Aldermaniacs Part Deux

What is it about Chicago’s aldermanic elections that brings out the worst of the City?

On the one hand, it may be the only day you ever see nonessential City employees actually working hard (or hardly working). On the other hand, that work seems to involve thuggish intimidation, petty theft, and other dirty tricks.

As this website goes live, we are only a few weeks away from the April 17 runoff elections, which this year feature an astounding 12 races still up for grabs out of total of 50 seats (almost 25 percent).

In my lifetime as a Chicago native, I have never been in a ward where there was a runoff election, so to see so many in one election cycle is astounding, and a welcome sign of change.

As I explained in my last article, although I no longer live in the 32nd Ward, I have roots there, so when I saw a fantastic candidate step up to take on incumbent Ted Matlak, I took notice. Having had absolutely dismal experiences with the 32nd Ward office, I knew change was long overdue, and I guessed many of the ward’s newer residents felt the same way.

I helped out with the campaign for challenger Scott Waguespack on election day, and as we volunteers gathered in his office, I was astounded by the stories I heard about the intimidation they had experienced.

For example, while writing this piece I received a request to serve as a poll watcher (someone who volunteers to work at a polling place for a campaign) from Citizens for Waguespack. You can tell which way the wind blows when you read:

Please tell me about your experience at the polls. Things to consider when you email me are:

1) Busy times
2) Intimidation by election judge, poll watcher, or precinct captain
3) Level of intimidation by either election judge, poll watcher, or precinct captain — on a scale of 1 to 5:

1=polite/quiet, 2=cordial, 3=slight banter, 4=difficult, 5=Machine thugs

This is just a general scale — please use your own "intimid-o-meter" for a more accurate description.

4) Any other incidences that happened at your polling place.

Additionally, Waguespack himself got to experience this little piece of Machine work in action. Overheard in the campaign office was this story:

The alderman (Ted Matlak) telling Scott to fuck off on Election Day was bad. But not as bad as this.

One of his ward staff members — a paid city employee, mind you — made this beyond-offensive crack to Scott at the Holstein Park location:

The Matlak employee walked past Scott on his way into the poll station. “Oh, Kosovo is here,” he said. As he walked in, Scott heard, “... you should have stayed in Kosovo and never come back.”

“What's that you said?” Scott replied.

“You should have stepped on a landmine and died.”

“ Why don't you come back and say that to my face?”

“I will,” he replied as he ran into the poll station.

“Why don't you tell that to the people who died there and the ones who served their country?” Scott continued to rant at him a bit ... but he never did come back to say that to his face.

Not much of a surprise, as most bullies are cowards. The Kosovo reference is due to the fact that Waguespack has spent his life trying to better not only our local communities but the planet. Waguespack writes:

We developed nationbuilding projects that assisted the War Crimes Tribunal in the former Yugoslavia, established a rule of law, and worked on economic development projects. I served as an advisor to the President of Kosovo and the interim government after the end of the Kosovo War.

He then returns to Chicago only to get Machine hacks telling him it would have been better if he had been killed in Kosovo? And our taxes go to pay their salaries?

And people wonder why I have such a distaste for the Machine. That word Machine is a general phrase we bandy about, but I find it serves very usefully as an indicator of the style of politics being employed. For example: having workers on City time doing campaign work, exchanging jobs for campaign work, suppressing votes, adding bogus votes, stealing signs, spreading rumors and disinformation … the list goes on. Specifically, the Machine in question is often referred to as the Rostenkowski-Gabinski-Matlak Machine, with Matlak originally becoming alderman not via an election, but rather through an appointment by the mayor. Razor sharp knife-in-the-drawer Russ Stewart gives the history:

Matlak, age 38, was appointed alderman by Mayor Rich Daley in 1999, after the resignation of incumbent Terry Gabinski, who had been alderman since 1969 and who has held the ward Democratic committeeman's post since 1988. Matlak, a protégé of Gabinski, was his aldermanic chief-of-staff. Gabinski, in turn, was a protégé of former U.S. Representative Dan Rostenkowski, who was one of Washington's most powerful politicians as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee until his 1994 indictment on 17 counts of felony theft, embezzlement, and obstruction of justice. Rostenkowski was defeated in 1994, and he pleaded guilty to two counts of mail fraud in 1995.

