Credit: Johnny Sampson

While the state supreme court was at work restoring Rahm Emanuel’s name to the mayoral ballot, election-law attorney Adolfo Mondragon sat at the back of a nearly empty courtroom in the Daley Center, trying to keep his client’s fledgling aldermanic campaign alive.

Mondragon had to laugh at the contrast. In Emanuel’s case, it seemed the whole city was nervously awaiting the outcome. In the case of his client—12th Ward aldermanic candidate Jesus Iniguez—few people even knew there was an issue at stake. “For the candidates, running for office is the biggest thing in their lives,” says Mondragon. “You think about endorsements, raising money, but it often comes down to a random ruling by a judge.”

So it goes in Chicago, where running for office is never as simple as submitting nominating petitions and drafting position papers. It’s more like being a rat in a maze of litigation, where you turn a corner only to run into an election-law wall.

In Iniguez’s case the wall was something called a Cinkus violation, which is a new interpretation of an old law, specifically section 3.1-10-5(b) of the Illinois Municipal Code, which states in part that “a person is not eligible for an elective municipal office if that person is in arrears in the payment of a tax or other indebtedness due to the municipality.”

In 2007 a man named John Cinkus decided he wanted to run for trustee in Stickney, a southwest suburb. Stickney’s electoral board bounced him from the ballot on the grounds that he owed the town $100 in an unspecified fee or fine.

Cinkus challenged the ruling, arguing that Stickney—like most municipalities, including Chicago—had traditionally allowed scofflaws to run for office (though not to serve in office— presumably, they’d clear up their debts after getting elected).

A circuit court judge ruled in his favor. But the Illinois Appellate Court overruled him. The state supreme court upheld that ruling, and suddenly election-law lawyers had a new toy to play with.

Well, actually, it didn’t happen overnight. The final decision in Cinkus wasn’t made until the summer of 2007, so this is the first Chicago municipal election in which it’s been a factor.

In November candidates filed their nominating papers for the February 22 elections, and within days lawyers were sending Freedom of Information Act requests to the city’s Department of Revenue, asking if individual candidates had any outstanding debts—parking tickets, water bills, administrative hearing costs, inspections fees, and so forth.

Of the more than 400 nominating-paper challenges filed against various mayoral and aldermanic candidates, roughly a quarter are Cinkus violations, according to the board of elections. “It’s been the flavor of the month,” says election-law lawyer James Nally, who happens to be leading the charge against Iniguez.

It was Nally, for instance, who got aldermanic candidate Victor Rowans bounced from the ballot in the 27th Ward for having one unpaid $60 traffic ticket.

Rowans argued that he didn’t actually own the car on which the ticket was issued—it was his girlfriend’s car, he’d only cosigned the loan. Plus, he’d paid the ticket on December 3, after he realized it was going to be a problem.

But at his December 9 hearing, Nally submitted records from the secretary of state that included the car’s registration, with Rowans’s name and signature on it.

As for paying the ticket, “the ticket was adjudicated and remained unpaid until December 3, 2010, after the candidate’s nominating papers were filed,” hearing officer Barbara Goodman wrote in her ruling. “The unpaid ticket constituted an indebtedness and falls within the city’s definition of a debt due.” Therefore, “the candidate is ineligible to run for office.”

In the case against Rowans, the named objector was Tom Courtney, a rival aldermanic candidate.

In the case against Iniguez, the named objector is a man named Jose Guerrero, though most observers suspect that 12th Ward alderman George Cardenas is the force behind the challenge.

It’s often a guessing game as to who’s really behind any of these election challenges—as Emanuel, I’m sure, has come to realize.

A few elected officials, like Cook County assessor Joe Berrios, make no bones about siccing their lawyers on any candidate who dares to run against them. Other politicians want to look above the fray, so they have their allies or flunkies do the dirty work.

That leaves election-law lawyers swearing up and down that some ordinary schmo—who almost never shows up for hearings—is their true client and that they have no idea which larger political master is being served.

