With the Christmas season upon us, Chicago Democrats will get in the spirit by dropping into the mud and doing a little wrestling, eye-gouging included.
The battle will heat up as mayoral and aldermanic candidates attempt to exploit arcane and arbitrary election laws to bounce their opponents from the ballot. Because, as we all know, it’s hard to lose an election if you’re running unopposed.
Twenty-one candidates filed to run for mayor. But my guess is no more than ten will survive the petition challenge process.
The most vulnerable of the front- runners is state comptroller Susana Mendoza, who “only” filed about 25,000 nominating signatures.
That’s twice as many as the 12,500 signatures a mayoral candidate needs to make the ballot. But the rule of thumb is a candidate needs at least three times the required number to survive a petition challenge.
So look for eagle-eyed election lawyers for Bill Daley and Toni Preckwinkle to challenge the validity of thousands of Mendoza’s signatures.
There are several explanations as to why Chicago requires so many mayoral nominating petition signatures. The most idealistic one was recently offered by mayoral challenger Gery Chico, who opined that a “rigorous” ballot access challenge proves a candidate has the mettle to handle the tough job of being mayor.
My explanation is a little less dewy-eyed. I believe the high number is the result of a bipartisan effort in the 1990s by lawmakers to protect the incumbency of Mayor Richard M. Daley, for whom Chico once worked as chief of staff.
Until 1995, the rules required a mayoral candidate to gather about 3,000 signatures. But in the early 90s, Republican and Democratic legislators tag teamed to pass a law that gave Chicago its current nonpartisan system for electing a mayor.
The new law neglected to stipulate a signature requirement. So a lawyer for the board of elections decided the board should require 25,000 on the grounds that—oh, he had his convoluted reasons.
Point is—gathering 25,000 signatures was a feat that pretty much no candidate, other than Mayor Daley, could accomplish. So think of that election law as affirmative action for Daley—like he needed it.
To his credit, Mayor Daley never challenged the petitions of his mayoral opponents even though it was obvious that most, if not all, would fall far short of the 25,000 requirement.
Of course, I suspect Daley knew it didn’t really matter if he had an opponent because no one was going to beat him anyway. Plus, it would look unseemly if he just cruised to victory by bouncing all of his hapless opponents from the ballot—even the Soviet Union had the pretense of democratic elections back in the days of Comrade Brezhnev.
In 2003 Frank Avila, an election law attorney, filed suit on behalf of five long-shot mayoral candidates, charging that the 25,000 signature requirement was onerous and unconstitutional.
One of those candidates was Rafael Chagin, a part-time telephone solicitor who said he was running for mayor to “stand up for the common man.”
Hear, hear! Then as now, the common man needs all the help he can get around this town—I’ll refrain from mentioning that Mayor Rahm’s trying to stick the common men and women of Chicago with an $800 million property tax bill for the Lincoln Yards project. Oops, too late—I mentioned it.
Anyway, Avila’s case—like Chagin’s mayoral candidacy—went nowhere. But the state legislators passed a law that halved the requirement to 12,500 because—well, I guess they figured it was the benevolent thing to do.
It’s still the highest mayoral signature requirement in the country. So as you can see, we’ve got a long way to go in the benevolence department.
Ballot access cases are overseen by hearing officers, who generally are smart enough to know what side of their bread is buttered—if you catch my drift.
Over the years, I’ve written many columns about how the system largely protects incumbents. Generally, I get a response from defenders of the status quo along the lines of—hey, man, rules are rules, and if challengers can’t follow the rules, they don’t deserve to get elected.
Fair enough. Of course, if the shoe’s on the other foot? Well, consider the case of longtime 25th Ward alderman Danny Solis, a loyal supporter of mayors Daley and Rahm.
In 2007 a hearing officer ruled that Solis should remain on the ballot even though Solis’s signature on his nominating petition didn’t match the one on his economic disclosure statement that candidates are also required to file.
That led some people (myself included) to conclude that Solis had signed one document, but someone else had signed the other—a definite no-no for which most candidates would get bounced from the ballot.
But the hearing officer dismissed the challenge on the grounds that the man who had filed it had neglected to put his address on the challenge document. In other words, Solis survived on a technicality.
At the same time, Solis was also challenged for not putting the correct title of the office he was running for on his economic disclosure statement. (He wrote “City of Chicago” instead of “alderman of the 25th Ward”—apparently, it was a rough year for Danny in his ballot access filing.)
However, the same hearing officer dismissed that challenge on the grounds that Solis had made an inadvertent oversight.
So, when a challenger makes a mistake, it’s—rules must be followed, dammit! But when a longstanding mayoral aldermanic ally makes a mistake it’s—c’mon, man, that’s why pencils have erasers on them.
By the way, Solis recently announced that he wouldn’t be running for reelection. So let me take this moment to say—good luck, Danny. As I’ve told you many times before—you’ve had more political lives than a cat.
For Susana Mendoza’s sake—here’s hoping she finds a hearing officer as forgiving as the one who saved Danny’s aldermanic tush back in 2007.
Let the mud wrestling begin.