In case you hadn’t noticed, election season is upon us. If it seems to have arrived far earlier than usual, that’s because it has—a couple years ago the state legislature rolled back the primaries from late March to February 2 to boost the presidential hopes of Barack Obama. Now he’s in the White House and we’re stuck with a compressed campaign season where money and clout are likely to have an even bigger influence than before. And around here, that’s really saying something.

Amid the clutter of insipid TV ads and the increasingly common spectacle of Democratic regulars posing as reformers, some important and interesting races are under way. A few of them haven’t even been decided yet.

Best Foes Forever

State rep John Fritchey and former 32nd Ward alderman Ted Matlak, who are running for Forrest Claypool’s Cook County Board seat, are like an old married couple—they’ve been bickering for years, though it’s really not clear what they’re fighting over.

Both used their connections to rise up through the regular Democratic Party. Fritchey, nephew-in-law to former alderman and 36th Ward boss William Banks, got his first big break when alderman Richard Mell agreed to endorse him in his 1996 campaign for state rep. Banks then backed Mell’s son-in-law, a guy named Rod Blagojevich, for Congress.

There was a legitimate alternative in that state rep race, a Logan Square activist named Kevin Lamm. After Fritchey unsuccessfully tried to bounce Lamm from the ballot by challenging the signatures on his nomination petitions, he relied on northwest-side payrollers loyal to Banks and Mell to help him get out the vote and win—all the while campaigning as an independent.

To his credit, Matlak has never even vaguely tried to pass himself off as a reformer. He clawed his way up through the 32nd Ward Democratic organization led by Dan Rostenkowski and Terry Gabinski, becoming alderman in 1998. During his nine years in City Council, Matlak voted loyally with Mayor Daley and signed off on just about every proposal from developers that hit his desk, all the while accepting thousands of dollars from them in campaign donations.

In 2004, when Gabinski announced he was stepping down as 32nd Ward committeeman, Matlak announced he was running. Then Fritchey said there was no way he was going to let Matlak have the job and announced he was running too. It took Mayor Daley himself—via Greg Goldner, one of his top political advisers—to broker a peace: Fritchey and Matlak both withdrew and Gabinski ran again.

Since then it’s been rough going for Matlak. In 2007 he lost his aldermanic seat to Scott Waguespack, who was quietly backed by Fritchey. After that he made his love for development official and went to work in real estate. Fritchey, meanwhile, plotted a run for higher office as a reformer. Last year he lost a congressional bid to Mike Quigley.

Now the two rivals are at it again but finally going at it face to face. If Matlak loses—and we think he will—this should close the door on his political career once and for all. It should—but would anyone be surprised if he resurfaced again next year to challenge Waguespack?

Longtime Republican candidate Carl Segvich is undertaking yet another kamikaze mission against the 11th Ward Daley machine. “If you believe in David and Goliath, well, this is it,” he says. “I’ve got the stones. I just need to get a better slingshot.”

Segvich’s conservative politics aren’t for everyone—he’s been known to rail against the moral turpitude of the Democratic Party for its embrace of gay rights, affirmative action, and gun control. But what’s not to like about his eagerness to go after the Daleys?

In 2003 he ran for alderman, a job held by mayoral lackey James Balcer, and lost with just 15 percent of the vote. In 2006 he challenged county commissioner John Daley, the mayor’s brother, picking up 18 percent of the vote. The next year he made another run at Balcer and lost with 21 percent of the vote. Along the way he also lost the 2004 race for GOP committeeman to George Preski, the ward’s silent, inactive incumbent—a suspected Democratic plant.

In 2008 Segvich finally broke through with a 358-219 triumph over Preski, thus seizing control of the moribund 11th Ward Republican Party apparatus. By contrast, John Daley, running unopposed for Democratic committeeman that year, received 8,680 votes.

This year Segvich is running unopposed in the Republican primary for Cook County Board. If he manages to win the nomination (hey, you never know—the Daleys might run a write-in campaign for Minnie Minoso just to mess with him), Segvich will get to square off against John Daley yet again.

“It’s all about justice,” he told us on a phone call from a laundromat in Bridgeport, where he was introducing himself to voters. “It just makes me upset to see the blue-collar worker getting taxed to death.”

