Either the residents of the 13th Ward are inordinately passionate about their current alderman, or they don’t much care if he sticks his signs in their yards. Last week I drove through the far southwest-side ward that covers much of Clearing and some of Garfield Ridge, hugs the south end of Midway Airport, and flares into West Lawn and West Elsdon like a jagged spur. As I crisscrossed its bungalow-lined streets, neat rows of signs sprang from tiny front yards, aligned with military precision as far as the eye could see. Every last one happily proclaimed, “Marty Quinn!”
From the level of inundation you’d think there was no other candidate. But perhaps it’s precisely because there is one that Quinn, a two-term incumbent, is making sure his name is everywhere. For the first time since 1991, the 13th Ward—whose Democratic committee is chaired by the state’s all-powerful house speaker, Michael J. Madigan—has a contested election. It’s a year when Quinn, seen by many as Madigan’s right-hand man, could face unusual challenges. When his former protege Alaina Hampton came forward last year to reveal Quinn’s brother Kevin (also a top aide to Madigan) had sexually harassed her through texts, the alderman caught heat for his handling of the situation. Quinn’s opponent is 19-year-old DePaul freshman David Krupa, and a handful of houses in the ward have even dared to break the monotony of Quinn’s white-and-blue signs with Krupa’s bright orange ones.
Back on Election Day 2016, Krupa was energetically waving a Trump flag in front of a polling place on 63rd Street. At the time he was 17, but when he launched his aldermanic run last summer he e-mailed to admit that he’d lied and told me he was 18 because he’d wanted to get in the newspaper. “I am going to be seeking a run for public office soon and this article may hinder my chances of success for various reasons,” he wrote, “So, I’m asking that you would please take it down or edit me out of it.”
Our responsibilities as a newsroom do not allow for such concessions, but we did sit down for an interview with Krupa on Election Day last November. He’d told me in 2016 that he was a “day one” Trump supporter and that he hoped the candidate would usher in tough-on-crime measures to stem “inner-city” violence, but Krupa now said he’d been drawn to Trump only for his “antiestablishment” persona. “I didn’t really subscribe to Trump’s ideology as much as I subscribe to the fact that he was an outsider trying to break the current political machine.” He added that his political views are more in line with Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Kash Jackson, though he ran as an independent in the ward because he felt he’d have the best chance to make the ballot that way. He was confident of his ability to garner support in the Latinx community that has grown in the eastern part of the ward.
Krupa had interned in Quinn’s ward office in the summer of 2015. With a note of indignation, he said that he “learned a lot of legal loopholes” there, like the age-old machine tactic of emblazoning informational flyers and signs about ward services with incumbents’ names to campaign in the off-season.
I hoped to catch up with him last week to talk about the campaign as well as allegations that he had harassed and manipulated a high school girlfriend, which surfaced last December. I also wanted to ask about the status of the Cook County state’s attorney and U.S. attorney’s investigations into alleged fraud committed by the Quinn campaign as it tried to knock Krupa off the ballot. Though Krupa had filed 1,703 nominating petition signatures with the board of elections, Quinn’s campaign submitted 2,796 sworn affidavits from 13th Ward residents revoking their signatures for Krupa—and only 187 of the names overlapped, Krupa’s lawyer had found. Following these revelations, Quinn’s campaign withdrew its objection to Krupa being on the ballot. The board referred the matter to prosecutors for criminal investigation.
Alas, Krupa didn’t respond to the Reader‘s calls this time, nor to knocks on his campaign office door. But a few doors down, at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting hall, several people were game for conversation.
Jim, 63, didn’t want to give his last name, but offered me a cup of coffee and said he’d moved to the ward about five years ago. He said he’s generally happy with ward services and doesn’t have any gripes with Quinn. He didn’t give it much thought when a precinct captain knocked on his door last November and asked him to sign something against Krupa. But it gave him pause when the captain came back with a notary and asked him to sign a second time.
“I said, you know what, if you want him off the ballot that bad . . . I think I’ll just pass.” Jim said he didn’t know that he was being asked to sign an affidavit swearing he was withdrawing his signature of support for Krupa’s nomination to the ballot. He’d never signed anything for Krupa to begin with. He couldn’t understand why Quinn would be worried about a 19-year-old opponent. “I’m not even for him or against him, but he has a right to run if he wants to,” Jim said, surmising that Quinn’s “scared because [Krupa’s] got somebody that’s backing him.”
