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Seismic Shift: The Earth has Moved for Joe Berrios

Russ Stewart 30 April 2015 One Comment

For Joe Berrios, the 2015 city elections were an “Apocalypse Now” moment. In 2014, despite spending close to $750,000, daughter Toni Berrios lost renomination for state representative. This cycle, despite spending $750,695 (with cash-on-hand of $1,540,672 as of April 1), Berrios and his allies lost aldermanic races in the North Side 31st and 36th wards. Berrios also intervened but failed to defeat the 1st Ward incumbent, and sometime ally Ray Colon lost in the 35th Ward.

Poor image combined with poor judgment is to blame.  Berrios stuck with Rahm Emanuel in the runoff, working against Chuy Garcia, who had a shot at being the city’s first Hispanic mayor.
earthquake

Suffice it to say that Berrios, the county assessor, county Democratic chairman, and 31st Ward Democratic committeeman, has had a very, very bad year. And it will persist. In 2016, he will be challenged for ward committeeman. If he loses, he will be ineligible to remain as county chairman. And if not chairman, his odds of being reslated as assessor in 2018 and being re-elected are negligible.

Berrios’s plight can be summarized in three words: Me, Myself and I.

Joe Berrios’s propensity for putting his kids, siblings and relatives on his public payroll, or  getting kin on other city or county payrolls by trading jobs with other officeholders, is legendary. It’s a lot easier than getting people to work precincts, and much, much easier than getting voters to swallow his Me-First, I’ll-do-whatever-I-want, Nepotism-Now-and-Forever philosophy.

Berrios’s debacle produced collateral damage in the 30th and 26th wards. Aldermen Ariel Reboyras (30th) and Roberto Maldonado (26th), both Berrios allies who backed Rahm, find their empires in jeopardy. The North Side is heavily Puerto Rican, but divided into two factions: The insiders, led by Berrios, who are older and more conservative; and the outsiders, who are younger and more liberal. As of now, the outsiders are surging.

31th Ward (Belmont-Cragin, Avondale, Humboldt Park): “It was a seismic shift,” observed Alderman Proco Joe Moreno (1st) of 24-year Alderman Ray Suarez’s (31st) April 7 defeat by Milly Santiago, a Spanish-language TV broadcaster. Final figures gave Santiago an 86-vote win. “He (Berrios) lost his own alderman in his own ward,” said Moreno, and “failed to elect” his godson, Omar Aquino, in the adjacent, newly-created 36th Ward. “That’s a repudiation.”

I asked Manuel Galvan, longtime press spokesman for Berrios and Suarez, what happened? What does this portend for Berrios’s future? “I won’t talk to you,” he tersely replied. “You make things up.” But here are some facts which are not “made up.”

First, Berrios, age 63, has been a player in the ward since the 1970s, when he was a precinct captain for Tom Keane’s Democratic machine, and had a job as a clerk at the old Board of Tax Appeals (BTA). In 1982, as the Puerto Rican population grew, he became Illinois’ first Hispanic state representative. When Keane got convicted of bribery in 1976, he handed off the alderman’s job to his wife, and the committeeman’s post to Ed Nedza. Nedza was convicted of extortion in 1987, and gave the party post to Berrios. In 1983, the annointed Miguel Santiago to be the city’s first elected Hispanic alderman, and he joined the “Vrdolyak 29.”

In 1987, the ward’s voters – now three-fourths Hispanic – rebelled. Disgusted with nepotism, cronyism and corruption – does this sound familiar? — they elected pro-Harold Washington attorney Ray Figueroa as alderman, and went 56-44 percent for Washington in the 1987 primary over Jane Byrne. Figueroa ran against Berrios for Democratic committeeman in 1988, and solidly beat him.

But devine providence intervened. Berrios kept his BTA job while serving as a legislator; it’s called “double-dipping.” When Berrios’s boss, Commissioner Harry Semrow, died in November 1987, on the cusp of the filing deadline, Democratic bosses hurriedly got Berrios slated, passed his petitions, and got him on the ballot. Berrios won the countywide primary 54-46 percent, while losing the committeemanship; when Berrios got booted upstairs, Santiago was recycled and handed Berrios’s House seat, which he kept for ten years, and his wife was made a judge. Berrios got a second job as Santiago’s aide. After Santiago was ousted in 1998, Berrios became a lobbyist, representing the video poker industry.

More devine providence: Figueroa retired in 1991, and became a judge in 1994. In 1991, Figueroa backed Gloria Chevere against Berrios ally Ray Suarez, who won with 64 percent; and he abdicated the committeemanship to Berrios, leaving him unopposed in 1992. Joe was back.

