Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Rich/Bloom Political Deal Falling Apart?

At the August Rich Township Democratic meeting, Democratic committeemen Tim Bradford and Terry Matthews beamed with pride as they announced the (unofficial) slated candidates for the 15th Subcircuit openings: George Scully (Flossmoor/Bloom Twp), Lindzey Jones (Olympia Fields/Rich Twp) and T.J. Somer (Chicago Heights/Bloom Twp). I say that they were the unofficially slated candidates because slating wouldn't occur until after filing; Tim Bradford told me that he was confident these would be the slated candidates because he was chairing the slating committee involved.

Upon this announcement, people like me (who aren't exactly a part of the Regular -- or Machine -- Democrats in Cook County) were told to fall in line, although in much nicer language. "Don't question the deal," I was explicitly told, which indicated just how precarious the whole thing was to start off with.

Of course, Democrats across the 15th Subcircuit had all kinds of reasons to "question the deal." First off, T.J. Somer was formerly the Bloom Twp REPUBLICAN committeeman before he switched parties to run for judge. So the spectre of the local Democratic party chairs endorsing a former Republican party chair was a bit much.

But then George Scully -- who resigned his state House seat (to which another Republican powerhouse was appointed) to be appointed to the bench this year -- quickly separated himself from "the deal." If I hadn't been at the Rich Twp Democratic meeting, I might never have known that Scully had any connection to the Bradford/Matthews slate.

Word was that it was against convention for appointed judges to work against each other. John Griffin (Palos Heights/Worth Twp) was appointed to the bench by the Supreme Court at the same time as Scully, so it wouldn't do for Scully to be supporting a candidate (Somer) running against Griffin.

Those were hardly the only problematic issues. The stated reason for the "deal" (as it became known) was because the east side of the subcircuit was under-represented -- which is true. The statement that we (those of us on the east side) had no representation among judges on the subcircuit bench was false. But why coalesce around Somer, who was not only a recent Republican party chair but also comes out of the whole Bloom Township/Chicago Heights/Republican mess? Not coming from here, quite frankly, I'm always a little uncomfortable with anyone who has even tenuous connections to the Mob or the political culture that grew up around it in Bloom Township/Chicago Heights.

It doesn't help that there's an ongoing federal investigation into all of that.

That's not all. Both Bradford and Terry Matthews can be criticized for not looking amongst Democratic activists for people to appoint, promote or slate. The South Suburbs is blessed with rich political talent and highly competent people among Democrats; we don't need to look to Republican officials to fill Democratic vacancies.

The new wrinkle to all this is the endorsement of judicial candidates by the Chicago Federation of Labor. As part of this process, I am told, candidates were specifically asked if they would support all the endorsed CFL candidates, basically pledging not to work against any other candidate who received the CFL endorsement.

All three CFL endorsed candidates, Jones, Scully and Griffin are said to have agreed to this. For Scully, this was an easy pledge to make. He had distanced himself from the announced deal in August almost immediately. Scully ran his own race from the start, and really made the effort to stay out of the other two races that Matthews and Bradford had announced support for. And Griffin, coming from the west side of the subcircuit, was never party to a deal to begin with.

For Lindzey Jones, though, agreeing to this would complicate things. Jones and Somer apparently planned on splitting the costs of their mail program. When I asked him if allying himself with former Republican partisan Somer wouldn't hurt him, he expressed confidence that their mail program would overcome any negatives that might result.

But sending out multiple pieces of mail jointly with T.J. Somer would be exactly the opposite of what Jones has now (apparently) pledged to do -- which is to not work against any other CFL-endorsed candidate.

This is not an instance where local party chairs got outmaneuvered -- which is what I think they were initially afraid of -- but where the facts on the (political) ground have altered dramatically. The Chicago Fed brings to the table considerable resources and has stated an intention to get involved in this primary to the same degree that they were involved in the 2007 Chicago Aldermanic races. Which means they will get money, talent and volunteers to their endorsed candidates. Very, very few candidates could refuse that kind of help -- or jeopardize it once they got it.

So the question is, is the much-discussed "deal" between Bradford and Matthews now caput? Is Somer officially left out in the cold?

Perhaps because I've known of Chicago Fed head Dennis Gannon's work in 2007 and 2008, I can say this: standing up to (and, perhaps, slighting) Tim Bradford and Terry Matthews would be much easier than standing up to Gannon. While Bradford and Matthews may be concerned about their "juice" in the (political) game, Gannon brings gallons of certified Vitamin C (and D) to the table. The Rich/Bloom "deal" is dead. It is only time before all the parties involved realize it...

Friday, November 13, 2009

Joan Murphy on the Hot Seat?

The Chicago Federation of Labor released their local endorsements yesterday. But it was more interesting in what they didn't do rather than what they did.

They withheld endorsement in the Cook County Board President's race, a seeming slap in the face to Board President Todd Stroger. But they also postponed endorsements in the County County Commissioner's races.