In Iniguez’s case, he and Oscar de Luna, his business partner, used to run the Taylor Made Deli, at 1010 S. Western. The formal owner of the deli was the Con Safos Corporation, which Iniguez and de Luna set up to shield themselves from personal liability. “Corporation law shields shareholders from liability,” says Iniguez. “We ran the business from about 2008 to 2010, and then we had to close because of the recession. But the city still charged us for a business license.”

Iniguez says the disputed bill is about $200. “We’re working with the city on this,” he says. “We shouldn’t have to pay the license because the business was closed.”

In 2010 the city sent Iniguez a letter notifying him that Con Safos Corporation owed a business fee. In the letter, Iniguez is identified as Con Safos’s registered agent, meaning the person to whom official notices get sent. So his name popped up when Nally asked the revenue department to run a computer search to see if he owed any debts.

Nally filed a Cinkus violation objection against Iniguez. With his campaign on the line, Iniguez turned to Mondragon, an old family friend. “He’s a nice kid from the old neighborhood—the Back of the Yards,” says Mondragon. “I took his case pro bono. If he goes into this without a lawyer, he’s screwed.”

On December 22 hearing officer Cassandra Watson ruled against Iniguez, knocking him off the ballot. On January 12 Mondragon went before the full board of elections and argued that being an agent of a corporation is not the same as being that corporation’s owner, and that, technically, the agent doesn’t owe the city money. So the city has no evidence that the debt owed by Con Safos is also Iniguez’s personal debt. The board of elections agreed, restoring him to the ballot.

But Guerrero or Cardenas—or whoever really is behind the challenge—wouldn’t let the matter die, and asked Nally to appeal the board of elections ruling to the circuit court. “I’ll tell you why they appealed,” says Mondragon. “They’re fucking with Jesus—they’re just fucking with him.”

And so on January 27, while the city waited for the big Rahm decision, Mondragon, Nally, and James Scanlon, a lawyer for the board of elections, found themselves standing before judge Susan Gillis.

“Mr. Nally, I’m beginning to think that I need to ask you for your autograph, since I’ve seen you on TV,” said Gillis.

Nally shrugged modestly.

“But you’re a piker in term of publicity compared to Mr. Odelson,” she continued, referring to Burt Odelson, the lead lawyer in the case against Emanuel.

“Well, he sets the standards for us all,” said Nally.

The judge laughed. Scanlon laughed. Mondragon paused—then laughed. Later he said it wasn’t a good feeling watching the judge trade quips with the opposing lawyer.

Then she turned to Mondragon and said, “You did not a file a response.”

Mondragon replied that he had, to which the judge said, “You didn’t send it to me.”

Mondragon said, “I did.”

“I didn’t get it,” said the judge.

It was a moment of panic for Mondragon. After all the briefs and hearings, could this case come down to a missed e-mail?

To his credit, Nally stood up for his fellow election-law lawyer. “I got it,” he said. “I got mine, too,” said Scanlon, who showed his copy to Mondragon. “Is this your e-mail address?” Mondragon asked, showing it to the judge, who answered yes.

There was a pause, and then Gillis said with a smile, “At any rate, I think I know what you’re going to say.”

Sure enough, they repeated the arguments they’d already made in briefs and at previous hearings. Nally argued that Iniguez was ineligible to run because his name’s on the letter that the city sent regarding the debt. Mondragon said the letter only stated that he’s a registered agent.

Scanlon said that the elections board found for Iniguez because there was no evidence that he personally owed the city any money.

After five to ten minutes of this, the judge made her decision, saying, “I uphold the ruling of the board.” And with that, Iniguez got to stay on the ballot.

Outside the courtroom, Nally and Mondragon chatted amiably—no hard feelings—swapping tales of Cinkus cases and other election-law war stories.

As they parted, Nally sheepishly acknowledged that there was a chance his client would appeal to the appellate court, in which case he, Mondragon, and Scanlon would repeat their lines once again. In Chicago, candidates come and go, but election-law lawsuits never end—unless you’re Rahm Emanuel.   

Ben Joravsky discusses his reporting weekly with journalist Dave Glowacz at