If he actually manages to beat Daley, Segvich says, he’ll “bring a hacksaw to the bureaucracy and get rid of the patronage jobs.” But quite frankly, he’s got about as much chance of beating Daley as the Massachusetts Republicans had of taking the Kennedys’ old Senate seat.

Oh, wait . . .

Emil Jones Jr.

Jones, of course, was the longtime Democratic leader of the state senate until stepping down last year and getting his son, Emil Jones III, appointed to his seat.

But he’s still the district committeeman, and he’s still doing a bit of politicking here and there. Over the last few months he’s donated money to alderman Carrie Austin, state senator Kwame Raoul, lieutenant governor hopeful Terry Link, and his son. The recipient of his biggest contribution, though, was Cook County Board president Todd Stroger: Jones donated $100,000 to him earlier this month.

Jones and Jackson aren’t exactly drinking buddies. Jackson topped Jones in 1995 to win his congressional seat for the first time, and since then he’s tried to build a network of loyalists on the far south side and in neighboring suburbs. Jones is part of the old guard that Jackson has been working to oust.

That’s why we think Jackson is bothering to run for this largely ceremonial post. We’d love to tell you exactly what he has to say about it, but he hasn’t returned our calls since December 2008, when we identified him as the “Senate Candidate 5” discussed in court filings charging Rod Blagojevich with attempting to auction off Obama’s Senate seat.

When Rick Munoz broke into politics as a precinct captain for alderman Jesus Garcia during the racially charged Council Wars of the 1980s, the political landscape in the Latino communities of Pilsen and Little Village was pretty well defined.

There were regulars who supported white machine aldermen Ed Vrdolyak and Ed Burke, and there were independents, like Munoz, Garcia, and Rudy Lozano Sr., who supported Chicago’s first black mayor, the progressive-minded Harold Washington.

For a while the Washington backers seemed to be gaining the upper hand. In 1983 Lozano came close to defeating longtime incumbent 22nd Ward alderman Frank Stemberk. In 1984 Garcia beat Stemberk for Democratic committeeman, and two years later he won a special election to become alderman.

Even after Washington’s death in 1987, the independents appeared to maintain control of the near southwest side. Garcia was elected state senator in 1992 and helped get Munoz appointed to take his place in the council.

Then it fell apart. “We got lazy and they got lucky” is how Munoz puts it.

It was a little more complicated than that. In 1998 the Hispanic Democratic Organization, one of Mayor Daley’s armies of patronage workers, hit the streets with a fury, driving Garcia from office and helping elect Antonio “Tony” Munoz (no relation to Rick) to replace him.

The HDO has been on the decline since the feds started snooping around City Hall a few years ago, and now Rick Munoz and his allies are striking back, making it feel like the 1980s all over again. Garcia has come out of political retirement to run for Cook County Board against Joseph Mario Moreno, an old ally of Alderman Burke’s. And Rudy Lozano Jr. is running against Dan Burke, Ed Burke’s brother, for state representative. (Rudy Lozano Sr. was shot in 1983; his murder has never been solved.)

Moreover, Rick Munoz is running against Tony Munoz for Democratic state central committeeman of the Fourth Congressional District. As we noted earlier, commiteeman is a largely ceremonial position, but if he wins, it will be sweet payback for what Tony and the HDO did to Garcia—his old mentor and friend—12 years ago.

The plow horse dragging this cart is Rick Munoz. It’s Munoz on the phone almost every day, relentlessly calling reporters all over town—we can barely get through dinner without another call from him. It’s won Lozano and Garcia coverage in the Sun-Times, the Tribune, and the Chicago edition of the New York Times.

If Garcia and Lozano win, there will be a new political boss on the southwest side: Rick Munoz.

“No, no—that’s not true,” the alderman says. “I’m just part of a team.”

Yeah, yeah. Well, at least there will be a new political operative—sort of a Little Village version of David Axelrod.

“No, not that either. I told you, this is not about me. It’s a team game.”

OK, OK. How about the return of the Washington coalition?

“Yeah, that’s more like it.”

Giving Back

Drivers just saw parking meter rates go up again, but not everybody’s complaining about Chicago’s meter lease agreement—Morgan Stanley, which controls the meters for the next 74 years, is happily raking in more than a million bucks a week, and the financial and law firms the city hired to work on the deal made more than $7 million to make it happen. And then there are the candidates who are enjoying donations from employees of those firms.

