than a privilege. She is a graduate of Drake University and has a master’s in hospital administration from Oklahoma University. In the rough-and-tumble, Austin-based 29th Ward, where Graham has plenty of detractors, Lilly is viewed as a dilettante who has not earned her job. She has not attempted to build her own political organization, and is totally reliant on Graham and Harmon. U.S. Representative Danny Davis (D-7), a former ward alderman, is opposing Graham for Democratic committeeman, and most of Carothers’ old backers are with Davis.

Davis, age 70, may retire in 2016, wants to be committeeman to have input into his succession, and does not want Graham to be his successor. Lilly’s plight is everybody’s afterthought.

The new 78th District contains 104 precincts in three non-heterogeneous areas: 35 in Oak Park, the mostly white, upscale owner-occupied area north of Madison, which has few renters and minorities; 36 in Franklin Park (10), River Grove (8) and Elmwood Park (18), which are a mix of working-class white ethnics and Hispanics; and 33 in Chicago, including Galewood in the 36th Ward (10), Nardello’s base, and the black 29th (18) and 37th (5) wards – a loss of 8 black precincts from the current district.

During the second half of 2011, Lilly raised $39,161 and Nardello $36,334. Lilly has been a reliable Madigan vote in Springfield, backing the income tax hike, and the CBOE and Sears tax deals. Harmon raised $333,061 during the same period, and had $311,905 on-hand.

Turnout will be anemic, in the realm of 20-22 percent on March 20. That means 7,000-7,200 Democrats in the 78th District. The East End’s (Chicago) vote will be about 2,400, with Nardello winning 65-70 percent in the 36th Ward, and Lilly taking 80 percent in the black wards. That puts her up by 100-200 votes. In the West End (Leyden Township), with 1,900 votes, Nardello will win 1,300-600 (68 percent), a bulge of 700 votes. So the real battleground will be Oak Park, where turnout will be about 2,800, and the Harmon Machine will be scavenging for every possible vote. Lilly’s magic margin is 600 votes. Harmon must carry his 35 precincts by 1,700-900 (61 percent).

My prediction: Guilt is a great motivator, but the Obama fervor of 2008 has dissipated. Nardello has positioned himself as an “independent-thinking” Democrat, and won’t suffer McCain’s fate in Oak Park. In an upset, Nardello will beat Lilly by 100 votes.

Russ Stewart is political analyst for the Chicago Daily Observer

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