For the past year or so 35th Ward alderman Vilma Colom and her challenger, Rey Colon, have been eyeing each other with unmasked contempt, and now Colon wants everyone to know that their race has implications that go way beyond personal dislike. “This campaign is very deep,” he says. “It’s about the future of independent politics all over the northwest side.”

According to Colon, his race against Colom is only the latest battle in an epic struggle that goes back almost 25 years, to when most of the area around Logan Square was controlled by 33rd Ward alderman Richard Mell, the Democratic Party’s chieftain on the northwest side. The last two redistrictings moved Mell’s ward north, and the heart of his empire is now Albany Park. But he’s never been shy about involving himself in the politics of his old turf.

In 1995 Mell handpicked Colom, then a conservative Republican, to succeed him as the alderman of Logan Square, which had shifted to the 35th Ward in the 1994 redistricting. The race came down to a runoff between Colom and Louis Lara, a police officer. Lara’s main supporter was Congressman Luis Gutierrez, who said he saw the election as part of his larger struggle with Mell for control of the near northwest side.

Mell outmaneuvered Gutierrez, turning out more workers on election day and winning big for Colom even in areas where the congressman was supposed to be strong. In the aftermath Gutierrez and his allies, including Cook County commissioner Roberto Maldonado, had to decide whether to continue the fight against Mell or give it up. They prudently decided that since they couldn’t defeat his organization they would, in effect, join it.

Gutierrez let it be known that he would support Colom so long as Mell and his organization didn’t work against any of Gutierrez’s allies. The truce became widely known in the area as the “incumbent-protection arrangement,” because it guaranteed that most incumbents would work for other incumbents’ reelection, no matter how much they despised one another.

So it is that Gutierrez, Maldonado, state senator Iris Martinez, and other erstwhile northwest-side independents now find themselves joining Mell in praising Colom. In 1995 Martinez declared, “I will never, ever go with someone like Vilma Colom, because she is Richard Mell’s puppet. I don’t want Mell to be the dominant figure in the ward.” Today Martinez is Colom’s campaign manager, and Colom says, “Iris is one of my strongest supporters.”

The common denominator in these alliances is not so much Mell as the tag team of his son-in-law, Governor Rod Blagojevich, and Mayor Daley. Most elected officials in the area swear unswerving allegiance to Blagojevich and Daley. In return, the mayor and governor are supporting their reelection bids and allowing them to use Daley and Blagojevich pictures on their posters and flyers.

All of which makes it harder than ever for residents to influence policies or plans backed by the mayor or governor, much less unseat an incumbent. Rey Colon, who’s a community activist, knows this. He ran against Colom in 1999 and lost, largely because he was a neophyte with little political support. “It’s a club with these guys–once they get in they support each other,” he says. “Maldonado called it ‘the family.’ He told me, ‘I have to back Vilma because we’re part of the family.'”

Colon can’t even depend on independent officials such as Frank Avila, the maverick lawyer who generally can be counted on to battle Mayor Daley’s Hispanic allies. Avila says he supports independent candidates in other wards, but in the 35th he’s sticking with Colom, out of loyalty to Mell. “I have had some differences with Vilma in the past–but at the same time, politics is interrelationships, and I have a good relationship with Mell,” he says. “Mell gives his guys freedom. He doesn’t try to control your life. He doesn’t say, ‘I’ll tell you when to piss.’ He’s a likable guy. In this one, I’ve got to go with Mell.”

If Colon has a chance this time around, it’s because Colom has alienated a lot of residents in the past few years. As she puts it, she’s an “antipolitician,” someone who’s not afraid to take an unpopular position if she thinks it’s right. Colon responds that his campaign has more than 200 volunteers, many of whom are still bitter about Colom’s stand on a variety of zoning and planning issues. In December he filed more than 4,000 nominating signatures, even though only 240 are required to make the ballot.

