47th Ward alderman Eugene Schulter, IVI-IPO member since 1992
47th Ward alderman Eugene Schulter, IVI-IPO member since 1992

On December 29, a group of north-side members of the Independent Voters of Illinois-Independent Precinct Organization gathered to endorse attorney Dan Farley as their candidate in the upcoming Democratic primary for 11th District state representative. This was a coup for Farley, a first-time office seeker. North-side candidates covet the group’s stamp of approval, which gives them an aura of machine-fighting progressivism popular with voters.

The joke of it all is that there was hardly a real independent in the room that night.

In fact, leading the charge for independence was none other than 47th Ward alderman Eugene Schulter, one of Mayor Daley’s most loyal north-side City Council allies.

To be fair, Schulter has occasionally strayed from Daley’s flock—for instance, in 2008 he voted against the mayor’s nutty idea to cram the Children’s Museum into Grant Park. But on the big votes of recent years—on everything from budgets to TIF deals to selling off the parking meters—he’s been there for the mayor.

But Schulter didn’t have to establish a record of independence to engineer Farley’s backing from the IVI-IPO. He just got members of his Democratic ward organization to take it over.

It wasn’t that hard, mind you. As befits any group dedicated to participatory democracy, the IVI-IPO is open to just about anyone who wants to join. All you have to do is pay the $35-a-year membership fee.

When people join the IVI-IPO, they’re assigned to one of its three regions—south, near north, or far north—depending on where they live. At election time, members get to participate in endorsement sessions for the districts they live in. And that’s it—the central board can’t overrule a local chapter’s endorsement.

Across the city many of the rank-and-file IVI-IPO members are willing to speak up against Daley and his initiatives. It was the IVI-IPO, for instance, that filed suit against the city and state over the parking meter deal, claiming it was illegal. The group has also called for a moratorium on new TIF districts. But they have to figure out a better way to protect their organization from invasion by party regulars.

Schulter joined in 1992, according to IVI-IPO records. He says that over the years he’s encouraged supporters to join as well; Farley and his wife signed up last winter.

“I like to appeal to everyone,” says Schulter. “Independents and so-called regulars.”

The fact that an alderman and Democratic committeeman like Schulter—who’s spent his political career as a member of the local party machinery—can claim he’s an independent is a true sign that the word has lost virtually all meaning. Elected officials in Chicago are too scared to take on Daley, the real power here. But when they want to give off the impression that they’re not just yes-men, they turn and beat up on relatively powerless officials like Cook County Board president Todd Stroger. Presto! We’ve got an independent.

Farley, by the way, isn’t the first favored candidate to whom Schulter has sucessfully steered an IVI-IPO endorsement. He did the same thing in 2008 on behalf of attorney Dean Maragos, who was running for the board of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. Maragos lost that race anyway.

While you’ve got to give Schulter credit for some pretty savvy politics, his tactics have real independents steaming. “Our openness leaves us vulnerable to this sort of thing,” says Suzanne Elder, an IVI-IPO board member who was defeated in a 2008 run for the state senate by Heather Steans, an ally and financial supporter of several north-side regulars. “We are useful to the regulars. We have a brand name, a real independent identity, that they want to exploit. They’re not coming to our endorsement meetings because they like us. They’re using us and we haven’t figured out a way to deal with it.”

There are about 700 IVI-IPO members citywide, according to Elder—hardly a force that can contend with powerful ward organizations that have more members, more money, and more clout. As a result, the group’s endorsement typically doesn’t make any difference in races featuring an entrenched incumbent. But in a tight race the IVI-IPO endorsement can tilt the scales, especially on the north side, where politicians, even the regulars, are obligated to at least pretend they have an independent streak.

John Fritchey is the incumbent state rep in the 11th District. But after county commissioner Forrest Claypool decided to step down, Fritchey decided to leave the legislature and run for the county board seat. Schulter tapped Farley, a former assistant state’s attorney and the son of former state senator Bruce Farley, to replace him on the ballot.

