Saturday, February 27, 2010

Et tu, Donaldson?

Last night was the first time that I had met Mayor Donaldson of Hazel Crest. He spent about 20 minutes or so trying to convince me that he wasn't the kind of person who would try to threaten or intimidate me -- only to conclude by what can only be interpreted as an attempt to try to threaten or intimidate me.

Oh, the hypocrisy!

I was equally struck by the perverted reasoning he used. The mayor very theatrically argued that he operates off of facts alone. The fact that I was told to "stay out of Hazel Crest" (because I was organizing voters who might disagree with the mayor) or the fact that I don't particularly like being threatened -- these weren't relevant, he argued. Then he dropped the term "slander" into the conversation. Which, of course, immediately ended any discussion.

One would be tempted to have said, as Montoya did, that it doesn't mean what you think it means. Since 1964, political speech has been defined as protected by the Constitution. But Mayor Donaldson is an educated man, so he would have known this. Almost every elected official I know of does. Still, some politicians have no problem threatening opponents with slander suits. The facts -- and the Constitution -- be damned. The point is the intimidation, not the Constitution.

I've been through this before. As a child, I watched people try to intimidate my family (my parent were civil rights activists and co-founders of the Central Florida civil rights group, Bridgebuilders) from continuing their work in desegregation and racial reconciliation. After Dr. King was assassinated, I heard people in my church call me a "nigger lover" because I was the only white person pictured on the front page of the local paper in a march honoring Dr. King. In Illinois, I've been witness to more than one attempt by local politicians who tried to threaten people as a tactic to squash opposition. There has been this line that runs straight through my life, from beginning to end -- and I don't back down. To do so, seems to me, would be immoral.

Many of us who live in the South Suburbs like to think of our communities as having gotten it right. We live here, for the most part, because we've chosen to live here. We think that, to a large degree, we live in harmony with each other, black or white, purple or green. Sure, we've had disconcerting incidents in our communities, but, generally, we think we're better than that. We are better than that.

But one of the reasons I've turned my skills in organizing and politics to the neighborhood where I reside (the South Suburbs) is because the people here deserve better than what we're getting. And the politics of fear and intimidation is just too widespread in the South Suburbs to be ignored. I understand. There is so much talent here, so many people who have leadership potential, that it must be troubling to those who have achieved political power in their communities. But the competition should be fierce here, not simply because people disagree about various priorities in their villages, but because there is just too much political potential among the residents in the South Suburbs for this not to be the case.

So no one can be surprised that some people with power in the South Suburbs would do just about anything to preserve their position of authority. Politics is a fierce and bloody business, and politicians rarely rise without an ability to step over those who compete in the same arena. What I object to is when politicians abuse their position or authority, especially for purposes of personal gain (such as getting elected). So Donaldson can reasonably have assumed that I would oppose such things as raising his pay during these troubling times (when village finances are so stressed). Or his claiming that all of our communities provide vehicles for village officials, when they clearly do not. Or that I will help people organize who have a different vision, one where government service is done with a public servant's sense of duty to give back to their community. I stand against the all-too-often prevailing tendency to pursue government service for private financial or personal gain. The simple fact is that there is more than enough political talent down here in the South Suburbs that we don't need to provide extraordinary pay or benefits to entice good people into elected office. Which may be exactly why we have to endure this political culture of fear and intimidation, because those with political power in some communities can't stand to part with it. It's about them, not about us.

But it should be about us. So I got the message. I'm supposed to be intimidated, to feel threatened enough that I don't go into Hazel Crest -- but I'm not supposed to talk about it. Yeah, right. Thanks for clearing that up...

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Southland Succeeds in Democratic Primary

The South Suburbs' favorite son (David Miller) and daughter (Robin Kelly) both won their respective Democratic nominations for state Comptroller and Treasurer this Tuesday. I believe it's the first time that two people from the South Suburbs has been on the general election ballot for statewide office. Robin Kelly won 38,602 votes in Thornton, Bloom, Rich, Bremen and Orland townships, while David Miller won 34,427 votes in the Southland:


A more interesting race shaped up in the 15th Judicial subcircuit (in the Phelan vacancy), where former Republican party leader (and Bloom Township supervisor) T.J. Somer teamed up with Olympia Fields Mayor Linzey Jones and former state Rep. George Scully to run in the three vacancies in the subcircuit. Somer was a controversial candidate, not simply because he switched political parties to run for judge, but also because his peers found him significantly less qualified for the position of judge than the other two. Somer scored a mere 40% in the Alliance of Bar Associations for Judicial Screening [PDF]. The most damning evaluation came from the Chicago Council of Lawyers which wrote [PDF]:

Thomas Joseph “TJ” Somer – Not Qualified

Thomas Joseph “TJ” Somer was admitted to practice in 1991, following 14 years as a police officer in Chicago Heights. After one year working on insurance defense cases for a large firm, he set up his own general practice firm in the south suburbs. Since 1997 he has served as a Supervisor for Bloom Township and, since 2006, he has also served as corporation counsel for the city of Chicago Heights. He was also an unsuccessful candidate for mayor of Chicago Heights and for Congress. Mr. Somer is reported to have good legal ability and temperament, although his practice is narrow. In addition to the narrowness of his practice, the Council is also concerned that Somer was a defendant in a law suit alleging illegal practices with respect to tax delinquent properties during the time he was the Bloom Township Supervisor. Although the trial court absolved Somer of wrongdoing, the Appellate Court reversed the trial court’s decision. Mr. Somer denies any culpability and insists that this program was appropriate and successful. The Council finds him Not Qualified for the Circuit Court.
Several people expressed to me their surprise that Somer did so poorly in the combined judicial screenings (both Jones and Scully scored 100%, as did the candidate winning in the Phelan vacancy, John Griffin).

