Quick Hits – It ain’t that simple at all!

To co-opt and abridge a Warren Zevon song title.

It happened all the time on the radio show. An erstwhile Republican guest would come on and their inevitable declaration almost always went like this:

If Christina Castro/Anna Moeller/Linda Chapa LaVia/Tom Cullerton/Stephanie Kifowit (or insert name of Democratic legislator here) would simply buck the Madigan Machine, Illinois would be far better off. And they could do it if they really wanted to do it, too!

Similarly, while covering the recent Chicago Alderman Ed Burke revelations, the Tribune’s John Kass lamented that only after the attempted extortion charge was Burke finally radioactive. Prior to that, Chicago pols would line up to kiss his pinky ring despite being blitheringly aware of what he was doing.

In yet another classic case of Kass oversimplification, he chided the Cook County rank and file for acting “as if there is no gambling in Casablanca,” and not only ignoring Burke’s shenanigans, but sidling up to him whenever it suited them. He took Board President Toni Preckwinkle to task in particular for having the temerity to accept money from Burke backers.

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But it’s not that simple and it never is!

Because what our radio guests and Kass are asking Chicago aldermen and Springfield legislators to do is essentially this:

We understand you had to carry water for the party for years, work your way up through lower level political positions, painstakingly build the kind of team that gets you elected, generate the kind of cash to run an effective campaign, solicit the appropriate political alliances, pound the pavement every two to four years, attend all sorts of party events that keep your from your family, address a litany of constituent complaints, and suffer the slings and arrow of outrageous political fortune, but we want you to throw it all away in a Quixotic gesture by taking on a Machine Boss who will summarily squash you like a bug for doing so!

As my favorite TV judge likes to say, “It doesn’t sound quite as good when I say it, does it?”

Think about the real Illinois/Chicago reform candidates who managed to get elected and actually hang onto the gig:

  • Former 44th and 43rd Ward Alderman Bill Singer
  • Former Treasurer and Governor Pat Quinn
  • Former 49th Ward Alderman and County Clerk David Orr
  • Former 25th District State Senator and current Kane County Chairman Chris Lauzen
  • Former 46th Ward Alderman Hellen Shiller
  • Former State and U.S. Senator Peter Fitzgerald
  • Former 4th Ward Alderman and current Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle

I loved listening to Singer rail against Mayor Daley the elder in the 70’s, but the Machine simply ignored and isolated him and I couldn’t list one of his accomplishments. Quinn did manage to blunder his way into the Governor’s mansion, but to say he was in over his head would be the most massive of understatements. He eventually turned to the Dark Side, too.

Taking on the Springfield establishment got Lauzen labeled “Dr. No,” which put him perpetually on the outside looking in. He still has difficulty adjusting to the role of chairman. After attaching herself to the late Mayor Harold Washington’s coattails, Shiller finally got elected, but even though I always found her entertaining, her legacy is thinner than Cody Parkey’s NFL prospects.

I still believe Preckwinkle is a reformer at heart, but like so many idealists faced with the stark reality of getting elected, she’s trying to use and work within the system to change it. The problem with that is, most reformers can’t sublimate their true nature, so she’s not very good at it. And even I have a problem with her hiring Burke’s son at a six-figure salary.

But I don’t have a problem with her currying Burke’s favor because that’s what it takes to get elected in the Second City. And if you’re not willing to play the game to get there, you never will. Like unicorns, there is no such thing as a 100 percent pure politician.

That leaves Fitzgerald and Orr as the exceptions that prove the rule. They harbored those too-rare qualities of being able to build a crack campaign team that kept them in office, to work within the system to change it without making too many enemies, and they never had to sell their souls in the process.

Please note! Neither one of ‘em ever went after Madigan or Burke.

But to ask your average Chicago/Illinois politician to regularly pull that kind of thing off is like asking Donald Trump to start making sense. Those kinds of extraordinary elected officials come once or twice in a lifetime.

I would also say this to Mr. Kass. “What about the voters? They know damn well what Burke’s been up to and they’ve had 50 years to throw his sorry ass out of City Hall. But he’s dispatched each and every opponent without as much as breaking a sweat.”