Rostenkowski’s career was nurtured by his father Joe, a committeeman from 1936 to 1960 and an alderman for 20 years. The elder Rostenkowski was a close ally of Richard J. Daley, just as the younger Rostenkowski was closely allied with Richard M. Daley and backed him for mayor in 1983. Joe Rostenkowski put his son in the Illinois House in 1952, at the age of 24, and made him a state senator in 1954 and a congressman in 1958, at age 30. Dan Rostenkowski became committeeman in 1964, anointed Gabinski, then his congressional aide, as alderman in 1969 (at age 31), and made him committeeman in 1988, when Rostenkowski retired.

Now Gabinski is retiring, and he has anointed Matlak as his successor.

This practice of the mayor’s (or anyone else for that matter — the Todd Stroger fiasco, for example) of appointing what is supposed to be an elected official is nauseating, and a cold slap in the face to every citizen who believes in democracy. But I digress — that’s a larger topic for another time.

On election day I got to Waguespack’s ward office at around 4:00 PM. I collected some signs and palm cards and hustled over to my designated spot, Jahn Elementary School at Belmont and Wolcott Avenues. After 30 minutes or so I figured that I could be of better service elsewhere, as very few people were entering, there was an additional volunteer from the campaign there covering the door, and nobody from the Matlak camp seemed to be there, at least that I saw.

A quick phone call resulted in a new polling place assignment, the fire station at the corner of Barry Avenue and Leavitt Street. I had been asked if I’d take this spot not because it was particularly busy, but because volunteers had been harassed there earlier by Matlak workers. As that kind of crap is exactly what pulled me into local politics in the first place, I readily accepted, hoping for an encounter with one of those 1890-era stereotypes who seem to have shrugged off the ravages of time in order to live on in our town forever.

I didn’t see anyone when I arrived at roughly 5:00 PM., so, as I figured I’d be writing about the experience, the first thing I did was take a photo of the fire station polling sign. Within seconds some guy came up to ask me what I was doing with the camera. I explained that I was working for the Waguespack campaign, and asked what he was doing there. He made a sour grimace, grumbled that I was “the opposition,” and stormed off.

The next 15 or 20 minutes produced very few voters; however, an intriguing cat and mouse game did begin wherein I would shift my position to get a better spot to talk to approaching voters and this fella would attempt to parry me off. I had clearly gotten under his skin; he didn’t look very happy that I wouldn’t just stay still. However, I kept trying to make small talk with him, as my experience to date with such election day workers had been fairly positive and relatively entertaining. And when it’s as cold as it usually is in Chicago in late February, any conversation beats just freezing your butt off on the street.

But this guy seemed to just resent my presence altogether. I pointed out that it was really a waste of time for either of us to be there given how few voters were coming out, and then he finally snapped and called me an asshole as he skulked to another spot on the street.

That didn’t bother me (made me laugh, actually), but then I noticed he was standing right in front of the polling place and wasn’t moving on.

Right in front of the damn door.

I walked up and told him I knew he was clearly breaking the law. He cursed at me again, yelling that he wasn’t “electioneering” and told me to “call somebody who cared.” I asked him what he was doing if not “electioneering,” and he just glared at me.

Well, I figured I’d take his advice. The Board of Elections was as good a “somebody” as I was likely to find, and I wanted to show this guy he wasn’t intimidating me one bit, so I phoned in and reported him as I walked right down the middle of the street and right past him. I also took a few more pictures, but in the dim light (some of the streetlights were out), none of them came out.

Although the Board of Elections obviously isn’t able to dispatch people for every election-related incident (I’d hope that they would save their limited manpower for actual violence), I understand that they received so many complaints about the 32nd Ward that an inspector general will be on hand in the runoff, as well as all sorts of goo-goo lawyers and other similarly bent, election-savvy folks. I don’t know where the phrase goo-goo originates, by the way, but it is ancient City slang for “goody-goody” political types, whom I suppose are defined as those who don’t appreciate a good old-fashioned bribe or related election skullduggery.