Second, at the renamed Board of Review (BOR), which handles residential and commercial property tax appeals, Berrios became a money-raising machine. His campaign account rarely ever fell below $1 million, and he had hundreds of thousands of dollars in his ward account and his daughter’s account. As the Chicago Sun-Times noted in January 2010, when Berrios was running for assessor after 22 years as a BOR commissioner, Berrios “shamelessly rakes in political contributions from the lawyers who appear before the Board” and has “an inexcusable disregard for blatant conflicts-of-interest”; running against old foe Figueroa, now retired as judge, the Sun-Times tabbed Berrios as a “miserable candidate,” and endorsed Figueroa.

Nevertheless, amid accusations of favoritism and nepotisism – Berrios allegedly got 22 of his family members on some payroll, including his sister, son and daughter – voters just yawned. In the 2010 primary, Berrios won with 35 percent in a 3-candidate race, and won the election with 47.7 percent in a 4-candidate race. Hardly intimidating numbers. But, according to media sources, Berrios had raised $3 million from 2000 to 2010. Money counts.

In 2014, Berrios had no opposition. He won’t in 2018. Moreno and State Senator Ira Silverstein (D-8) are angling to run, as are others. But in a crowded primary, Berrios could win.

Third, Big Daddy’s base and aura of invincibility have crumbled. After April 7, Berrios has become the proverbial toothless tiger.

In 2012, unknown 26-year old North Carolina transplant Will Guzzardi challenged Toni Berrios in the Democratic primary, and lost. Guzzardi never stopped campaigning, constantly knocking on doors. In 2014, the Berrios Machine remained complacent. Guzzardi was that “nice young man”; Toni Berrios never defined herself, or gave voters a reason to vote for her. Guzzardi won 5,293-3,460 (60.5 percent), and Toni won her dad’s ward by just 1,445-1,233. Something’s happening here.

But instead of circling the wagons, Big Daddy remained the arrogant power broker, raising money and cutting deals. As of Dec. 31, 2014, Berrios had $752,475 in his county campaign account, and $502,540 in his ward account; Suarez had $1,307,009. That should have deterred 2015 opposition.

36th Ward: Given citywide Hispanic population growth, Latinos demanded a new North Side Hispanic-majority ward. They got one. The 2011 council remap cannibalized white Alderman Nick Sposato’s existing 36th Ward, creating a C-shaped monstrosity extending from Addison-Long west to Harlem west of Narragansett, then east to Fullerton-Kostner, north of Grand, including parts of Belmont Terrace, Schorsch Village, and Hermosa Park. It took in parts of the 31st , 36th, 37th, 38th and 29th wards. State Representative Luis Arroyo (D-3), a Berrios ally, coveted the seat, but Big Daddy had other plans.

Berrios brokered a “son swap” deal: Arroyo’s son, Luis Jr., would get Eddie Reyes’s county board seat, and Omar Aquino, son of Suarez’s best buddy, would get the aldermanic seat.  But then, according to insiders, Suarez began berating the elder Arroyo, claiming he wasn’t doing enough to elect young Aquino, and was backing somebody against him in the 31st Ward. Arroyo exploded: The hell with this. He recruited Santiago in the 31st Ward, and Gil Villegas in the 36th Ward. He made alliances with Sposato, Moreno and Guzzardi; he got popular U.S. Representative Luis Guttierez (D-4) to endorse both; he built a precinct organization of epic proportions, with allies like Moreno sending workers; and he jumped on Chuy’s bandwagon. “King Luis” – as in Arroyo – now reigns.

The two anti-Emanuel unions – Service Employees International Union (SEIU), representing city workers, and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) – didn’t get involved. It was basically a one-on-one: Berrios’s (and Suarez’s) money versus Arroyo’s manpower. The message was “change,” but voters understood the drift: Get rid of Joe. “He is so despised,” said one Arroyo ally.

And they responded: On Feb. 24, Suarez got 2,769 votes (48 percent) to Santiago’s 2,137; Suarez won 21 of 41 precincts. On April 7, Santiago won 21 precincts, and, according to the final count, triumphed 4,218-4,139 (50.5 percent). Garcia won the ward 5,265-3,192 (62.3 percent). Pro-Emanuel Suarez upped his vote by 1,370, and Santiago by 2,081. How can two guys with a combined $2,562,024 blow an election with only 8,357 voters? Don’t hire those guys to manage your portfolio. Santiago will take out Berrios as committeeman in 2016.

On Feb. 24, in the 36th Ward, Aquino proved to be a lightweight, getting 2,118 votes (35.6 percent) in a turnout of 5,954; Villegas got 1,944 votes (32.7 percent). In the runoff, Garcia won the ward 4,847-3,551 (57.7 percent), and Villegas easily dispatched Aquino 4,594-3,656 (55.7 percent), in a turnout of 8,250. Arroyo will be elected committeeman in 2016.

But Joe Berrios need not worry. All is well in Fantasyland. As his spokesman averred: I made this all up.

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

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

One Comment »

  • Lily said:

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