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Democracy Hits the Sewers: Nine Candidates for MWRD

Russ Stewart 31 December 2009 2 Comments

There are tolerable part-time jobs. There are superlative part-time jobs.

And there is the crème de la crème: Commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD), where the nine incumbents get paid $70,000 per year for a minimum of 66 hours’ work, 22 days a year – or $1,060 per hour.

Most unemployed people probably missed the MWRD job posting at www.monster.com:

“Available: Democrats only. Part-time post. Guaranteed 6 years. $70,000 salary, plus full family health benefits, pension, free auto, gas credit card. Office on North Michigan; indoor parking, 2.5 staffers. Attend two monthly meetings (2-3 hrs.) plus one each July, Aug. Minimum risks: No roll-call votes: all items on consent agenda; no media attention. Raise $50-100,000 from contractors. Must be slated by Democratic party, or procure 15,000 signatures on nominating petitions. Must win primary. No job security after 6 years.”

Of course, that posting never occurred, as attested by the fact that a stampede of nine people – in a county containing 5,376,741, with unemployment of 10.3 percent — filed to run in the Feb. 2 Democratic primary. Three will be nominated.

What does the MWRD do? It administers sewage treatment. Every time a Cook County resident flushes the toilet, the resultant effluent and solid waste must be gathered, processed, cleansed, and sent on its way down to the Mississippi River, or sold as fertilizer. Industrial and commercial waste, too, must be handled. The MWRD has an annual budget of $1.6 billion, more than the CTA ($1.3 billion) or the county health care system ($1.1 billion).

No other American metropolitan area elects politicians to handle sewage treatment. Not New York, Boston, Los Angeles or Detroit. At the MWRD, a corps of high-paid engineers, attorneys and other specialists oversee operations. They inform the president (elected from the 9 commissioners) of any immediate needs. The president prepares a consent agenda for the meetings, and it is routinely adopted. And the commissioners simply show up, gossip with staff, and depart by noon.

The annual cost to the taxpayers: $720,000 in salary (the president, vice-president, and chairman of finance get an extra $30,000), plus staff, perks, cars, overhead. Put it down at $2 million a year. Then there’s 2,100 more employees, $30 billion in assets, 109 square miles of acreage, the $3 billion Deep Tunnel for storm water runoff, and upwards of $500 million annually in construction contracts.

The MWRD keeps favored contractors profitable, trade unions busy, and a provides a consistent contributor cash flow for the Democratic party.

“It’s time for change,” said Todd Connor, one of the nine contenders for three nominations, sounding like Barack Obama. “We need transparency. We need accountability. We need single-member districts.”

Connor is correct. But it won’t happen in 2010. As usual, voters haven’t a clue as to who is running. It’s the uninformed picking the unknown. Criteria such as gender (women have an edge), ballot position (top or bottom is best), race (there is a “black slate,” and Hispanics have run well), ethnicity (Irish surnames are blockbusters), party slating, size of the field, name similarity, and media and special interest endorsements are critical. It’s all about incrementalism: The winners must cobble together 200,000 votes from disparate groups.

What is distinctly unhelpful is incumbency. In 13 primaries since 1984, five incumbents, including two sitting presidents, have lost. Slating is only slightly more beneficial: 28 of 41 have won, but 13 have lost. Ethnic, multiple-vowel names are poison – Greek, Italian, and, to a lesser extent, Polish surnames do not fare well.

And money, at least for media advertising, is worthless. The contest is buried on the ballot. But seed money is critical:

Aspirants who give sizeable donations to committeemen get slated, and get on sample ballots and palmcards.
The 2010 field, known paradoxically as the Unknown Nine, consists of the following, in ballot order: Stella Black, Barbara McGowan, Mike Alvarez, Mariyana Spyropoulos, Kathy O’Reilley, Wallace Davis III, Maureen Kelly, Todd Connor, and Kari Steele.

McGowan is a two-term incumbent, first elected in 1998; Spyropoulos was recently appointed to a vacancy. The slated Democrats are McGowan, Alvarez and Spryropoulos. McGowan, Davis and Steele are black. Connor is openly gay. The traditional ticket to victory – a woman with an Irish surname – is diluted, with three running.

Here’s how the race is unfolding:

Slating: In a large field, with a small turnout, party backing is essential. White ward and township committeemen have a “sample ballot.” That gives the McGowan-Alvarez-Spyropoulos team a boost.

In 2008, Dean Maragos spent nearly $1 million, was slated, but finished sixth of eight. In 2006, the slated Barrett Pedersen, who was the county Democrats’ vice-chairman, finished eighth of nine. The wealthy Spyropoulos, who was first on the ballot in 2008 as an independent (finishing fifth), has already dumped over $500,000 into the coffers of committeemen. One slated candidate invariably loses.