Now, while it’s always good to throw Machine guys off their game by having every polling place covered (especially as I overheard this one mention that he worked in the ward office), at some point I realized there weren’t likely to be many more voters. The low turnout may have been exacerbated by the almost total darkness. So, another phone call and a quick trip later I found myself at a new polling spot outside St. Luke’s at Belmont and Greenview Avenues (where many, many moons ago my gym-less grade school basketball team practiced). I spoke to people and passed out fliers for another half hour or so.

At 7:00 PM the polls closed. Unless you are a poll watcher, you‘re done at that point, so I went over to the campaign office and anxiously listened as the phone calls came in, giving precinct-by-precinct vote counts. It’s an amazing process. Wards are divided into precincts, and each precinct has its own polling place, usually a school or a similar community building. The importance of organization cannot be overstated here: unless you have your people — the poll watchers mentioned above, who get a receipt showing final totals for each candidate — getting election counts at the polling place, you have to just trust that the proper totals are getting passed along to the Board of Elections.

Should we trust the system? Stories of people running down streets with ballot boxes, stuffing boxes, etc., are told in Chicago as if those actions were as natural and unavoidable as the seasons changing, so I am in the camp that firmly believes you need to have as many eyes as possible on the entire process, start to finish.

It became apparent fairly quickly that Matlak had a considerable lead, but it also became apparent that he didn’t have over 50 percent of the vote, which is required to avoid a runoff. Poll workers phoned in their totals as the rest of us paced about; there were cheers when good news came in and furrowed brows when it didn’t. Volunteers updated the running totals and a master map of the ward showed which polling place vote counts had and hadn’t been received, with much conversation ensuing over which were likely to go one way or the other.

It wasn’t until almost all of the precinct totals came in that we heard about the first shenanigan, a poll worker calling to say that she had been “ushered” out of her polling place and was only given a number of total votes cast, not a breakdown. A second was a case of a “faulty transmission,” in which the voting machinery wasn’t able to tabulate the counts, also a dubious sign (especially as there was speculation that the Matlak camp had some sort of tie to the polling establishment in question). All that remained was the potential impact of early voting totals, and as these came in on the official Board of Election website, it sank in that Matlak was going to come up short of 50 percent, and Waguespack had earned a runoff.

So in the end, even if there were dirty tricks, they were too little, too late. If I may be blunt, the modern day incarnation of the Machine is really lazy. In a city known for its “vote early and often” creed, these campaigns seem to be trying out an alternate strategy: discouraging people from voting via intimidation on the street. You also can’t ignore the effect of scheduling city elections on what is almost always a brutally cold day, instead of holding them in November along with national and county elections, which would be more efficient and would save a lot of taxpayer money.

However, the most important thing you learn by participating is how much every single vote counts.

The vote totals came in from the precincts with numbers like 50 to 42, or 75 to 60, and when there’s only a few thousand votes needed to win (there was dismal turnout city-wide with just over 30 percent of registered voters actually coming out to the polls), a few votes absolutely do make a difference.

If you’ve read this far, I’m guessing you know who these guys are and what’s at stake in this election. But longtime independent muckraker Joe Lake puts it best when he writes:

Waguespack’s campaign frames this election as “Scott vs. The Machine.” They point to Daley’s endorsement of Matlak and allegations of patronage and corruption among 32nd Ward officials, such as the Feb. 13 arrest of precinct captain Lester Cioch. The city’s Inspector General’s Office has filed charges against Cioch for collecting signatures for Daley’s campaign while on the job. Matlak campaign spokesman Michael Moffo said the arrest had “nothing do to with Matlak and his campaign,” according to a Feb. 21 Chicago Journal article. Moreover, Waguespack believes members of “the Machine” are paying people to distribute flyers that deliberately smear Waguespack’s reputation. “That’s the way the Machine works. They just took some guy from the South Side and paid him $100 to distribute handouts in people’s mailboxes that spread lies about my campaign,” Waguespack says. “The alderman won’t say anything. I asked him, ‘Why don’t you denounce this type of stuff?’ He just looked at me and said, ‘Denounce what?’” Multiple phone calls to Matlak’s office were not returned.