Why? Because as long as their streets are plowed, their garbage is picked up, crime is reasonably contained, and he takes care of their complaints, Burke’s constituents don’t care what he does in his spare time. Machine bosses never exist in a vacuum.

The good news is, politicians like Burke and Madigan are every bit as rare as successful reform candidates are. Both are well into their 70s and they are the last of their kind. No current or future Chicago alderman will ever match Burke’s rise to power, and whatever pretender seeks Madigan’s throne will be but a mere shadow of Iron Mike.

You see, through the often-plodding efforts of unspectacular regular politicians, who generally have our best interest in mind, the political playing field that brought us Madigan and Burke no longer exists. The late, great 43rd Ward Alderman Paddy Bauler notwithstanding, reform has come to The City That Works whether anyone was ready for it or not.

And that’s the only way it ever works. It’s hard to see it day-to-day, but the Illinois/Chicago political change I’ve witnessed to in my 60 years is nothing short of miraculous. Think about it! Chicago Mayors used to die in office, but the last two Machine anointed candidates stepped down when they realized they couldn’t win.

For Kass, who’s a virtual encyclopedia of Chicago political history, to insist that your average Cook County politician grab their lance and start charging at windmills is the height of naivete. It’s the equivalent of asking them to commit political suicide for no good reason.

The truth is, just like the metaphorical hotdog vendor said to the Zen master when he asked for his change, “Change can only come from within!”

Quick Hits – Nominating petition challenges 101

I know this isn’t going to be the most scintillating column, but with President Trump unwittingly inspiring all sorts of new entries in the local electoral field, it’s certainly something worth covering.

Illinois’ onerous and twisted nominating petition requirements notwithstanding, with three fascinating St. Charles school board petition challenge scenarios in hand, I’ll do my damndest to make a rather dry subject appear to be a bit more engaging.

I do have skills!

And it starts with this very basic concept. Unless they can’t figure out what the heck you’re running for, it’s not up to the Local Election Authority – typically the county clerk – to police your paperwork. That means your signature sheets could be a complete and utter disaster, but unless a registered in-district voter challenges those errors, you’re good to go!

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For example, when I worked for the Kane County Clerk, a young precinct committeeman candidate submitted a single signature sheet comprised only of out-of-district signators. Had his opponent (or some other interested party) failed to object within the allotted timeframe, despite that eminently fatal error, the errant candidate’s name would’ve graced the ballot.

The county clerk’s sole purpose here is to collect and store those petitions, a critical concept in determining whether you have solid grounds for a petition challenge. And as you will soon see, our D303 objector could saved herself a lot of time and effort had she understood this very basic precept.

Apparently displeased with the Board’s decision to close Fox Ridge Elementary school, St. Charles resident Danielle Penman asked the Kane County Electoral Board to bounce Board President Kathleen Hewell and Vice-President Nicholas Manheim from the ballot. Both voted to turn Fox Ridge into an early childhood center.

Penman claims that Hewell and Manheim violated the D303’s Ethics and Gifts Ban by soliciting petition signatures during a school board meeting break. But even if she could prove her contention, a difficult proposition without a willing witness, the Electoral Board, consisting of a designee from the County Clerk’s, Circuit Clerk’s, and State’s Attorney’s offices, lacks the capacity to enforce another entity’s ethics policy.

That’s the sole purview of the D304 Ethics Advisor, who has absolutely no power to throw anyone off the ballot. So this challenge is a complete waste of time. The best the Advisor can do is send a report to the State’s Attorney, who may or may not file charges related to the State Officials and Employees Ethics Act, the statute upon which that D304 policy is based.

If the KCSAO does go forward with it, and they prove our duo circulated petitions on District grounds beyond a reasonable doubt, considering school board members don’t get a salary, the worst they’re looking at is a $100 fine or perhaps just a warning. The State Officials and Employees Ethics Act makes no provision to remove someone from an elected position.

Though the Electoral Board won’t render their decision until tomorrow (1/8), I can tell you with certainty that Hewell and Manheim will be just fine!