Yet besides one from ultra-right-wing state rep and former gubernatorial candidate Jeanne Ives, Krupa hasn’t attracted any high-profile endorsements. He’s only got about $5,500 to campaign, state election board records show. Quinn, meanwhile, has long worked for Madigan’s political organizations in addition to being alderman. He was first elected in 2011 after his predecessor, Madigan ally Frank Olivo, abruptly retired, leaving Quinn alone on the ballot. Currently his war chest holds $100,000, but he’s got access to a constellation of Madigan campaign funds that total more than $14 million. Perhaps Jim was right to be surprised that a guy described as “Madigan’s muscle” and “the General,” who’s worked some of the most successful political campaigns in recent Illinois history (from Lisa Madigan’s 1998 run for state senate to Juliana Stratton’s 2016 run for state rep), would spend so much time and energy fighting a challenge from a neophyte.
Yet although he was nearly suborned into perjury by Quinn’s allies, Jim said he’d probably still vote for the incumbent—if he voted. “I should vote but somehow I don’t,” he said apologetically.
Elsewhere in the ward, S. Smith, a white, 47-year-old mother of two who usually votes Republican, said she was approached by Quinn’s precinct workers multiple times in one weekend to sign an affidavit revoking her signature supporting Krupa’s nomination for the ballot. She said she refused and took their persistence as a sign of Quinn’s inability to listen.
Smith said she likes Krupa because “he presents himself that he really cares about the neighborhood,” and views his lack of experience in politics as a good thing. She has one of his signs on her front lawn, as do six other houses on her block. Sixteen homes had Quinn signs, but Smith said that doesn’t say much about her neighbors’ views. “I believe Marty Quinn’s people put them in the yards without asking people, because they’ve done that to me in the past.”
Her biggest concern is rising crime, which she attributed to the increase in renters and lower-income people with Section 8 vouchers moving into the area. “It can bring a lower level of . . . , ” she paused to think, “economics to our area. And I don’t want to sound horrible, but that brings in crime.”
As she unloaded large packages of snack-size chips and cases of sports drinks from her minivan, grousing at her kids to do their homework, Smith described herself as an involved citizen of the ward. She said she’d never seen or met Quinn but has the impression that he doesn’t care even about basic problems, like street maintenance.
“I drive down my nonsnowplowed street, through the potholes, and think, ‘hmmm, what is he doing for me?,’ and it doesn’t seem to be much,” she said of Quinn. “I think he’s a lot of talk.”
A couple miles away I got the opposite appraisal of the alderman from a longtime server at the cozy Top View Restaurant. Chandra Donaldson, 43, gushed about how happy she was to live in a collar county and said she has to keep her fierce Republican proclivities to herself when she’s back in Chicago. She had no love for Madigan but, she said, she’d still vote for Quinn if she could. He’s a “nice guy,” she said repeatedly, and noted that he gets a graffiti blaster out in no time whenever the diner is tagged. As she shuttled between tables with plates of pancakes and eggs, Donaldson also told me a story as old as Chicago politics.
Donaldson said she’d gotten a DUI back in the 90s and never completed her community service. Then, about 15 years ago, a vengeful ex-boyfriend reported her to the authorities for it and she was called into court and given a ten-day jail sentence. She thought she’d be able to tough it out, but three days in she said she called a friend and asked them to “‘get ahold of Marty Quinn. I don’t care what I have to do, just get me out of here!’ And he had me out 12 hours later. Time served, out the door.”
When I finally met Quinn, 44, he said he had no recollection of Donaldson. He also assured me his staff doesn’t put up lawn signs without permission. He pivoted away from the affidavit question and spoke of his suspicions about Krupa. “How does a self-described day-one Donald Trump supporter get 1,700 signatures in the 13th Ward without being disingenuous?”
He isn’t afraid of the kid, he said. In fact, he doesn’t have “a lot of opinions about him.” He’s focused on his constituents “and where my vision is,” he asserted. Where might that be? To improve local schools and bring new businesses to the ward.
“I do have my own graffiti blaster,” he said, explaining he bought it with his aldermanic expense account usually reserved for office supplies. “Yesterday alone we blasted 11 different spots down 63rd Street. I subscribe to the broken window theory, and removing the graffiti is very, very important.”