Worse, on March 5 the third candidate in the race, lawyer Catherine Zaryczny, announced that she was endorsing Matlak in the runoff. This gives “flip floppery” a whole new definition. How does one go from running against an incumbent (and all of the time, energy, and money that entails) to endorsing the incumbent when there is a bona fide reformer still in the race? Smells to many like Ms. Zaryczny was a plant, running only in order to splinter the reform vote. Veteran Chicago Reader political reporter Ben Joravsky caught this immediately, composing a blog entry that same evening entitled “Surprise endorsement in the 32nd Ward”:

It was only a few weeks ago that Catherine Zaryczny was blasting 32nd Ward Alderman Ted Matlak, calling him “an unresponsive and unaccountable individual whose allegiance is to the ward organization that put him in power and to the special interests that keep him in power."

That was when she was one of two candidates running against Matlak in the February 27 election for alderman. Today she pulled a surprising 180 degree turn, endorsing Matlak in the April 27 runoff against Scott Waguespack.

The stakes could not be higher in this election. Please get out there and vote for Scott Waguespack on April 17 if you are a 32nd Ward resident, and urge your neighbors in the ward to do the same.

And don’t believe the hype that the Machine is invincible. Residents who have a stake in their community will always have more heart and will work harder than Machine schmoes who are in it only to get (or keep) a City job. In the neighboring 1st Ward in 2003, aldermanic challenger Manny Flores plastered the incumbent in a runoff, so the precedent has been set; now all we need is for the 32nd Ward to follow suit in 2007. Remember, we deserve clean elections, and we deserve representatives who view public service as a privilege, not a right.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there is also a runoff election in the 35th Ward, where I reside. This has been a very perplexing race; early on I decided to help out with campaigns in other wards, as I assumed our current alderman, Rey Colon, was a shoo-in. He had thumped two-term incumbent Vilma Colom in 2003, and as she had decided to run again, I didn’t think Rey Colon would have any problems. However, many of the people who had worked on Rey Colon’s campaign during that last election were not happy with various things (largely the multifaceted issue of development in the ward), and had defected, backing a fellow named Miguel Sotomayor.

To make a very long story short, Miguel Sotomayor got 20 percent of the vote (a testament to the power of grassroots organizing and the independent spirit of the ward if nothing else), Rey Colon got about 46 percent of the vote, and Vilma Colom got about 34 percent, so the result is that there will be a runoff between Rey Colon and Vilma Colom.

In my opinion Rey Colon has been a good alderman overall, but it is the ex-alderman’s relationship with the Machine that clinches it for me. Vilma Colom is a protégé of longtime 33rd Ward boss Dick Mell, a fact I became aware of in the last election when Mell’s foot soldiers blanketed our ward on and before election day even though many of the ones I spoke to didn’t even know who they were campaigning for without stealing a glance at the literature they had been instructed to hand out.

I was at the post-election gathering for Rey Colon this time around, and I heard one of his volunteers describe how a bullet had been put neatly through his windshield this election season. Outrageous. Our ward was also bombarded with anonymous negative mailings about Rey Colon (expect to hear more about this in weeks to come) and there were the usual juvenile sign-stealing antics, all actions that are the signature of the old guard.

I don’t want to live in a vassal-state of the 33rd Ward, or in a ward where those kinds of thuggish actions are viewed as normal. So if you live in the 35th Ward, vote for your independence; vote for an alderman who kept it clean and who, by all reports, hasn’t taken a week of vacation in the four years he has served so far — Rey Colon.

Just imagine a time when our aldermen work as hard between elections as they do to get elected (or stay in power). It gives me shivers, I tell ya.

Lastly, a few kind words for independent challenger Peter Zelchenko in the 43rd Ward. He did not win, but as there is also a runoff election in that ward, I’d like to think that he deserves a little credit for helping make that happen.

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