Race: With a tempestuous primary for county board president, black turnout will be heavy. In 2008, black committeemen took Maragos’ money, and produced negligible votes. That’s because an unofficial “black ballot” is distributed. Blacks comprise almost 40 percent of the countywide vote. Regardless of whether committeemen are backing Todd Stroger, Dorothy Brown or Toni Preckwinkle, they will definitely have McGowan and Steele, and maybe Davis, on their “black ballot.” Steele and Davis are the children of former black Chicago aldermen. Steele’s base is the South Side, and Davis’s the West Side. Davis could be “cut” in certain wards.

Alvarez, who resides in Sauganash, is the son of a former chief operations officer for the Clerk of the Circuit Court. His chief sponsor, Alderman Dick Mell (33rd), will insure support from white committeemen. County Democratic chairman Joe Berrios will push Alvarez hard in Hispanic areas. As a “director of outreach” in Obama’s 2004 U.S. Senate campaign, Alvarez has key connections to both the black and Hispanic community. He has been endorsed by the AFL-CIO, and will benefit from name similarity: Anita Alvarez is the county state’s attorney.

Ethnicity: Irish surnames are magical, especially because blacks and white liberals reject ethnic names, as do rival ethnics. McGowan is blessed with a profusion of advantages: black, woman, incumbent, slated, second on ballot. Kelly, out of the clout-heavy Southwest Side 19th Ward, is a college administrator. O’Reilley is a county employee and wife of former Commissioner Frank Gardner, but is using her maiden name. Being fifth (after Alvarez and Spyropoulos) gives O’Reilley an edge over Kelly, who is seventh.

Gender: In the days of yore, prior to 1992, a woman on the ballot was a novelty, and those running for the MWRD usually won. In 2010, six of nine contenders are female. In fact, so are 7 of 9 current commissioners
Ballot position: The first-listed candidate won in 1986, 1988, 1992, 1996, 1998 and 2002, but lost in 2004, 2006 and 2008. The last-listed won in 1998 and 2002. Steele, being last, has an advantage. Black, who is first, and is an ally of former 44th Ward Alderman Bernard Hansen, has a great ballot name and will absorb votes that might otherwise go to

O’Reilley or Kelly. The “slate,” in the 2-3-4 position, is well-placed.

Coalition-building: The penultimate “incrementalist” campaign was waged by Debra Shore in 2006. Being openly gay, from Evanston, with environmentalist credentials, the support of U.S. Representative Jan Schakowsky’s (D-9) political machine, and endorsements from the Sierra Club and newspapers, Shore finished first. Kudos also go to Frank Avila, who lost in 1998 and 2000, won as an outsider in 2002, and finished first in 2008, on the slate, after spending six years cultivating committeemen and the media, and being a ubiquitous cable TV presence.

Connor, a management consultant and former navigator on a U.S. Navy guided missile cruiser, is a protégé of Shore, and is backed by her coalition: Schakowsky, Preckwinkle, U.S. Representative Mike Quigley (D-5), and a phalanx of liberal state legislators, aldermen and county commissioners, plus the Sierra Club, IVI-IPO, PersonalPAC, Emily’s List, and gay organizations.

Issues: The MWRD does not purify drinking water. It treats waste in seven facilities, and dumps the effluent into the Sanitary and Ship Canal, which flows to the Mississippi. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards mandate “disinfection” of treated water, which would cost $1 billion over 20 years. The MWRD has refused to do so, spending $17 million in attorney fees to resist. The recent $600 million bond issue, and the fact that 15.7 percent of employees earn over $100,000, are also relevant. But voters don’t care.

Turnout will be around 500,000. McGowan is a cinch. Connor’s liberal/gay base puts him in contention, as does Alvarez’s multi-racial coalition and Spyropoulos’s money. Steele will get a solid black vote. My prediction: The $1,060-per-hour plum will be won by McGowan, Alvarez and Steele, with Connor and Spyropoulos close behind.

Russ Stewart is political analyst for The Chicago Daily Observer

image USS Wilmette at the Soo Locks.  Two points if you know the original name of the USS Wilmette


  • I see Stupidity said:

    You people are douchebags. You give the legacy of oposition journalism a bad name. Yep, all that’s bad in the world is the democrats fault, and all you poor little bootsrapin’ republicans are being screwed by the democrats. A bunch of whiny victims is what you are. How about using your stupid bootstrapin’ mantra to get involved and make a difference? Oh that’s right, community involvement and organization is too socialist, too President Hussain for you.

    Get off your fat cigar smoking, democrat blaming, Rush loving asses and do something to help rather than complain, you might not live with such hatred

  • Pat Hickey said:

    Happy New Year there Handsome! Gosh, you sound committed . . .or should be.

    Want some lawn signs?

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