Employees of William Blair, the financial consulting company that devised and executed the deal on behalf of the city, gave money to state rep Dan Burke, state senator Heather Steans, comptroller and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dan Hynes, attorney general Lisa Madigan, and Republican comptroller candidate Judy Baar Topinka.

GOP gubernatorial candidates Andy McKenna and Bill Brady and incumbent governor Pat Quinn received checks from employees of Morgan Stanley.

Attorneys with the firm Katten Muchin Rosenman, which helped negotiate the deal on behalf of the city, contributed to Brady and Joe Berrios, the Cook County assessor candidate who’s also chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party.

And Avis LaVelle, the spokeswoman for CHICAGO PARKING METERS LLC, the entity that Morgan Stanley formed to take over the meters, has donated to all sorts of people in the last year, including Senator Steans, Cook County sheriff Tom Dart, aldermen Leslie Hairston and Carrie Austin, circuit court clerk and Cook County Board presidential candidate Dorothy Brown, county commissioners Robert Steele and Deborah Sims, Democratic state treasurer candidate Robin Kelly, and the Democratic Party of Illinois, aka party chairman and house speaker Michael Madigan.

Running Unopposed Ain’t Cheap

And for that matter, neither is not running at all. Michael Madigan, Lisa Madigan, alderman Ed Burke, and congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. have something in common. Heading into the primary they’ve all raised tons of dough even though none of them has an opponent. Burke isn’t on the ballot at all, but that hardly matters, since he’s the chairman of the City Council’s powerful finance committee, which oversees TIF deals, bond issues, legal settlements, and just about everything else of importance that aldermen are supposed to keep tabs on. It clearly makes sense to keep him happy.

In the last year, Michael Madigan has brought in about $1.8 million (not counting the state Democratic Party funds he controls); his daughter $1.2 million; and Burke $1.4 million. Jackson’s take was smaller but still robust: $410,722. For the sake of comparison, Mayor Daley has received about $30,000.

Family Affairs

Ed Burke can’t be accused of sitting on all of that money—he’s been known to apportion a grand here and there to favored pols and unions. Last month he came up with $25,000 for embattled governor Pat Quinn.

But in the last year he hasn’t given a dime to his younger brother, state rep Dan Burke, who as previously noted is in a fierce race for reelection against Rudy Lozano Jr..

But maybe Dan doesn’t need the money: Two other guys with Hispanic surnames are on the ballot, though they don’t have Web sites and haven’t been openly campaigning. Not that anyone’s ever put ringers on the ballot to divide the ethnic opposition.

For the second time in two years attorney Mariyana Spyropoulos is running for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District board on promises to make it more environmentally friendly. And as in her losing bid two years ago, she’s financing her campaign almost entirely with money from her father, who owns a gasoline distribution company.

Since September, Spyropoulos has received more than $300,000 from her old man, Theodor. He’s poured almost $600,000 into her campaign coffers since 2007.

This year Spyropoulos is expected to win. Over the last year and a half, her father has given thousands of dollars to other local elected officials and political organizations, including secretary of state Jesse White, water rec board president Terry O’Brien, who’s also running for county board president, and the Cook County Democratic Party. Last summer Governor Pat Quinn appointed her to the water rec board to fill a vacancy, and now she’s running for a full term. Since voters generally don’t pay much attention to the agency that treats their wastewater, an incumbent has a pretty good chance of keeping her gig.

Cary Capparelli

Like his father, Cary’s a Democrat, though party affiliations don’t really matter much in this neck of the woods. On the far northwest side, Democrats and Republicans are all pretty much alike—a little to the right of Ronald Reagan on national issues while bowing to Mayor Daley on local matters.

For many years the representative from the adjoining 16th District was a Republican named Roger McAuliffe, who happened to be one of Ralph Capparelli’s best friends. In 1996 McAuliffe died in a boating accident and local Republicans slated his son, Michael McAuliffe, to replace him.

Like his dad, Michael never suffered much more than tepid opposition from local Democrats until 2000, when former city sewer worker Frank Coconate—best known for being a royal pain in Mayor Daley’s neck—won the Democratic primary and launched a fiery campaign against him. Among other things, Coconate called for limits on Daley’s massive O’Hare reconstruction project. Local Democrats united with Republicans to defeat him—they were actually handing out palm cards endorsing both McAuliffe and Al Gore.

