There’s a peculiar tango being danced in the 32nd Ward committeeman’s race.

Back in April freshman alderman Scott Waguespack beat incumbent Ted Matlak in an upset, but though most aldermen are also committeemen, Waguespack isn’t in the running. Instead, he’s endorsed John Fritchey, who announced his candidacy over the summer. Things took a turn in October, when independent Roger Romanelli entered the field. While Fritchey, a state rep with powerful connections in the ward, made no endorsement in the aldermanic race, Romanelli was one of Waguespack’s strongest supporters. Now the alderman’s in no position to return the favor. An independent himself, he’s backing the candidate with strong machine ties.

Committeeman is an unpaid party position that has lost a lot of its clout since the 70s and the age of the Shakman decree, when a series of court rulings eliminated (well, tried to eliminate) political hiring. Yet the position still has its perks. Committeemen appoint election judges and slate candidates for office, playing a particularly influential role in judicial races and other obscure campaigns. The job gives resourceful politicians an easy way to raise money and build up favors. Perhaps most important, it’s how aldermen consolidate their local influence, cutting off potential rivals in their wards. Other than Eighth Ward alderman Michelle Harris, whose committeeman is Todd Stroger, Waguespack’s the only City Council rookie not running for committeeman.

After Waguespack won last spring, edging out the remnants of the 32nd Ward organization formerly controlled by Dan Rostenkowski and retiring committeeman Terry Gabinski, supporters in the know urged him to run for the position. But soon after being sworn in, Waguespack announced that he had no plans to. “I wanted to focus on the job I had just been elected to do, and I didn’t want to have to deal with running another campaign,” he says.

Almost immediately, Fritchey began preparing to run. It wasn’t the first time: in 2004, after Gabinski announced that he was stepping down and tapped Matlak as his replacement, Fritchey astonished many by bucking the machine and jumping into the race himself. That little foray ended after a back-room meeting brokered by Mayor Daley. Matlak and Fritchey both withdrew, and Gabinski wound up filling the post for another term.

In July Fritchey announced his new campaign. “I have a lot of ideas to invigorate the party,” he says. A few days later, before any other candidates had declared their intentions, he had Waguespack’s endorsement.

Some of the alderman’s backers say that Fritchey bullied him to get his backing, taking advantage of the freshman’s need for allies and lack of comfort in his new office. Waguespack says that’s not so—the endorsement was a defensive tactic. “At the time I didn’t know if anyone else was going to run and I didn’t know if Matlak or Gabinski were going to run for committeeman,” he says. “I didn’t want them to run without strong opposition. So I endorsed John.”

Waguespack and Fritchey make a curious pair. Waguespack ran as a reformer, slamming Matlak for overdeveloping the ward by routinely approving zoning changes with little input from the public. Fritchey, in addition to his statehouse job, is a zoning lawyer married to the niece of 36th Ward alderman William Banks, chair of the City Council’s zoning committee. True, Banks recuses himself on Fritchey’s zoning requests. For his part, Fritchey maintains he never uses his family connection to win favors from the council: “I’m probably the last guy who would attempt to benefit from my position,” he says.

Politically, Fritchey’s something of a hybrid. As a legislator he’s been a vocal proponent of progressive causes, championing stem cell research and abortion rights and leading the fight against mandatory prayer in public schools. But on the local front he plays things close to the vest. Neither he nor Matlak has any love for the other, but Fritchey never came out and publicly supported Waguespack during his aldermanic challenge. And over the years he’s developed a cozy relationship with house speaker Michael Madigan, most recently serving as house leader on the speaker’s home owner’s exemption bill.

The Madigan connection has led some in Waguespack’s camp to express concern that Fritchey might use the committeeman’s post to promote machine-minded hacks. But the big scuttlebutt in the ward is that Fritchey’s angling to get himself slated for Illinois attorney general when Lisa Madigan, the speaker’s daughter, leaves the post to run for governor.

Romanelli, meanwhile, has assumed Waguespack’s mantle of reform even without the alderman’s express support. He points to his past campaign work for “independent candidates” like former state senator Jesus Garcia and Senator Barack Obama. Then, without skipping a beat, he notes that Fritchey supported machine candidate Dan Hynes over Obama in the 2004 Senate primary race.

“I understand why Scott says he’s backing Fritchey, but I believe I’m the true reformer,” says Romanelli, who’s executive director of the Randolph/Fulton Market Association. “I was there for Scott. We had a historic election in the 32nd Ward, and where was John Fritchey? He was sitting on the sidelines.”

Fritchey disputes this, insisting that he helped Waguespack behind the scenes. “Everyone in Scott’s campaign knows what I did for Scott,” he says. So why didn’t he endorse him? “I didn’t want Scott to be an afterthought,” he says. “I didn’t want this to be seen as a battle between Fritchey’s guy and Gabinski’s guy.”

Romanelli laughs at that explanation. He thinks Fritchey chose not to endorse Waguespack for fear of trouble with Matlak’s big-name supporters, among them Madigan, Daley, Banks, and congressmen Luis Gutierrez and Rahm Emanuel.

Now Fritchey has pulled out the oldest trick in the book, challenging Romanelli’s nominating petitions on the grounds that some of the signers didn’t live in the ward and that other signatures were fraudulent. “I’ve always been a big proponent of open access to the ballot,” says Fritchey. “I would not be challenging him on a technicality. But a review of his signatures shows that 80 percent of them are bad. It shows a reckless effort.”

Romanelli concedes that some of his signers may live outside the ward. “Come on, you know that’s bound to happen,” he says. But he says the vast majority of his signatures are legitimate, and accuses Fritchey of tampering with the race: “How can John call himself a reform Democrat when he’s trying to deny the public an opportunity to have an election?”

The growing fracas leaves Waguespack feeling a little sheepish, particularly now that Michael Kasper, Madigan’s go-to guy when it comes to election law, is handling Fritchey’s challenge. “I’m disappointed that the challenge is happening,” the alderman says. “If Madigan is sending in people to work against Roger, it’s wrong. He did that in the last election. It didn’t work then.”

Waguespack’s miffed at Fritchey on another count. One of his first moves in office was to mandate that developers consult the local community before seeking zoning changes. In November Fritchey bypassed this step, filing directly with the city a request to change the zoning of a lot on the 1400 block of West Lill. When Waguespack found out, he had to call Banks, Fritchey’s uncle-in-law, to ask him to hold the request until it could be brought before a neighborhood group.

Fritchey dismisses the matter as an oversight, and despite the zoning dispute, Waguespack says he’s not about to rescind his endorsement. Then again, he’s not exactly campaigning hard against his former precinct captain, Romanelli. Call it a quiet endorsement—having spoken to Waguespack, I get the distinct impression this campaign can’t be over fast enough for him.

“I’m still endorsing John,” he says, but “anyone who wants to run should be allowed to run.”v

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