Ms. Penman also challenged school board candidate Rebecca McCabe’s paperwork on the grounds that her previous employment as a D304 assistant superintendent and consultant would create the kind of conflict of interest by which she would consistently favor the administration.

The first problem with that contention is, it assumes facts not in evidence. To wit, no conflict of interest exists until Ms. McCabe is actually elected. Then, and only then, can the issue be addressed.

But even if the Electoral Board had the power to remove her from the ballot, which they clearly do not, it would be a gross violation of her civil rights to do so based on a purported possibility. It would be not unlike the fate Tom Cruise suffered in ‘Minority Report’ where they arrested people for murders they were about to commit.

Even if such a statue existed, the fact that someone once worked for the district wouldn’t be nearly enough to trigger it. Are her past affiliations a campaign issue? You bet they are. But some will spin it positively while others will go negative. If Mike Madigan and Ed Burke can make tax law while running law firms that fight those taxes, McCabe’s perceived transgressions don’t even make the one-to-ten scale.

This is Illinois, after all! So, McCabe will remain on the ballot as well.

An astute Facebook commenter asserted that, though he agreed with my legal assessment of our three fruitless challenges, Ms. Penman provided voters a service by exposing these candidates for whom they really are.

Not so fast!

Negative campaigning may work in state and federal races, but unless the “offense” is particularly egregious, those kinds of personal attacks almost always backfire at the local level, especially when it comes to trying to throw someone off the ballot. Voters don’t like being denied a choice.

The bottom line is, a candidate can lie through their teeth on the documents required to run for office in Illinois and neither the county clerk nor the electoral board can take issue with it until and unless an in-district registered voter objects. The State’s Attorney may eventually catch up with our mendacious candidate, but that’s another proposition entirely.

Even then, an electoral board requires specific statutory grounds to warrant barring a candidate from the ballot, and Ms. Penman’s objections don’t even come close.

Quick Hits – Pride truly doth goeth before the fall!

Simple extortion? Carried out on a cellphone? And it was Burger King? It would seem like it’s my Cook County political brethren’s turn to hang their head in shame. Machine bosses like Ed Burke don’t make these kinds of embarrassing mistakes!

C’mon! When the Feds butcher papered his Ward and City Hall office windows, I was willing to bet my bottom dollar they’d come up with something even juicier than Ed Vrdolyak playing loose and fast with all that tobacco settlement money.

But simple extortion – against Burger King – captured on a series of cellphone calls and emails? That’s even sloppier, and far more damning, than Blago’s infamous “it’s fuckin’ golden” reference. Either Chicago Alderman Burke is slipping, or his vast arrogance finally got the best of him.

And make no mistake, Ed Burke is the most arrogant man I’ve ever met, and I’ve met a lot of arrogant men.

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Back when I still harbored hopes of breaking it big as columnist, former NPR host, Chris Robling, invited me down to the City Club for lunch to discuss my prospects. It was as we were leaving that a tall white-haired man wearing an impeccable charcoal gray pinstripe suit with a bright blue pocket square walked through the front door.

I immediately recognized the Alderman, who called Chris over to set up a meeting on an issue I’ve long since forgotten. When Chris kindly introduced me as “an up and coming suburban Sun-Times columnist,” Burke quickly sized me up, determined there was absolutely nothing I could do for him, and without saying a word to me, went right back to his conversation with Chris.

As the Alderman moved towards the elevator, I told him I was sorry that he and his wife lost the custody battle over his adopted daughter. Without skipping a beat, and barely acknowledging my presence, Burke said “It was our son” as he pushed the close door button and was gone.

Now, I’ve been dismissed by the best – former Kane County Chairman Karen McConnaughay and her royal flick of the wrist for example – but I’ve never been put in my all-too-obvious place quite like Ed Burke did that day.

I still laugh when I consider that encounter, but that’s Burke in a nutshell. If you could do something for him, you were golden, and if you couldn’t, you were gone! And I believe that vast arrogance finally caught up with him.

