It was the most significant custodial discovery since Frank Wills found the tape over the door at the Watergate complex. In the summer of 1989 a busboy cleaning a booth at Counsellors Row restaurant found an electronic bug. Its cover blown, the FBI admitted that it had been using the monitoring device to eavesdrop on the conversations of First Ward politicians. The discovery changed the face of Chicago politics.

Even the rawest of neophytes knew stories of the First Ward. From “Hinky Dink” Kenna and “Bathhouse John” Coughlin to recently convicted alderman Fred Roti, the ward had had an image that’s less than savory. This was the heart of city corruption, where mob influence was so blatant that some papers didn’t even bother to print the lawsuit-saving “alleged” when discussing ward pols’ links to organized crime. The image was so sharply embedded that in 1968 the incumbent alderman quit the City Council because, he said, being First Ward alderman was bad for his reputation. Another incumbent once jokingly produced a reelection bumper sticker, “Vote for Roti and no one gets hurt.”

Roti’s departure from politics (he withdrew from the 1991 aldermanic race shortly before the election) came at a coincidental time. The City Council was undergoing its decennial remap then. Downtown businessmen, wary of the image the ward had cultivated over the years, sought and received a number change. Now the Loop and its environs belong to the 42nd, a “superward” that also includes the exclusive shopping district of North Michigan Avenue.

What became of the First Ward? From being a center of attention of the city, it now occupies a relative backwater. The U-shaped West Town and Humboldt Park ward has virtually no industry, notoriously bad schools, and one of the highest rates of gang violence in the city. The aldermanic candidates who’ll be on the ballot February 28 have based their campaigns on economic development, education, and crime. But politics, not issues, should be the determining factor here.

The ward was created from neighboring wards’ spare parts, chosen to help elect a Latino alderman. Yet it is not out of the question that a non- Latino could be elected here. Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, blacks, white yuppies, and white ethnics combine in a yet-unexplored electoral mixture.

Like most freshly drawn wards the First was a political vacuum; no strong political organization existed within its boundaries. But politics abhors a vacuum. Pols from within, from surrounding regions, and even allegedly from Washington, have been accused of rushing to stake their claims to this virgin territory. The result promises to be one of the most wide open aldermanic elections in the city.

Of all the candidates in the race, one has gotten more attention than the others. Tom Hendrix, a security company employee and local activist, was challenged because of his criminal past. The way he’s put it, he was suffering from a substance abuse problem and had a brother who was the target of a grand jury investigation. He discussed–unknowingly, to a federal agent–the possibility of having a hit man knock off a witness. However, “I never gave an order, I never used weapons,” he said. Nonetheless, that discussion put him in prison for more than two years.

It also almost put him out of the running for alderman. Altogether, five convicted felons filed for alderman in this year’s elections. Hendrix was the only one of them who was challenged because of his criminal record. Hendrix called unconstitutional the state law banning convicted felons from municipal office, and a court ruling eventually kept him on the ballot.

Hendrix blasted First Ward Democratic committeeman Victoria Almeida, whose workers had challenged him. Almeida responded that the reason for the challenge was twofold: to respect the law and to let the public know of his background. Hendrix responded that altruism had nothing to do with it; instead, he claimed, she went after the candidate who appeared to be her biggest challenger for the ward’s white ethnic vote.

The presumed front-runners in the First are Almeida, a private Loop attorney with previous legal experience in city, county, and state government; Jesse Granato, an assistant to 32nd Ward alderman Terry Gabinski; Roberto Caldero, a former director of an urban housing study at the University of Chicago; and Francisco DuPrey, former executive director of the YMCA’s intervention programs.

Almeida assumed the committeeman position in 1993. In most wards, the position would be an unquestioned advantage. Here, it carries an almost hereditary taint. She replaced John D’Arco, a former alderman who Mike Royko once claimed “has never bothered to deny that he is a political appendage to the Mafia, probably because he knows that nobody would believe him.”

