Doing It by the Book

In 1989 Robert Thomas, a sewer-department maintenance man in a Detroit suburb, built his campaign for mayor on going door-to-door. He toppled the incumbent by 200 votes, served three terms, and wrote How to Run for Local Office, in which he called door-to-door campaigning critical for new candidates.

John Somerville, a felony-review supervisor for the Cook County state’s attorney and a disgruntled regular Democratic pre-cinct captain, read the book and decided to ground his long-shot bid against 19th Ward alderman Ginger Rugai on house calls. Since before Thanksgiving the lanky 40-year-old Beverly native–who was recruited in 1983 to play basketball at Georgia’s Albany State College, becoming the first white to play in its historically black league and the cocaptain of his team–has trod the streets of Beverly, Morgan Park, and Mount Greenwood for hours every day. He guesses he’s already shaken hands with 6,000 people on their stoops.

Rugai is solidly backed by the powerful 19th Ward Democrats, but Somerville has been hammering her on the lack of appealing retail stores on 95th, 111th, and Western, and calling for a sales-tax holiday to spur business. He thinks those issues are resonating with voters.

In the 1999 primary Ray “Spanky the Clown” Wardingley got 16 percent of the vote against Rugai. “If I can beat the clown by 100 or so votes a precinct,” says Somerville, “I can beat Ginger.”

–Grant Pick

Shotgun for a Fly

Illinois’ first father-in-law, Dick Mell, startled the audience at a recent 33rd Ward endorsement session of the Independent Voters of Illinois simply by showing up–he’d never deigned to address the group before. He surprised them again by announcing that the war on drugs had been a failure.

Mell hadn’t come expecting to win the group’s endorsement–he hadn’t even bothered filling out the candidate questionnaire. He’d come to let them know he’d been thinking a lot about what he could accomplish as he neared the “end of my political career.” He said he’d seen a story on 60 Minutes about a program in Great Britain that allows junkies to score a legal fix, and though short on specifics, he promised to make headlines in the spring.

If that sounds like a twist on Governor Ryan’s legacy-building commutations, consider that the resources saved by a drug-decriminalizing ordinance could free up cops for other things. Like conducting surveillance on political upstarts.

Mell’s challenger in the 33rd Ward is a 42-year-old single mom named Deb Gordils. She has practically no funds or political experience, but her Sisyphean campaign got invaluable publicity last month when she busted an on-duty cop and Mell contributor, Chester Hornowski, sitting in a squadrol staking out her house with a camera. She alleges that “Horn,” as he introduced himself, offered her a state job, courtesy of the alderman, if she would drop out of the race.

Mell denies any connection. He is challenging Gordils’s nominating-petition signatures. He probably doesn’t have much to fear from her, but if he smothers her early he can turn his hordes loose in all the wards he’s colonized. –Mike Sula

Alien Ideas

Mell has also denied backing Thomas Morris, a former 33rd Ward precinct captain and recently laid-off city engineer who’s running in the 50th Ward against vice mayor Berny Stone. At a recent candidates’ forum Morris said he wanted to make the 50th Ward the “UN of Chicago” by opening a multicultural center and fixing parking problems along Devon Avenue so that “white people” wouldn’t be afraid to visit and spend their money. Asked to clarify, he said he meant “people from Lakeview and Lincoln Park.”

“He’s out of touch,” says Morris, referring to Stone. “He’s Jurassic Park. I’m Millennium Park.”

Morris, who insists he’s getting no help from Mell, says he decided to run when he heard a rumor that Stone planned to retire after winning so that the mayor could appoint his daughter and chief of staff, Ilana Feketitsch, to replace him. “A lot of people heard about it, known about it,” says Morris. “I said, ‘No way! No way!’ That’s why he’s running again. They actually had a battle. He promised to let her run. And then he caught wind that I was running.”