Given my longwinded propensities, I’m not going to go into all the indictment details when they’re already all over the Net. And I’m not going to put “alleged” in front of the term “attempted extortion,” either, because there’s absolutely no doubt as to what really happened.

When the Feds have you saying, “And, um, we were going to talk about the real estate tax representation and you were going to get somebody to get in touch with me so we can expedite your permits” on tape, there isn’t a whole lot left to the imagination.

And this is exactly how the FBI operates. Develop an airtight case on one count to use as leverage to get much more information. So, here’s what’s happening as we speak.

Facing 20 years in the pokey at the ripe old age of 75, those prosecutors will offer Burke a five-year deal if he sings like a canary. Burke will have to serve 80 percent, or four years of that sentence, but if he fully cooperates, he’ll be out in time to celebrate his 80th birthday.

All I can say is, I would avoid unnecessarily startling a number of very nervous Chicago politicians right now. Just ask Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

But what really gets me is Burke didn’t need to do this. Not counting the annual haul his law firm brings in, Burke and his Illinois Supreme Court Justice wife pull down almost a-half-a-million a year. The man is worth millions, he has a stranglehold over the Chicago City Council, and he’s second in Second City power only to Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

He’s skated on this kind of thing for 50 long years. So, why risk it all on the likes of one Burger King restaurant?

But he did, and now he’s going to jail.

This morning, I asked a savvy political friend why septuagenarian politicians like Burke and Mike Madigan hang on for dear life. Why don’t they simply walk away and enjoy their ill-gotten gains in peace? In turn, my friend asked me how many real friends – not just lackeys – do these Machine bosses really have. I answered perhaps two or three.

So, not only does the game become an addiction, but without that clout and political power, their lives are generally meaningless. That means they can’t let go, and after you’ve gotten away with it for as long as Burke has, the kind of inevitable entitlement mentality that makes you get sloppy takes over.

It’s a truly tragic ending for an almost mythical figure.

Quick Hits – Why does death absolve us?

I was having a fascinating New Year’s Day conversation with a political friend when I asked him this semi-rhetorical philosophical question,“Why does death seem to absolve us of all our sins?”

It’s certainly a long way to go to rehabilitate your image, but it is amazing just how well it works. Even the most reviled politician suddenly swims in a sea of virtue upon their passing whether the accolades are from the press or their former detractors.

It’s as if we have a collective superstition about what the dead might do if we dared to speak ill of them. Or perhaps it’s our fervent wish to enjoy the same kind of moral reconstruction upon our own expiration that makes us willing to rewrite history.

Take George Herbert Walker Bush. From all the laurel wreaths, you’d have thought Mother Theresa managed to perish again. But the truth is, our 41st President was such an unmitigated  disaster that his own party abandoned him. He will forever sit among the failed one-term presidential likes of Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and Herbert Hoover.

And we have a similar scenario playing out here with the passing of former Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner. From the vast praise and immense acclaim from the press and local politicians, you’d think he was a candidate for Catholic canonization, not simply a mayor who fell far short of the ideal.

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Before we continue, let me be clear that Tom wasn’t a bad guy, he certainly was no worse than many of the local politicians I’ve covered, and I truly feel for those folks who are mourning the loss of a husband, father and friend.

This isn’t something personal, either. Even at the Aurora Beacon-News, I barely wrote about the man and most of it was positive or incidental. We had no more than ten conversations in 11 years and those abruptly ended when I became part of Richard Irvin’s 2017 mayoral campaign team.

The truth is, Weisner was a mediocre mayor whose “accomplishments” were greatly magnified by Aurora’s descent into that 90’s abyss. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve some credit for pulling the City of Light back from that precipice, but there was nowhere to go but up.

Weisner most often gets credit for Aurora’s descending crime rate, and while his leadership played a role, that decline boils down adopting the community policing standards that had already succeeded in a slew of other medium-sized cities, hiring police chiefs who could pull it off, and an effective partnership between the Aurora Police Department and Kane County State’s Attorney’s Office.