In the 2002 redistricting, however, Michael McAuliffe and Ralph Capparelli were thrown into the same legislative district, setting up a 2004 showdown between the late Roger McAuliffe’s son and his good friend.

McAuliffe won and has held the seat ever since. He’ll continue to hold it for at least the next two years because there’s no one—Democrat, Green, or Republican—running against him.

Meanwhile, Ralph’s son Cary—remember him?—is running, also unopposed, in the Democratic primary for the right to go up against longtime Republican county board incumbent Peter Silvestri, who also happens to be the president of Elmwood Park. (We hope you’re following this, because there’s going to be a quiz.) Silvestri’s claim to bipartisan fame is that he’s endorsing Terry O’Brien for county board president in the Democratic primary.

So no matter how you look at it, it’s Frick or Frack up on the northwest side, right? Except that a Chicago cop named Brock Merck is running—also unopposed—in the Green Party primary for the right to take on Silvestri in the general election. Take note, northwest siders: if you want to put an end to four decades of bipartisan nepotism and logrolling, Brock’s your guy in November.

You Scratch My Better Government, I’ll Scratch Yours

Coalition for Better Government contributed $500 to a group called the Illinois Committee for Honest Government.

The Coalition for Better Government is closely aligned with our old friend, 33rd Ward alderman Richard Mell, an old-school political boss who runs one of the last patronage operations in town. And it’s led by a couple of warhorses from his organization: Ronald J. Calicchio, the city’s deputy director for business affairs and licensing, and Dominic Longo, a longtime political operative who now works at the Water Reclamation District. The Committee for Honest Government is the brainchild of lawyer and activist Frank Avila, whose father, Frank Avila Sr., employs Longo.

In the upcoming primary, the Committee for Honest Government has endorsed such reform-minded mavericks as Joe Berrios, the leading candidate for Cook County assessor, a Springfield lobbyist, and chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party; and state rep Deb Mell, daughter of the aforementioned 33rd Ward alderman.

But somehow in a city that’s not ready for reform everyone’s a reformer.

What’s in a Name?

Who’s the baddest mother running for
Congress? Isaac Hayes
, of course.

No, it’s not the late great Stax recording artist who wrote the “Theme From Shaft” and starred in South Park (although he wouldn’t be the first dead guy to participate in a Chicago election). This Isaac Hayes is a south-side youth minister who’s running for the Second Congressional District as a Republican, promising to work for school choice and fight against “the Chicago way.” He’s unopposed, so barring anything strange he’ll be facing Congressman Jackson, aka Senate Candidate 5, in the fall.

No word yet on whether he’s a complicated man.

Kari K. Steele

To Kari Steele, it’s an important point to make. She’s running on a platform of environmental protection and government transparency—and an association with Bobbie Steele won’t help her cause.

Bobbie Steele was the longtime west-side commissioner tapped by party bosses to replace board president John Stroger after his incapacitating stroke in 2006. What happened next is still reverberating through county politics. Steele replaced Stroger as president but held on to her own board seat. Former Seventh Ward alderman Bill Beavers took over Stroger’s board seat; Beavers’s daughter, Darcel, took over her father’s spot in City Council. Todd Stroger, then the Eighth Ward alderman, was slated to run in his father’s place in the 2006 general election. And Mayor Daley named Michelle Harris, old man Stroger’s longtime aide, to fill Todd Stroger’s aldermanic seat.

Phew—four years later, that’s still exhausting.

Even for Chicago, this nepotistic display was so raw and unvarnished that it woke the local electorate from its usual slumber, and folks on the north and northwest sides have been bleating about Todd Stroger ever since. (Funny how they never seem to direct their ire at Mayor Daley, aldermen Richard Mell and Ed Burke, house speaker Michael Madigan, or any of the other party chieftains who had a hand in the maneuvering.)

When all the wheeling and dealing was done, Bobbie Steele came out smelling like a rose—a rose with excellent benefits. When she stepped down as board president, rather than returning to life as a mere commissioner, she abruptly retired, even though she’d just won reelection. Her four-month tenure as county board president sent her off with an annual pension of $136,000, about twice as much as she would have been entitled to as an ordinary commissioner. To replace her on the board, party bosses chose her son, Robert Steele, who was then working for the Chicago Park District.

This Steele family is truly into public service—all told, six of Bobbie Steele’s children work for the county. Robert, who’s running for another term, has three opponents—Desiree Grode, Frank Bass, and Erold Elysee—in the primary.