Our interview took place at a long wood table in an empty meeting room on the second floor of the Balzekas Museum of Lithuanian Culture, which is also home to his ward office and the 13th Ward Democratic Organization, chaired by Madigan. The decor of the space sits somewhere on the spectrum between Dracula’s castle and Eastern bloc banquet hall. Quinn was wearing gray chinos and a blue gingham Vineyard Vines shirt. As he talked in an even, deliberative tone, he leaned his body forward at a 45-degree angle and rested heavily on his elbows, gesticulating with his hands—but not too much. The posture was at once domineering and nonchalant. He vacillated between an unfocused stare at the back wall and piercing, direct eye contact.
Quinn’s father was superintendent of the old 15th Ward, and Marty, the oldest of five, grew up watching his old man handling precinct captain duties too. “Everyone knew him, everyone called him,” Quinn recalled. “I can remember my father during snowstorms being out and making sure the streets were cleaned. . . . Election Day was always exciting.” The family moved to the 13th Ward when Quinn was nine, but he traces his own genesis as a political operative to Lisa Madigan’s 1998 run for state senate. He said he didn’t know her father before that, and had been a 22-year-old press-office worker for then-sheriff Michael Sheahan when he signed up to to volunteer for her campaign. “It was an amazing experience,” he said.
He’d played baseball in college and felt a “void” after leaving competitive athletics. “Campaigning sort of filled that—the camaraderie and the common goal.”
Quinn was careful to underscore that he views his life’s work primarily as being a servant of the 13th Ward residents. When asked to describe the community, which is heavily populated by city workers and has shifted from predominantly white to increasingly Latinx in recent years, he used the word “close-knit,” adding that “it’s a community that looks out for each other. It’s a community that works with the police and prides itself on the relationship we have with the police. Yeah—” he stopped abruptly. I asked if there was anything else. “No, I think I covered it.”
Quinn said he doesn’t see any difference between the needs or priorities of white and Latinx ward residents, but that he’d hired four bilingual employees. He said he keeps spreadsheets tracking every contact with the community, and estimated he’s had some 6,000 conversations with residents since 2015. “It’s about ten conversations an hour,” he added helpfully.
He said his constituents haven’t given him any grief about his near-perfect record of voting with the mayor or his handling of the Alaina Hampton sexual harassment scandal. Their main concerns, like his, are education, economic development, and giving the kids stuff to do after school, he said.
After the interview Quinn, with his spokeswoman in tow, led a driving tour around the ward to show off his good works—the public schools he’s helped open and sports fields he’s helped fund, and a busy stretch of Cicero Avenue where he pointed out new outposts for Taco Bell, Panda Express, Lou Malnati’s, McDonald’s, and Dunkin’ Donuts. “My phone rings off the hook about this corridor, when I couldn’t get someone to return a call when I first started eight years ago,” he said proudly.
Attempts at friendly conversation were met with reactions from Quinn that made it seem as if he had never heard of conversation before. I noted the proliferation of his yard signs; they seemed to dominate every block in the ward. “Eight hundred and fifty-six total blocks,” Quinn noted about the size of his ward, but wouldn’t engage further on the topic. I broke an awkward silence by asking what his ten-year-old self would have thought upon seeing his name on nearly every lawn in the ward. The spokeswoman chuckled in the back seat. “I don’t know,” Quinn said.
I tried a more direct approach: Is it a burden that everyone sees him as an extension of Madigan?
“No, I’ve never viewed it as a burden,” he said, before shifting attention back to the ward. “I’ve always viewed my public title, the alderman’s title, as the community’s title. We really bend over backwards with our constituents to help out and be responsive.”
If Quinn is having any fun with his campaign, you’d never know. He doesn’t cut a remarkable presence. He’s neither heavy nor thin, neither particularly good-looking nor especially unattractive. The closest thing he has to a catchphrase is the word “piece,” which he uses to refer to everything from buildings to memories to aspects of his job. He drives a spotless gray Buick Regal and listens to sports talk on 670 AM. He’s not a ham. If he’s got a sense of humor, it’s not brought out for reporters to see.
Maybe that’s what the 13th Ward likes about its current alderman—a quiet, workerbee type who’ll clean off their graffiti and make sure their kids have good schools and athletic facilities. Or maybe entrenched power just likes to keep a low profile. But there’s a chance—slim, if you measure by yard signs alone—that residents will seize their first opportunity to bring in new blood in 27 years, and the face of authority in the 13th Ward will be that of a 19-year-old onetime Trump supporter. v