While Cook County was errantly prosecuting gang leaders, the APD and KCSAO were smart enough to go after the rank and file sending violent crimes plummeting. But not only has this violent crime decline been a national trend, but Naperville’s crime index is 2.3 times lower than Aurora’s.

Before you cite the obvious demographical differences, with its identical ethnic breakdown, Elgin boasts a 17 percent lower crime index than Aurora. Give APD Chief Kristan Ziman a little more time and Aurora will be more than competitive in this regard and Weisner deserves credit is for getting behind that atypical chief choice.

The former mayor did do a great job with the arts. The Paramount is a gem, the downtown summer concerts are a lot of fun, and he was the moving force behind River Edge Park, which will do even better with reserved seating.

Weisner liked to say his favorite accomplishment was improving Aurora’s decaying infrastructure, and there is something to be said for that. But the Paramount, River Edge and those internal improvements never translated into the kind of economic growth the former Mayor thought they would, and that was his biggest failure.

Given Aurora’s location, diversity and tumbling crime rate, there’s no reason that city shouldn’t have become something along the lines of what Naperville’s become. But unlike the late Naperville Mayor George Pradel, Weisner didn’t have the vision, foresight, or capacity to play well with others necessary to make that kind of thing happen.

Again, comparing a drive through Aurora’s depressed downtown to a cruise through Elgin’s resurgent business district is no comparison. I hope Mayor Richard Irvin is up to that challenge because, as I’ve previously contended, if Elgin can do it…

Not only has Aurora been inexplicably unable to attract the big employers, but they lost their Caterpillar crown jewel to Decatur. That means that city’s biggest businesses now are:

  1. Rush Copley
  2. West Aurora School District
  3. East Aurora School District
  4. Provena Mercy
  5. City of Aurora
  6. Advocate/Dreyer
  7. Indian Prairie School district

With all Aurora has to offer, there’s no excuse for four government entities and three medical concerns leading that list.

A great part of that problem is, Weisner didn’t just love being mayor, he was in love with being mayor. Add no private sector job experience to that kind of entitlement mentality and it’s always a dangerous proposition.

When I say that’s “dangerous,” I mean it was incredibly easy to get on the former Mayor’s naughty list. And once you were on his bad side, there was no form of rehabilitation that could bring you back. Either you were 100 percent for Tom, or you were against him – end of story. Even a 99.5 percent fealty rate wasn’t enough, and that kind of dismissive quality never bodes well for any mayor anywhere.

Weisner’s public housing “experiment” was also a complete disaster and Aurora’s poverty rate still sits at 14 percent compared to Elgin’s 11.6 percent. There’s certainly room for improvement there.

The press also lauded Weisner for his “public service,” but he was paid very well as an Aurora staffer as well as mayor. Compare his 140 grand salary with a Cadillac benefits package to the $20,000 a year Elgin Mayor Dave Kaptain makes.

But what truly tarnished his legacy, or perhaps even destroyed it, was the bizarre letter he authored excoriating Alderman Richard Irvin at the end of the contentious 2017 mayoral race. I’m not going to cover all of his inexcusable accusations in that missive made public by the Rick Guzman campaign (a huge mistake) because they don’t bear repeating.

But going after Irvin for being a defense attorney to the point of accusing him of “plying the trade of plea-bargaining to put gangbangers and other violent offenders back on our streets as quickly as possible,” was way beyond the pale and downright racist.

You know I don’t play the race card very often, but I’ve never witnessed that kind of uncalled for attack from a politician of Weisner’s stature. But that’s exactly who Tom Weisner was, and that’s why he never really succeeded as mayor. Irvin wasn’t his handpicked heir and that infuriated him to the point where he finally let us see the person behind all those smiles and handshakes.

Please don’t get me wrong! I have and will continue to harbor a vast affinity for Illinois’ second largest city. It’s just that you can’t rise to a challenge unless you first understand that challenge. So, go ahead and call me a cad, a reprobate, or whatever else you manage to come up with, but I refuse to rewrite history, and I expect the same – or likely worse – when my time comes.

In the end, Tom Weisner wasn’t the worst mayor, but he wasn’t nearly the best, either.