Former 44th Ward alderman Dick Simpson Credit: Al Podgorski/Sun-Times

It’s one of those fantastical I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening-even-as-I’m-writing-that-it’s-happening stories: Dick Simpson has applied to replace Langdon Neal as commissioner on the Board of Elections.

I realize a lot of you are like—huh? So let me explain the significance.

Chicago’s Board of Election Commissioners is the three-person body that oversees the electoral process. Among its chief obligations is determining who gets on the ballot.

That’s really important ’cause if you’re not on the ballot, you can’t get elected and do things like—just to pick one recent example you may have heard about—bury a video that refutes the official explanation of a police shooting.

Hey, man, I’m just keeping it simple for my easily distracted and bamboozled fellow citizens of Chicago.

Neal is the quintessential political insider. An eminent domain lawyer, he’s routinely hired by the city, county, and/or school board to oversee the process of buying up land for new construction projects.

Say, for instance, the city wants to take tens of millions of dollars from its dead-broke school system and use it to buy high-priced land in the south loop for a Marriott hotel—it would hire Neal’s law firm, as it did in the Marriott/DePaul debacle you may have read about.

Since 1999 Neal’s firm has brought in about $99 million in eminent domain business from local governmental entities, according to a Sun-Times investigation by Tim Novak.

I would humbly suggest that having the city’s chief eminent domain lawyer sitting on the board that determines which candidates make the ballot so they’re eventually in a position to farm out eminent domain contracts to the lawyer who helped put them on the ballot would be considered a conflict of interest in any civilized society outside of Chicago.

In any event, Neal recently decided to step down from the election board.

In contrast, Simpson is the quintessential outsider. A professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, he’s written book after book castigating Chicago for it’s corruption, waste, and inside deals.

Back in the 70s, he was an independent-minded, north-side alderman. During council debate, he once got Mayor Daley—that’s the first Mayor Daley—so mad about something he was saying that the mayor had the sergeant of arms try to force Simpson into his chair.

So you might say that putting a maverick like Simpson on the election board is a little like making Mick Dumke—my old FOIA-filing colleague—the city’s chief Freedom of Information Act officer.

First thing Mick would do is release all the e-mails related to the Barbara Byrd-Bennett $20.5 million no-bid contract scandal. Then he’d turn over the e-mails on the McDonald shooting. Then he’d release the files on who Mayor Rahm is spying on. Then . . . 

Sorry, got a little carried away.

Anyway, as I was saying, the election board rules on ballot-access challenges. Here’s just a short list of some of the powerful insiders who have benefited from favorable rulings by the board over the last few years: Alderman Pat O’Connor, Alderman Danny Solis—and Mayor Rahm. 

Back in 2011, when he first ran for mayor, Emanuel was challenged on the grounds that he violated the city’s residency requirements—what with moving to Washington, D.C., to work for President Obama and everything.

To keep him on the ballot, various board commissioners, judges, and hearing officers had to come up with creative new ways of interpreting the rules on residency requirements.

I’m not saying that Simpson would have voted to bounce Emanuel, O’Connor, or Solis from the ballot. Just that he would have been unafraid to do so, if that’s what he felt the law required.

You can’t ask for more than that.

Seven people have applied to fill Neal’s vacancy. According to the county press release, each will be interviewed by chief judge Timothy Evans, “who will select one candidate to submit to the Circuit Judges of the Cook County Circuit Court for approval.”

When the judges have made their decision, they will release white smoke from the chimneys of City Hall.

Oh, wait, wrong selection process.

Judge Evans will start interviewing the candidates next week.

Good luck, Professor Simpson.