“My opponent likes to smoke something, but I don’t know what he’s smoking,” says the 74-year-old Stone, noting that he plans to not only finish another term but run again: “I’m too damn young to retire.” He adds, “If my daughter has aspirations for my job she better keep them to herself for at least the next four years.” –Mike Sula

They Could Get Detention

During an hour-long debate organized by journalism students at the Howard Area Alternative High School, each of the five candidates for alderman of the 49th Ward tried to paint himself or herself as the true champion of senior citizens, disenchanted youths, and low-income people in general. Past statements aside, they were suddenly all staunch opponents of the war on drugs and 100 percent supporters of more affordable housing.

Seated in front of the crowd of senior citizens and high school students, the candidates also bickered over who could claim credit for the new field house and for getting the alternative high school started. “It’s funny that all of a sudden Tom [Bradley] is the only proponent of the alternative high school,” complained the incumbent, Joe Moore, who insisted he’d had a key role in making the high school possible.

When the students complained that police officers often mistreated them, Michael Harrington promised that if he won, local police officers’ days would “start with Michael Harrington showing up at roll call at 5:30 AM” to lecture them on treating local youths with fairness and respect.

Some of the students cheered, though soon they were laughing and booing. “To all the other audiences these candidates are all about ‘tough on crime,'” said Moore. “Harrington constantly complains about gang members hanging out on Morse Avenue.” –Kari Lydersen

Bound for Glory

Moore has challenged the nominating petitions of three of his four opponents in the race.

Asked why he challenged Michael Harrington’s petitions, Moore says, “Basically we were asserting he failed to file the petitions according to law.”

How so?

“They weren’t bound,” he says. “The reason for that [law] is to prevent fraud, like someone adding pages.”

“This is a professional operation,” counters Harrington. “Of course they were bound–with those hard black legal clips that will crack your knuckle if you leave them on too long. They acted like I just tossed a stack of scrambled papers on the table.”

On January 15 an election judge ruled in Harrington’s favor.

Harrington says Moore filed another challenge against him, alleging that he didn’t have enough signatures–even though he had almost 1,200, well over the required 240.

Moore says he never filed such a challenge. Harrington insists he did. “The alderman is yet again going after opposition to stifle debate,”

he says. “It’s a sad tactic. It brings me incredible sadness.” –Kari Lydersen

The Untouchable

Elections have long been just a formality for 14th Ward alderman Ed Burke–the last time he had an opponent was 32 years ago. The most senior and arguably the most powerful member of the City Council, this remnant of old-time machine politics was first elected in 1969 and faced his last challenger in ’71.

To put that into perspective, Saddam Hussein has been running unopposed only since 1979. Fidel Castro, who took over Cuba in 1959, has Burke beat. But then there’s Burke’s father, Joseph, who served as 14th Ward alderman from 1953 until his death in ’68. That makes 50 years of Burke reign in the ward.

So why doesn’t anyone oppose Burke?

Silvia Covarrubias and her husband own Gilberto’s Barbershop, which is across the street from Burke’s fortresslike ward office. She says, “His office is always open to the person who wants to seek help or advice.”

But 50 years in power–isn’t that like the PRI in Mexico or something? Is this democracy?

“The PRI didn’t serve the people!” she says. “As long as the people are being served it’s a democracy. It doesn’t matter who runs the democracy, just so long as there’s equality.”

Asked why no one opposes Burke, a sanitation worker and 14th Ward native who doesn’t want his name used says, “I don’t know, but he’s got a lotta power. I don’t think anybody could, you know, beat him, you know. They don’t wanna waste their money.”

So is the 14th Ward a democracy?

“The whole country’s a democracy. Nobody’ll run against him ’cause they won’t beat him. He gets a lot of stuff done actually.”

Would the ward be better off if he had an opponent every once in a while?

“I have no idea. You’d have to get a–what do they call it?–you’d have to get an independent in there, right, Bud?” he says, turning to another sanitation worker.

“Don’t look at me,” says Bud, throwing trash into the back of the truck. “I can’t help ya out ’cause I don’t live in this ward.” –Linda Lutton