A nomination petition for Tom Tunney sits on the counter at one of his Ann Sather restaurants. Credit: Taylor Moore

Efforts to elect Alderperson Tom Tunney as Chicago mayor are underway—but some of the signatures that could get him on the ballot are “completely fraudulent,” election attorneys say.

After serving on Chicago City Council for 20 years, Tunney announced on August 30 that he wouldn’t run again for his 44th Ward seat, which encompasses Lakeview and Wrigleyville. At the same time, rumors about his mayoral aspirations have swirled. He told the Sun-Times earlier in August that he was on the fence, and he has been quiet ever since.

But at Ann Sather, a Swedish American restaurant chain known for its enormous cinnamon rolls, Tunney is already a frontrunner. In each of the three locations that Tunney owns, candidate petitions are available at the cash register, adorned with handmade “Tom Tunney for Mayor” signs and containing a healthy number of signatures on each form. 

This practice—leaving petitions out and unattended—is a violation of Illinois election laws, according to experts.

In a statement to the Reader, a spokesperson for the Illinois State Board of Elections said, “The election code in 10 ILCS 5/7-10 is explicit that petition circulators must witness each voter signing a petition sheet.” 

On the affidavit portion of each petition, the circulator swears “the signatures on this sheet were signed in my presence” and signs their name on the bottom of each page in the presence of a notary. 

The spokesperson added that a scenario in which nominating petitions are left unattended “could be grounds for an objection if an opponent or other interested party finds out about it. The objector would need to show proof that the circulator who signed the petition did not witness the signings and, if so, those signatures could be stricken.”

Election attorneys for other mayoral candidates were more blunt. “If it is just being left on the counter, it’s totally illegal,” said Michael Dorf, an attorney who represents Mayor Lori Lightfoot. “All sorts of fraud could be happening. Somebody could be signing two or three names by themselves, and if the circulator isn’t there, there’s no way to prove only one person signed for each of those names.”

Tunney’s office did not respond to the Reader’s request for comment by press time.

Update 10/13/22: After publication, a spokesperson for Alderperson Tunney and Ann Sather Restaurants emailed a statement to the Reader that read, “[Alderperson] Tunney is not an official candidate for Mayor. If he becomes one, his petitions will be filed in full compliance with all legal requirements.”

Petition circulators must attest under oath that they verified the signer is a registered voter and that people are signing only for themselves. If a petition is left unattended, there is no way to confirm the veracity of the signatures, and submitting unverified signatures could constitute a “pattern of fraud” under Illinois election code.

To appear on the ballot, mayoral hopefuls must submit 12,500 valid signatures to the Chicago Board of Elections. Candidates with stuffed coffers and large teams of canvassers will often aim for three times the required amount to survive petition challenges—an expensive and time-consuming strategy used to knock competitors off the ballot.

The Reader found that in all three Ann Sather locations, clipboards with petitions were left unattended at the cash register while hosts and servers tended to diners. The practice could be acceptable if “the clipboard were on a counter in front of the cashier, and the cashier saw people sign, [so] the cashier could act as circulator,” said Dorf. 

But while reporting this story, a Reader reporter observed petitions left unmonitored for long periods of time. No dedicated campaign volunteers were present, though at least one employee wore a campaign button signaling support for Tunney’s handpicked successor, 44th Ward Chief of Staff Bennett Lawson, who announced he was running for the seat hours after Tunney’s retirement announcement.

CREDIT Taylor Moore

“If [the circulator] did not see the person sign and doesn’t know if they meet the qualifications, they’re committing perjury. I assume that it’s probably going to be signed by the managers of the restaurant or something, but whoever signs it would probably not be fulfilling the legal requirements,” said Dick Simpson, a former UIC political science professor who served as 44th Ward alderperson in the 1970s.

“Tom Tunney has been a good alderman,” Simpson said. “I don’t think this is how they should be circulating petitions.”

If the petitions are turned in as-is and someone challenges them, the Chicago Board of Elections could throw out every petition sheet by the violating circulator, which could represent hundreds and even thousands of signatures. 

According to election attorney Andrew Finko, who represents mayoral candidate Willie Wilson, this type of ballot violation is unlikely to lead to a criminal perjury case against the circulator in Cook County, but the drop in valid signatures could hurt the candidate’s chances of getting on the ballot.

Finko said this rule breaking typically slides under the radar, unless an objector steps forward. “This happens all the time. It’s a question of [whether] somebody gets caught.”

According to Block Club Chicago, supporters have been circulating petitions on Tunney’s behalf since at least September 27. A spokesperson told Block Club petitions were being circulated on Tunney’s behalf while the alderperson weighed his options.

Appointed to City Council by former Mayor Richard M. Daley in 2002, Tunney is Chicago’s first openly gay alderperson. He has won five reelection races since then. His decision to not run for his seat again comes amid a “Great Resignation” in City Council. At least 13 alderpeople are expected to leave their posts when the term ends in May 2023. 

Tunney is a former Illinois Restaurant Association chair and has spearheaded development and services across the ward, such as the Center on Halsted, the AIDS Garden on the lakefront, and LGBTQ+ senior housing. 

As vice mayor and chair of the powerful Committee on Zoning, Landmarks and Building Standards, Tunney was an early ally of Lightfoot. But the City Council, he told the Sun-Times in August, is “not a good place to work these days.” He cited Lightfoot’s “strong and somewhat divisive” personality as part of the reason.

Tunney became the owner of Ann Sather in 1981 and was responsible for growing the restaurant to three locations. In December 2020, the restaurant allowed customers to eat inside during the state-mandated COVID-19 indoor dining ban. Tunney called it an “error in judgment” and ceased the practice, which later resulted in a $2,000 fine from the city.

If Tunney declares his run for mayor, he would be the fourth alderperson to do so, after Alds. Raymond Lopez (15th), Sophia King (4th) and Roderick Sawyer (6th). At least 12 people have filed with the Chicago Board of Elections to run for mayor, including Mayor Lightfoot.

November 28 is the last day that mayoral and aldermanic candidates can submit their nominating petitions. 

Election day for the Chicago municipal election is February 28, 2023.