Given Somer's controversial candidacy, it is no surprise that he tied himself to two other elected officials in Bloom Township. Linzey Jones has explained this alliance between himself, George Scully and T.J. Somer as a practical matter, because running for judge is so expensive. He also said that he was not that interested in raising a large amount of money, and this alliance offered the opportunity of multiple voter contacts for less money. More bang for the buck, as it were.

As I've noted earlier, the "deal" was announced at a Rich Township Democratic party monthly meeting back in August, much to the consternation of a number of people there. On Thursday, I received an email that concluded with this: "Rich Township failed TJ Somers."

Well, I disagree. I think Rich Township did exactly what it was supposed to do: help elect the most qualified and fair-minded person to the bench.

But then, I wasn't party to any deal.

Judge John Griffin won the most votes, with 11,595 fairly evenly scattered throughout the subcircuit. Mary Beth Kent Duffy came in second, with 8,133 votes. The controversial Thomas "TJ" Somer came in third, with 7,579 votes (with the greatest concentration in his home township, Bloom). Carl Evans, Jr. came in fourth, with 6,286 (with the greatest concentration in Rich township). And Nichole Patton finished the field, with 4,823 votes.

15th Subcircuit: Griffin Townships in Blue, Somer Township in Yellow, Evans Township in Red and Duffy Township in Tan

Another way to look at the results, through townships won. Judge Griffin won 5 townships (Bremen, Lemont, Orland, Palos and Worth). Duffy, Somer and Evans each won a single township. Griffin won 168 precincts, Somer won 64 precincts (primarily in Bloom Township), Evans won 41 precincts (primarily in Rich Township), Duffy won 39 precincts and Patton won 3 precincts (primarily in Rich Township).

Given this distribution, I wanted to know who really ran the table in the precincts they won. In other words, who had "breakaway" precincts where they really racked up the votes, defined as precincts where they won at least 50% of the vote (in a multicandidate race). This is where Griffin showed the strength of his campaign, and where it is obvious that Somer is a Bloom Township candidate (just as Evans was in Rich). Griffin had 43 breakaway precincts scattered throughout the townships he won, while Somer had 24 breakaways, all concentrated in Bloom.

Rich Township: Griffin precincts in Blue, Somer precincts in Yellow, Evans precincts in Red, Duffy precincts in Tan and Patton precincts in Lavender

But it was in Rich Township that the greatest variation in votes can be found. Only in Rich Township did all candidates win at least one precinct. What stands out to me is not simply the fact that Carl Evans did so well in Rich, or that TJ Somer only won one precinct in Olympia Fields (Judge Griffin also won one and Carl Evans won two), but the fact that there is this big blue (Griffin) block in vote-rich Park Forest. Griffin won 8 out of 13 precincts in the Rich Township portion of Park Forest and 1 of the 2 Park Forest precincts in Bloom Township.

The theory, as the Rich Township Democratic committeeman explained to me, was that if judicial candidates can win (big) in Bloom and Rich and stay within striking distance in the rest of the townships in the 15th subcircuit, then that is sufficient for victory. More than 38,924 people voted in the 15th subcircuit races, with Bloom accounting for at least 8,921 and Rich accounting for at least 10,759 (together 19,680 voters). That's a little over 50% of the electorate that voted in the 15th subcircuit in 2010.

Jones Townships in Yellow, Flanagan Township in Gold and Karas Townships in Pink

The theory is sound, as witnessed by the result for Linzey Jones. Jones only won Rich and Bloom Townships, and only won 4 precincts elsewhere (all in Thornton Township). But that was sufficient to win. But the lesson here is not that Bloom and Rich need be the primary focus of 15th subcircuit candidates who live on the east side of the subcircuit. No, the lesson is that well-funded qualified candidates who run from the east side, who do not substantially alienate voters and have several competent opponents who split the rest of the subcircuit, can win by primarily focusing on the east side (where they are well known).

And that's how this alliance failed T.J. Somer. Admittedly, this was probably his best chance to win a seat on the bench, but the fact is that Somer did not win both Rich and Bloom. Somer did alienate voters (by virtue of his prior party affiliation, his behavior with regards to the aforementioned lawsuit AND the attempt to monopolize the open seats on the bench in the subcircuit by eastern side committeemen). Somer clearly has a problem in Rich, one that no amount of validators can overcome in Park Forest. Rich didn't fail Somer because Rich Township will never be able to advance Somer as long as the current political environment prevails. This is unique to the candidate, and really has nothing to do with the "deal" or the others who were party to it. In the end, the die was cast by T.J. Somer's history and the political environment that he helped create...