Park Ridge Mayor’s Race Heats Up
In northwest suburban Park Ridge, the mantra for 2013 is “Just Say No.” As in “Mayor No.” And “no more non-sense,” “no more non-essential spending,” “no more vetoes,” “no more bullying,” “no more deficits,” and, most emphatically, “no more Mayor Dave Schmidt.” How much “no” is too much “no”?
This city of 37,480 has had four mayors in the past decade, and self-styled “independent” Larry Ryles wants to be the fifth. Schmidt, he says, is “despised and detested” by the public and six of seven aldermen, and that he’s running to cure the “muck, mire and mess” into which Schmidt has plunged the city. “Civility and morality” will be his goals, said Ryles, a 65-year old military veteran who served 27 years in the U.S. Army, discharged as a Ranger sergeant-major. “We must do what is right, not what is expedient.”
“Ridiculous,” retorted Schmidt, “total lies.” He wants to “return to the old days of tax and spend,” said Schmidt of Ryles, who added that Ryles’ “biggest booster is Howard Frimark,” whom Schmidt, a Republican, defeated in 2009. “He (Frimark) can’t stand rejection. He recruited him (Ryles) because he knew he couldn’t beat me. He was a terrible mayor.”
During Frimark’s 2005-09 term, charged Schmidt, the city “ran $7.8 million in spending deficits. In my four years, we had a $3.8 million surplus — $350,000 in 2010, $1.5 million in 2011, $1.1 million in 2012, and $811,000 in 2013. We are correcting ruinous fiscal policies.”
“He (Schmidt) is a bully,” retorted Ryles, noting that Schmidt vetoed 51 council-passed fiscal ordinances, and that the aldermen over-rode 47 vetoes. “Nineteen times,” he said, bills “passed 5-1 or 6-1, and he still vetoed” them. Adds Ryles: “There’s no teamwork, no agenda, no economic development plan. He never discusses anything. There is no flow of information. This is non-sense. That’s not leadership.” And, adds Frimark, “when I was mayor, I never vetoed” any ordinance.
Schmidt, a 53-year old attorney, scoffs at the allegations. “Everywhere I go, people are praiseworthy and encouraging. They tell me ‘thank you’ for restoring fiscal sanity.”
As for economic development, Schmidt pledges to “continue strengthening Park Ridge’s financial position,” acknowledging that the 2006-08 housing market collapse and 2007-09 recession hit hard. An astounding number of knockdowns and $1 million-plus McMansion construction from 1995 to 2006 created inflated home values, which subsequently collapsed, causing a rash of foreclosures. Because prices were so high, they have yet to bottom out and rebound, as in most adjoining suburbs. Because homeowners can’t sell, demographic change is minimal. People can’t move, so they’re stuck. New home and condo construction has evaporated. .
It creates a different mindset, explained Schmidt. When people see their home value appreciate ten percent annually, their equity explode, and know they can sell in a matter of days, they’re unconcerned about paying higher property taxes or government fees. Not anymore, noted the mayor. When property values have plunged and property taxes soar, they definitely do care about government spending, he said.
“I held the line on taxes,” insisted Schmidt, noting that a 2012 staff estimate of projected 2013 city spending increased the property tax levy by $1,863,036, an 11.16 percent hike, to roughly $16.7 million. The Park Ridge budget is $60 million, of which about $30 million comes from general tax and fee revenue, and half of that from property taxes. “So we” – meaning Schmidt, his budget staff, and the aldermen – “cut $1.5 million,” said Schmidt, including pension contributions, library improvements, legal expenses, personnel, and service costs. “It had to be done,” noting that 2013’s property tax levy hike was only $364,829, or 2.15 percent.
Schmidt’s budget ax didn’t stop there. He vetoed appropriations for community groups, defibrillator replacement, Meals-on-Wheels, the firefighters’ contract, $1.5 million in police station renovations, two contracts for the city manager which he called “bloated,” $1 million for the Uptown TIF and a myriad of budget add-ons. Schmidt called these “non-essential.” Ryles called it “grandstanding.” Schmidt opposes spending $16 million to build a new police station, which the alderman approved.
The mayor claims he is succeeding, citing city sales tax revenue increases from $4.5 million annually when Frimark left office to $5.5 million in 2013. His philosophy is that low taxes spur economic growth.
Ryles cites the departure of a number of Park Ridge businesses, including American Eagle, George May Co., Big Ten, and the Anesthesiologist Association, a plethora of vacant storefronts, plus delays in construction of Whole Foods and Mariano’s super-stores, as proof of Schmidt’s “failures. We have to work out our problems. We have to spend what is necessary.” His philosophy is that higher spending, even if it requires higher taxes, spurs economic growth.