Shortly after Colon filed, Alderman Colom called in her advisers and ordered them to search through his petitions, looking for any mistake that could get him bounced off the ballot. They couldn’t find any. “We looked and looked, but the petitions were clean,” says one insider. “We looked for all the obvious stuff: roundtable signatures, signatures that are printed rather than signed, bad notaries, mom-and-pop signatures–you know, where the husband signs for the wife or vice versa. But they were clean. There was no point to filing a challenge since we would have lost. That’s when I knew–these boys knew what they were doing.”

Alderman Colom may be most vulnerable on the northern edge of her ward, in the precincts around Kimball and Addison. This area was part of Mell’s 33rd Ward until the 2000 redistricting. He had a big hand in drawing that map and assigned these precincts to Colom on the assumption that his organization could bring out the vote for her.

But that was before Colom offended many of the precincts’ voters by refusing to support their fight against the building of a Home Depot on a vacant lot at Kimball and Addison. For several years they’d vociferously opposed any large store on the site, saying it would make their neighborhood too congested. Mell supported the residents, but said there was nothing he could do because the project had Daley’s support. Instead of echoing her mentor, Colom was combative. Last summer she told a roomful of Home Depot opponents that the store was coming whether they liked it or not. “It’s a done deal,” she said.

Since then Colom has softened her position. At a meeting last fall Mell vowed to stand with the residents against Home Depot, regardless of Daley’s position. At his side, making the same pledge, was Colom.

Colon scoffs, “Oh, now she’s against the Home Depot. Where was she a year ago when the community really needed her? Where will she be after the election?”

Colom says she won’t drop her opposition to the Home Depot. “My first position was that I thought there was nothing I could do about the Home Depot,” she explains. “Then I did a little research and I found out I can hold up the process. I’ll take whatever stance I have to take, because I stand with the community.”

Colom accuses Colon of distorting her position on the matter. Colon fires back, “She’s trying to intimidate our supporters. A few days ago I was scheduled to have a fund-raiser at a [restaurant] in the ward. Well, the day of the fund-raiser a city inspector comes by and threatens the guy. He said something like, ‘If you have a party for Colon we’ll shut you down.’ The guy got nervous, so we shifted the fund-raiser to an apartment on Logan Boulevard.”

Colom says she knows nothing about the inspector’s visit to the restaurant. Then she accuses Colon’s supporters of tearing down her campaign signs. “If you go through the ward you’ll see that I have more support than he does,” she says. “That’s why he has people pulling my signs down. He doesn’t tell you about that, does he? Of course not. He only tells you bad things about me.”

In mid-January the two were supposed to debate at a meeting sponsored by a local community organization, but the debate was canceled at Colom’s insistence. “She refused to be in the same room as me,” says Colon. “They had to change the format. Of course I want to debate her. What’s she afraid of?”

Colom admits she refused to debate Colon, though she says it wasn’t because she was afraid of anything. “Oh, he’s always whining–always with the sour grapes,” she says. “He has no record, so he attacks me. I’m the incumbent. I have the track record. Why should I debate him?”

She also says it’s against her religious convictions to run a negative campaign. “I don’t play old politics,” she says. “I don’t have to do that. I work on my record, on what I stand for as a Christian. As a Christian, I never believe in playing the old games of politics. I’ve never been that kind of person. I feel I was put in this office by the grace of God and by the goodwill of the people in the community.”

Curiously enough, who wins the 35th Ward may come down to a side issue–the race in the 33rd. Mell is being challenged by a woman named Deb Gordils. His backers are challenging her nomination petitions, and if they succeed in knocking her off the ballot, Mell will be able to send the full force of his organization, including dozens of city and state precinct workers, to the 35th to work for Alderman Colom.

Mell has already assigned one of his most trusted political operatives, Dominic Longo, to help run Colom’s campaign. “They wouldn’t have brought in Dominic if they weren’t taking us serious,” says Colon. “They know we’re for real. They’ve been controlling this area for a long time. They don’t want to give it up without a fight.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.