From their press release:

The CFL postponed making any endorsements for Cook County Board of Commissioners until after an important budget vote tentatively scheduled for next Monday. The vote would be whether to repeal a portion of the county sales tax creating a budget deficit that would harm county services and the frontline workers who provide them.

It would be premature for the Chicago Federation of Labor to endorse candidates for the county board with this measure looming overhead,” said CFL President Dennis Gannon. “The county budget is about vital services and the frontline workers who provide them to residents. We cannot endorse individuals who plan to balance the budget by slashing services and laying off men and women for political gain during an election year.”
While the CFL's press release mentions one issue it expects to be considered in Monday's budget meeting ("a vote to ban regulated video gaming in unincorporated Cook County") most people are interested in whether the Board will take up the half-a-cent repeal of Todd Stroger's sales tax increase.

The Illinois General Assembly passed -- and the Governor signed -- a measure rolling back the number of votes needed to override Todd Stroger's veto of the half-cent repeal of the sales tax increase (there are 12 Democrats and 5 Republicans on the Cook County Board). Monday's meeting is a special board meeting "to vote on rolling back the county’s controversial sales tax by a half-penny." Suburban Democrats -- specifically Joan Murphy -- are now on the hot seat.

Joan Murphy has been the very definition of a flip-flopper on the Cook County Board. First she proposed a two cents sales tax increase, then she voted for Todd Stroger's one cent sales tax increase before she voted to repeal half the increase.

But the CFL has thrown a wrench into her political calculation. The Chicago Fed made it clear to county commission challengers that they would be supporting the incumbents who supported the sales tax increase. Preserving jobs is the CFL's number one priority, and area labor unions are smart enough to realize that it is their workers -- and not those hired through the patronage system -- that are on the chopping block if county revenues fall.

Which leaves Murphy in a political quandary. Murphy represents the 6th Cook County Commission District in the South Suburbs, which borders both Will County (with a sales tax rate of 7.00%) and Indiana (with a sales tax rate of 6.0%). Like those who live in Deborah Sims' district, residents in Murphy's district have a daily choice between shopping in Cook County with its highest in the nation sales tax or taking a short drive to shop. Both Sims and Murphy deny that it effects businesses in their districts, but one assumes they know better.

The political heat from constituents about the sales tax burden was why Murphy switched from supporting Todd Stroger's tax increase to voting for a partial repeal. But Murphy also desperately needs the Chicago Fed's support.

Murphy couldn't afford to alienate voters, having one of the weakest bases of support in the Southland. She reported only $25,419.66 COH at the end of the last disclosure period and faces a formidible opponent from attorney John Fairman who has garnered support from village mayors throughout the gerrymandered district.

The CFL has been talking about being a force in the 2010 Cook County Commission races like it was in the 2007 aldermanic races. In 2007, the CFL endorsed candidates and sent full-time staff into several wards. The CFL and member unions gave endorsed candidates between $10,000 and $50,000 and had volunteers on the streets over the last two to four weeks before election day. On election day, it sent as many as 60 volunteers who worked all day to help elect favored candidates.

This is help that Joan Murphy desperately needs. Hence the dilemma. She voted for repeal because of the differentiation between tax rates in her district and Will County and Indiana stores. But the Chicago Fed is making Monday's vote a factor in its endorsement process. And the CFL's endorsement clearly has to be a consideration in Murphy's vote(s) on Monday. She really can't afford for the Chicago Fed to make a "No Endorsement" in her race, as they did in the Board President's race. She needs their help to win re-election. I doubt the CFL minds that it will be influencing at least one commissioner's vote on Monday.

Nick Kaleba, spokesperson for the Chicago Fed, described the delay in endorsing county commission candidates this way:

We look at the commissioners' complete records, including where they stand on balancing the budget on the backs of frontline workers and at the expense of vital county services. Monday's vote does not necessarily guarantee an endorsement or non-endorsement from the CFL. But with the vote just around the corner, it was necessary to hold off endorsing candidates until we have a more complete picture of their records.
The only other commissioner that faces a similar dilemma is appointee Edwin Reyes, who replaced Roberto Maldonado, who was appointed as 26th Ward alderman this summer. Reyes faces Xavier Nogueras (who was Maldonado's choice to replace him on the board) in what is likely to be a hard-fought primary.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Scandal-plagued Sims' solution: Eliminate the competition

Cook County Commissioner Deborah Sims has been all over the news lately. She betrayed her promise to her fellow County Commissioners and voted to save Todd Stroger's tax increase -- just another "Soldier for Stroger" -- giving Cook County "the highest sales tax rate in the country at 10.25%." She uses taxpayer money to lease a Cadillac for $804 a month. She refuses to obey the law, even though she "approved the ordinance, which requires documentation," "refusing to hand in any receipts." Now we find out taxpayers are footing the bill for Sims to be "chauffeured around town at taxpayers' expense."

