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

Alderman Scott Waguespack, who edged out incumbent Ted Matlak back in April, isn’t in the running. Instead he’s endorsed state rep John Fritchey, who announced his candidacy back in July. the runoff election for alderman of the 32nd Ward. It was an upset victory: Matlak, the incumbent, had the backing of the 32nd Ward machine, once all-powerful under the hold of Dan Rostenkowski and committeeman Terry Gabinski. He was endorsed by political heavyweights from Mayor Daley to House Speaker Michael Madigan to Congressman Rahm Emanuel. His undoing was the ire of many residents of the ward, which encompasses parts of Bucktown, Wicker Park, Roscoe Village, and Lakeview. Matlak was perceived as unresponsive to the needs and desires of the community, and his laissez-faire approach to zoning was blamed for the scores of ugly condos mushrooming up in the neighborhood.

—machineThings are getting a little mixed up in the 32nd Ward It’s wheels within wheels in the 32nd Ward committeeman’s race, where in the aftermath of an upset victory, freshman alderman Scott Waguespack finds himself in something of a misalliance.

Back in who vanquished the remnants of the once great Dan Rostenkowski-Terry Gabinski machine when he edged out incumbent Ted Matlak in April, isn’t running for the spot.

Instead, he’s supporting state rep John Fritchey, who did not support him when he ran against Matlak, even though Fritchey’s opponent, Roger Romanelli, was one of Waguespack’s strongest supporters.

It’s bewildering; so let me try to explain what’s going on. In the aftermath of his hard-fought victory over Matlak, many of Waguespack’s supporters urged him to run for committeeman. As they know, a committeeman is an unpaid party position, which has lost much of its clout and power in the age of the patronage-limiting Shakman decree.

Yet the position has some perks. Committeemen appoint election judges and slate candidates for office, playing a particularly powerful role in judicial races and other obscure campaigns. The position gives resourceful politicians an easy way to raise money and build up favors, if they know how to play the game. Perhaps most importantly, it’s how aldermen consolidate their local power, cutting off potential rivals in their wards. In fact, other than Eighth Ward alderman Michelle Harris, whose committeeman is Todd Stroger, Waguespack is the only City Council rookie not running for committeeman.

Romanelli and Fritchey say they want to use the office to register new voters and bring out the vote for Democratic candidates. “I want to be committeeman,” says Romanelli, executive director of the Randolph Street-Fulton Street Market Association. “But I wouldn’t be running if Scott were running.”

But soon after he was sworn in last April, Waguespack let it be known that he was not going to run for committeeman. “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. In July he announced his campaign. “I have a lot of ideas to invigorate the party,” says Fritchey.

A few days later Waguespack endorsed him, before any other candidate had entered the race. Waguespack and Fritchey make a curious match. Waguespack ran as a reformer, slamming Matlak for overdeveloping the ward by routinely approving zoning changes without much public hearing. Fritchey, in addition to his statehouse job, is a zoning lawyer who happens to be married to the niece of 36th Ward alderman William Banks, chair of the City Council’s zoning committee. Banks recuses himself on Fritchey’s zoning requests. And Fritchey says he never uses his connection to his uncle-in-law 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 has one of the most liberal voting records in the house, routinely championing progressive causes such as 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 had any love for each other, but he never came out and publicly supported Waguespack. And over the years he’s developed a cozy relationship with house speaker Michael Madigan [Fritchey was Madigan’s house leader on the home owner’s exemption bill that disappointed many people by awarding less than James Houlihan’s proposal would have] This has led some folks in Waguespack’s camp concerned that Fritchey will use the committeeman’s post to promote machine-minded hacks. (The big scuttlebutt in the ward is that Madigan will slate Fritchey to run for attorney general when Lisa Madigan, the speaker’s daughters, leaves that post to run for governor.)

Some of Waguespack’s backers say that Fritchey bullied the rookie alderman into endorsing him for committeeman. But Waguespack says that’s not so–if he had wanted to run, he would have, even against Fritchey. So why’d he give Fritchey the quick endorsement instead of giving other candidates time to step forward?

“I endorsed Fritchey when Matlak and Gabinski were possibly running,” Waguespack says. “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. And I didn’t want them to run without strong opposition. So I endorsed John.”

Of course, neither Gabinski nor Matlak wound up running. Romanelli announced in October, claiming Waguespack’s mantle of reform even without the alderman’s support.

“I understand why Scott says he’s backing Fritchey, but I believe I’m the true reformer,” says Romanelli. “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.”

For his part, Fritchey says he helped Waguespack behind the scenes. “Everyone in Scott’s campaign knows what I did for Scott,” says Fritchey.

So why not just come out and endorse him? “I didn’t want Scott to be an afterthought,” says Fritchey. “I didn’t want this to be seen as a battle between Fritchey’s guy and Gabinski’s guy.”

Romanelli laughs at that explanation, saying that he thinks Fritchey didn’t dare to endorse Waguespack because he didn’t want to alienate Madigan, Banks, and all of Matlak’s other big-name supporters.

As the rhetoric shows, the race, only a few weeks old, is shaping up as an entertaining humdinger. Fritchey calls Romanelli a neophyte who knows nothing about politics and didn’t even bother to vote in four primaries.

Romanelli says that he’s only missed two primaries in the last 20 years and that’s because he was out working on election days for “independent candidates” like former state senator Jesus Garcia and Senator Barack Obama. And then, without skipping a beat, he points out that Fritchey supported machine candidate Dan Hynes over Obama in the 2004 senate race—”So much for being a reformer.”

Fritchey has challenged 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 live outside the ward. “Come on, you know that’s bound to happen,” he says. But he insists the vast majority of his signatures are legitimate, and accuses Fritchey of besmirching the honor of 32nd Ward residents and 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, [use go-to man instead] Madigan’s election-law lawyer, is handling Fritchey’s challenge. Madigan was one of the many elected officials who worked hard against him in his race against Matlak. “I’m disappointed that the challenge is happening,” says Waguespack. “If Madigan is sending in people to work against Roger, it’s wrong. He [Madigan] did that in the last election. It didn’t work then.”

Waguespack’s miffed at Fritchey on another count. Instead of going to the local community group, as Waguespack requires, Fritchey filed a request to change the zoning of a lot on the 1400 block of W. Lill Street directly with the city. When Waguespack found out about the proposed zoning change, he called Alderman Banks’s office and asked him to defer the matter. Fritchey dismisses the matter as an oversight; the request is only held while Fritchey brings it before the neighborhood group.

Despite the zoning dispute, Waguespack says he’s not about to rescind his endorsement . Then again, he’s not about to campaign hard against Romanelli either. Call it a quiet endorsement – having spoken to Waguespack, I get the distinct impression he can’t wait for this campaign to be over fast enough. “I’m still endorsing John,” says Waguespack, adding: “anyone who wants to run should be allowed to run — I don’t think it’s undemocratic to have two people in the race.”