Kari Steele may not be related to these Steeles, but she comes from another political family, the south-side Steeles. Her father is appellate court judge John O. Steele, who was alderman of the Sixth Ward from 1989 until 1997. By Chicago City Council standards, John Steele was independent, voting regularly with the small opposition bloc that annoyed Mayor Daley during his first couple terms. He even supported water rec commissioner Joe Gardner over Daley in the 1997 mayoral election, as did five of his colleagues. By 2007, all 50 aldermen were supporting Daley for reelection.

Never Mind the Moonies

Danny Davis isn’t too worried about getting reelected.

“It’s difficult, I believe, to come up with a bill of particulars against a guy like me,” he said during a recent interview at his west-side office. “I’m good at what I do.”

We can see why he might think that. Since winning the Seventh Congressional District seat in 1996, Davis hasn’t been inconvenienced by anything resembling a serious challenger, winning all of the subsequent Democratic primaries and general elections with at least 80 percent of the vote.

But since flirting with runs for Cook County Board president and U.S. Senate last year, Davis has attracted a field of opponents in the February 2 primary: Darlena Williams-Burnett, top lieutenant to recorder of deeds Eugene Moore; commercial realtor Jim Ascot; and 24th Ward alderman Sharon Dixon. They say that while he was busy gearing up to campaign for other offices, he neglected the district, which runs from downtown out into the near western suburbs and includes impoverished west-side neighborhoods like North Lawndale, Garfield Park, and Austin.

Davis says he was intrigued by the county board presidency because he thought he could bring some “cohesiveness” to county government. And as a senator, he thought, he might have been able to shine a brighter spotlight on the problems facing ex-offenders, a particular concern in the district, which has one of the highest concentrations of them in the country. But he says he didn’t want to get caught up in divisive campaigns for either job, so he chose to stay put.

As for the charge that he’s not interested in being a congressman . . .

“That’s stupid,” he says.

Davis says he’s one of the most accessible and engaged politicians in the country. “We talk to people all the time. We hold all kinds of community meetings. We just meet, meet, meet, and meet.”

Also, he notes, he’s become a nationally recognized leader on ex-offender issues. “I’ve been all over the country talking about recidivism,” he says. “I’ve been up to Waukegan, I’ve been to Bloomington, I go to the penitentiaries and prisons.”

His opponents all have their own ideas for improving the district. For example, Williams-Burnett, who’s married to 27th Ward alderman Walter Burnett, says Davis has been AWOL while his constituents struggle with gang violence. Her proposal: call in the national guard.

“I know if I say, ‘We need to bring in the troops,’ people would go crazy,” she says, “but we need to do something.”

It’s been a respectful, issues-based campaign for the most part. But among those issues is Davis’s relationship with the Reverend Sun Myung Moon, the leader of the controversial Unification Church, who’s been convicted of income tax evasion and quoted making anti-Semitic and homophobic comments. In 2004 the Reader and other news organizations reported that Davis and several other members of Congress attended a reception where, as the Washington Post put it, “Moon declared himself the Messiah and said his teachings have helped Hitler and Stalin be ‘reborn as new persons.’ . . . Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.) wore white gloves and carried a pillow holding an ornate crown that was placed on Moon’s head.”

At the time the event led many to question Davis’s judgment, but Dixon has taken a different tack, essentially citing it as evidence that he has a poor grasp of Christian theology. “I don’t think that Reverend Moon is a savior and I don’t think most other people do,” she says.

Davis says he used to attend events sponsored by Moon because the reverend is an advocate for peace and racial harmony but stopped because he was tired of the controversy. He insists that coverage of the coronation event blew it out of proportion. For instance, he says, he wasn’t involved in any crowning of Moon. “I carried the thing for his wife—I didn’t carry it for him,” he says. “Another guy carried it for him.”

He continues: “The people there, they didn’t think Moon was no kind of messiah. There were black preachers and people from all over America. These people are Baptist preachers and they know who their messiah is, and Methodist preachers and gospel singers and all of that. They know they’re not part of a cult. They had a banquet downtown the other day, and the black preachers who were there was like a who’s who of Chicago. I didn’t go to it, but they ain’t following no Moon. They ain’t gonna drink no cyanide and shit.”   

Ben Joravsky discusses local politics weekly with journalist Dave Glowacz at mrradio.org/theworks.