So no one can be surprised that this scandal-plagued politician wants to throw her opponent off the ballot. It seems that Deborah Sims, and her fellow Stroger allies, made the determination that she can't survive the Democratic primary, given the lack of trust between her and her fellow County Commissioners -- and the lack of faith between her and her constituents.

Sheila Chalmers-Currin filed several times the number of signatures required to get on the ballot. But Illinois isn't a reform state and it allows anyone who lives in an electoral district to challenge the petitions of someone who wants to get on the ballot.

People told the intrepid challenger that Sims would do this. But Currin comes out of the New Politics tradition in Illinois (as evidenced by President Barack Obama), and likes to think the best of her opponent. So she expressed a bit of surprise and a little sadness when I told her that her petitions had been challenged.

Deborah Sims likes to justify her unyielding support of Todd Stroger's tax increase as protecting poor people. By this, one assumes she means the poor people in her ward in Chicago. She doesn't seem much interested by the poor in Ford Heights or, really, anything in the South Suburbs (despite the fact that more than 60% of her constituents live outside the city of Chicago). One notes that she could be using her contingency dollars to help the poor in her district insteading of paying for her Cadillac. Sims could be using her staff to help the people in her district instead of using them as her private chauffeur or taking them with her to form a protective bubble around her in public.

She could. But she doesn't.

In Chicago, politicians can generally be divided into two kinds. The politicians who use their office for their own personal gain are clearly the most common. Deborah Sims falls into this category. The fact that we have paid for her use of a fancy, expensive car added to the fact that she uses her staff for personal aggrandisement (which appears to be far more important than any official roles they might serve) provides clear evidence of that.

But not all politicians are like that. While this is not a disease unique to Chicago, the fact that Chicago is all about doing business does promote this kind of insiduous behavior among those involved in politics here. There are some -- the brave, the few, the honest among us -- who want to use public office to promote the public good (and not their own personal aggrandisement), but any outsider would be struck by their rarity.

President Obama was certainly one of the latter, someone who wants power to promote the public good. So is Sheila Chalmers-Currin.

Which explains why Deborah Sims and her fellow Soldiers for Stroger are eager to throw Sheila off the ballot. Sims can't survive such a comparison. As the evidence of Sims' corruption grows, and Sims' overwhelming neglect of the majority of her County Commission district becomes more obvious, even a weak challenge represents a major threat.

There are clear thinking political operatives outside of the South Suburbs who believe that there is no way that Sims can win this time, given the numerous scandals that whirl around her like a hurricane. But in the South Suburbs, this isn't quite so clear. People don't really know who their County Commissioners are. It is difficult to vote out the incumbent if one doesn't know who is the incumbent. This lack of name recognition by the average voter (as evidenced in our Issues Survey in three townships in the South Suburbs last summer) is matched by a lack of political muscle throughout the South Suburbs. Most of the party organizations in the South Suburbs are anemic, at best, and the more famous among us are petrifying.

Instead of a vibrant, active political atmosphere in the South Suburbs, there continues to exist a culture of fear where people learn not to question their elected officials and to not get involved in local politics. While that culture of fear was broken by the mobilization of activists and volunteers in the South Suburbs on behalf of Barack Obama, politicians like Deborah Sims are working overtime to tamp down whatever residual enthusiasm remains for Hope and Change here.

Deborah Sims has proven to be an adept wheeler and dealer and an effective fearmonger, which has only solidified her position within the political powerbases that do exist. While there is general acknowledgement that Sims has done little for the South Suburbs (I have no doubt that Sims is a worthy representative of her constituents in Chicago, and especially those in the 34th Ward), the existing Democratic party organizations will support an incumbent, the slated candidate in the race.

We can expect this race -- should Sheila Chalmers-Currin survive her ballot challenge -- to be a low-dollar, low-information campaign. Regardless of the fact that Sims has breached the trust of her fellow Commissioners or broken the faith of a majority of her constituents, Sims remains a formidible opponent of the South Suburbs. Residents of the South Suburbs have grown accustomed to being sacrificed to the private deals between pols like Sims and the various "power brokers" in our communities.

We can also expect the media, both newspapers and television, to continue to cover the scandals that surround Deborah Sims. But given the shrinkage of newspapers in the last few years, and the lack of viewers for local news, will this matter? In the end, it will come down to voter contact and election day operations. We know that Sims will benefit from the patronage workers in (and from outside) the district. Can Currin mobilize enough volunteers to match it? We won't know until February 2nd.

What we do know is that the South Suburbs will continue to be embarrassed by Deborah Sims until then.

NOTE: You can help Sheila Chalmers-Currin survive the Stroger/Sims challenge of her nominating petitions by donating through ActBlue. As we have learned through trying to pass health care reform, it's not enough to change the President -- we have to change legislators, too! Do what you can to bring Hope and Change to the Cook County Board of Commissioners.

Saturday, November 7, 2009