Foes said Almeida was placed in her position by D’Arco. She denies the charge. She says she wrested it from him in a friendly manner. “In November 1992 I noticed a vacuum in the ward,” she claimed. “I asked [former Cook County Democratic chairman] George Dunne and [current chairman] Tom Lyons about it. But I wanted to know D’Arco’s intentions. I asked someone to go to D’Arco, and they told me that he wasn’t interested in the new First Ward. I did not talk him into retiring. He voluntarily gave it up.”

Her committeeman status may be the least of the strikes against her, if you listen to her opponents. She’s a carpetbagger from the decidedly non-Latino address of 100 E. Walton who moved into the corner of the ward closest to the Loop just before the filing deadline. Her parents came from Ecuador, and one DuPrey backer charges, “They had to invent a Puerto Rican grandmother for her.” DuPrey goes so far as to claim she doesn’t speak a word of Spanish.

So far she has taken the attacks in stride. “If you listen to Mr. Granato, I’m a Republican. If you listen to Mr. Caldero, I deserted my children and husband,” she commented.

Almeida and her troops have thrown as well as caught dirt. If one believes the Almeida campaign, Caldero is “not terribly trustworthy” and DuPrey is “a Puerto Rican nationalist working on a Puerto Rican agenda.” Granato’s name brings the response, “Is it fair for Gabinski to be controlling Division Street as well as the 32nd Ward?”

The other candidates also find time to heap abuse on each other. Granato, the only Mexican American in the race, is a “Rostenkowski clone” (Almeida’s campaign manager) who “doesn’t speak a word of Spanish” (DuPrey). Actually, he speaks it fluently.

Caldero, a former aldermanic aide to Luis Gutierrez, is pictured by DuPrey as someone who “came to the neighborhood with Gutierrez” and whose “politics was shaped when Luis decided to support Daley.” Caldero said that although the congressman is his friend, Gutierrez has neither been asked for nor offered support in the campaign.

DuPrey? Why, he’s a stooge for 33rd Ward alderman Richard Mell, if one believes his detractors. Or else he’s in the race to siphon votes from Caldero and thus hand the election to Jesse Granato. DuPrey admitted that he talked with Mell early in the campaign, but he said talks broke off long ago. Like Almeida, DuPrey, a former 31st Ward aldermanic candidate, is accused of being a carpetbagger. “He has no roots in this community. He hasn’t volunteered for any organizations. He hasn’t bought a house. If he loses this election, what ward will he move to next?” Caldero asks.

On occasion things have gone beyond name-calling. Granato claimed that some of his supporters are afraid to put his posters in their windows because of “gang intimidation” from supporters of other candidates. Almeida said her office was broken into, nominating petitions were taken, and one of her billboards was burned.

But the major battle of the campaign so far was fought with ballots, not bullets. State senator Miguel del Valle, arguably the most influential politician in the area, refrained from making an endorsement. But when his Volunteer Political Organization (VPO) made its endorsement on January 28, DuPrey and not the expected Almeida got the call.

“The endorsement session lasted more than three hours,” said Roberto Rivera, a former del Valle chief of staff who is now managing Almeida’s campaign. “It was deadlocked. Finally, as everybody was putting on their coats to leave, a woman who had been silent all day said, “I’m voting for DuPrey.”‘ The senator himself refrained from voting. Rivera said he turned to del Valle and asked, “How can you turn your back on someone [namely Almeida] who’s endorsed you?”

Caldero, another VPO also-ran, downplayed the endorsement. “Isn’t [del Valle] the guy who endorsed Gloria Chevere in the 31st Ward four years ago, and she got 18 percent of the vote?”

All four candidates agree that a runoff between the top two vote-getters is likely. How close is it? Each candidate, when asked, picked him or herself to finish first. As for their runoff opponent, one picked Almeida, one guessed Granato, one predicted Caldero, and one said DuPrey.