In 2009, Schmidt, then alderman, was regarded as a “fringe” candidate, and his campaign totally Quixotic. Frimark, a Republican, had soundly defeated Democrat Mike Tinaglia in 2005 by 4,889-3,225 (60.2 percent), and was viewed as a visible, voluble mayor. Park Ridge municipal elections are non-partisan, but no prominent Democrat deemed it wise to challenge Frimark, who was thought unbeatable. Schmidt was in mid-term, and faced no risk if he ran and lost.
Schmidt attacked Frimark from the right, blasting him as a big spender, a fiscally incompetent mayor, and a liberal. Schmidt ran a low-key campaign, spent $34,000, and had four negative mailers. He made the election a referendum on Frimark, whose doom originated in the torrential rains and flooding of September-November 2008, when almost 40 percent of Park Ridge basements were afloat. Schmidt’s pieces hammered Frimark for “failing to fix the flooding,” for failing to nab the tenth casino license (which went to Des Plaines), for attending only two meetings of the Suburban O’Hare Commission in four years, and for failing to repair “terrible streets.” Schmidt, who broke into politics as an ardent Reaganite, stayed on message – which was Get Rid of Frimark. He didn’t digress into irrelevant social issues. As a result, he created a unique anti-Frimark coalition of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats, who hated the mayor for engineering a city council reduction from 14 to 7, wiping out the Democratic presence.
Frimark compounded his problems by emphasizing support for a new police station, ignoring flooding issues. He spent $51,000, did not go negative on Schmidt, and lost 4,616-3,615, getting 44 percent. Of the city’s 45 precincts, Frimark won 13.
In 2013, the election is a referendum on Schmidt, who expects to spend $50,000 and hopes to win with 70 percent. “I need a mandate,” he said. The key issue is Schmidt’s style of governance, coupled with spending, taxing and vetoing policy. Ryles has lived in Park Ridge since 1995, has two children in grammar school, is active in civic groups, and is a thoughtful and credible contender. He will spend $35,000, and his economic plan can be summarized as “stay home, bring home, and sell home.” By that, he means keep current businesses and residents satisfied with city services, then bring in more businesses, then convince outsiders that Park Ridge is an advantageous place to shop and live.
The stalled Mariano’s project, a proposed supermarket at Touhy-Cumberland, which would be a sales-tax cash cow, is an emerging issue. The developer blames chaos and staff turnover in city government for zoning delays. Ryles blames Schmidt’s refusal to allow TIF tax breaks for the delay. Schmidt wholeheartedly endorses the project, says TIF is not a problem, but blames the developer’s “lack of funding” for the delay.
In 2008, Barack Obama won the city 8,329-7,562, but barely carried it in 2012. Turnout was 19,543 in 2012, but only 8,231in 2009, about 30 percent of registered voters. The Republican and Democratic base is 30 percent each.
Prediction: Schmidt wins if he’s perceived as principled and responsible, Ryles if Schmidt is viewed as cantankerous and obstructionary. In a turnout of 7,800, Schmidt will with 54 percent.
Maine Township: It’s a political abattoir – a killing field. A decade of vicious ideological warfare among Republicans, with the socially liberal, pro-choice wing battling the conservative, anti-abortion wing, has decimated the party. The schism erupted in 2001, when the faction of Bill Darr, Bob Dudycz and Bob Provenzano dumped incumbent Supervisor Mark Thompson, an ally of pro-choice State Representative Rosemary Mulligan (R), inserting Dudycz. In 2002, Thompson ousted Darr as committeeman. In 2006, Thompson beat Provenzano. In 2009, Thompson lost for Des Plaines mayor. In 2010, Mulligan ousted Thompson. And in 2012, Mulligan bungled her nominating petitions, and was knocked off the ballot.
Provenzano, the township road commissioner, is the Last Man Standing.
Mulligan’s ineptitude paved the way for Des Plaines Mayor Marty Moylan, a Democrat, to win the 55th District House seat. He beat pro-life conservative Susan Sweeney (R) by 2,285 votes (53.2 percent). Mulligan endorsed Moylan. Provenzano was “neutral.”
Prediction: Moylan and Provenzano are very, very close personal friends. Moylan made sure Democrats did not run a slate in the 2013 township election, leaving Provenzano unopposed for his $80,000-a-year job. Both Moylan and Provenzano will run for township committeeman in 2014 of their respective parties. The Killing Field is now the Love Boat.
Russ Stewart is a Political Analyst for the Chicago Daily Observer
E-mail Russ@russstewart.com or visit his website at www.russstewart.com.
image country music legends the Hager Twins went to High School at Maine East in Park Ridge