Two other candidates also hopped into the race: Ann Williams, a lawyer/lobbyist who used to work for Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan, and Ed Mullen, an attorney for Access Living, an advocacy organization for the disabled.

At an initial endorsement session on December 5, the IVI-IPO members in the 11th District, led by Schulter, voted to back Farley.

A few days later, however, Elder and other IVI-IPO leaders noticed that Farley’s Web site included a claim that he was “chairman of the IVI-IPO Tax Rollback Committee.”

There is no IVI-IPO tax rollback committee. “It doesn’t exist,” says Elder.

In addition, they also discovered that Farley had issued a statement quoting Congressman Mike Quigley as saying, “Dan Farley is not a special interest lobbyist. We need a state representative who will fight for us and against the special interests who try to control our state.” That shot was clearly aimed at Williams, who had worked as a lobbyist for Wyeth pharmaceuticals. More significant, Quigley never said any such thing about Farley, as Farley later admitted to the IVI-IPO.

Seeking an explanation, IVI-IPO leaders called Farley. He didn’t return their calls, so the central committee convened a second endorsement session to let 11th District members reconsider the endorsement. That’s what happened on December 29, in a meeting room at North Center’s Revere Park.

Williams spoke first, advancing her claim as an independent by attacking the Farley/Schulter alliance. “Independence to me means that no special interest or ward boss has put you into office or is calling the shots in the campaign or telling you how to vote in Springfield,” she said. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

The first question from the floor came from a man sitting next to Schulter. “I understand you worked in Lisa Madigan’s office,” he asked. “Has Lisa Madigan endorsed you?”

His point was clear: it’s hard for anyone connected with a Madigan—Lisa being the daughter of house speaker and state Democratic Party chairman Michael Madigan—to claim the mantle of independence.

“Lisa Madigan has not formally endorsed me,” Williams responded.

A few folks in the audience snickered.

Next Mullen got up to offer his credentials as an independent, most of which centered on the fact that no elected official had endorsed him. “I believe people should choose the legislator and not have their legislators chosen for them,” he said.

Then it was Farley’s turn. He tried to explain his tax-rollback-committee claim. He said a volunteer had mixed up the IVI-IPO with other organizations he belongs to. He didn’t say whether he chaired tax rollback committees for them.

“It was a total screwup,” Farley told the audience. “This is a learning experience. Moving forward I hope there are no more mistakes.”

And that Quigley quote?

Farley again blamed a nameless campaign worker. He didn’t offer a clear explanation of how it happened but maintained that Quigley was behind him. “It’s been rectified,” he added. “The congressman is 110 percent behind me.” Quigley didn’t return calls for this story.

Farley went on to take an obligatory shot or two at—you guessed it—Todd Stroger. (Who these folks will pick on if Stroger loses the February 2 primary is anyone’s guess.)

After that Schulter said a few words on Farley’s behalf. “Dan’s been active in our community not only one year or two years, but his whole life,” Schulter said. “He’s received the endorsement of Forrest Claypool and Mike Quigley and that speaks volumes.”

The final vote was 16 for Farley, 3 for Mullen, 0 for Williams, and 0 for no endorsement.

Schulter moved to officially send the endorsement to the full IVI-IPO board. Maragos, who lives in Winnetka, seconded it: IVI-IPO rules allow any member to participate in any meeting, though he can’t cast an endorsement vote unless he lives in the district.

By a show of hands, Schulter’s motion passed 17-2 with one abstention. Somehow or other they picked up an extra vote—there were only 19 voting members in the audience when they’d first taken attendance. Undoubtedly this was another innocent mistake—hey, you try counting all those waving arms.

“Well,” a guy sitting next to me wisecracked, “this is Chicago.”   

Care to comment? Find this story at chicagoreader.com/politics. Ben Joravsky discusses his reporting weekly with journalist Dave Glowacz at mrradio.org/theworks.