In his more than 30 years as mayor of southwest suburban Bolingbrook, Roger Claar survived a DUI arrest, an investigation into campaign contributions he took while sitting on the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority board and questions about donations he took from bars while serving as the suburb’s liquor commissioner.
And on Tuesday, he appeared to have survived being linked to Donald Trump.
Claar was ahead in his re-election bid by a mere 104 votes Tuesday night, a seeming cliffhanger ending to a contest that drew national attention because of the lines it drew along last November’s presidential election.
Not as lucky was Orland Park Mayor Dan McLaughlin, who conceded defeat to a Republican challenger, ending a 24-year tenure in the southwest suburb.
In Bolingbrook, challenger Jackie Traynere — a labor organizer, Will County board member and former Bernie Sanders delegate — came up short in an attempt to capitalize on a backlash against Claar for helping throw a Trump fundraiser in the suburb, which voted largely for Democrat Hillary Clinton last November.
Late Tuesday, Traynere called Claar to congratulate him “on running a great race,” but she had not formally conceded, her spokesman Tom Bowen said. She planned to wait until Wednesday for a tally of absentee ballots and mail-in votes from the clerks in Will and DuPage counties.
“We recognize that it’s an uphill climb,” Bowen said of the 104-vote deficit.
Claar was ahead with 50.42 percent of the vote to Traynere’s 49.58 percent.
Though candidates typically don’t run under major party labels in municipal elections, Traynere’s effort brought out high-profile Democrats on her behalf, including U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, U.S. Rep. Bill Foster, billionaire J.B. Pritzker — who is mulling a run for governor — and Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston, who is already running for governor. All three appeared at a rally and knocked on doors with Traynere on Saturday.
Claar — a Republican who attended Trump’s inauguration in January — told the Sun-Times last month that traditional party politics don’t belong in municipal elections and that he’s running on his record of being one of the longest serving mayors in the Chicago area.
The longtime mayor has easily coasted to victory since taking the reins in late 1987. He touts his role in steering the village’s growth from a population of about 33,000 when he took over to more than 75,000 today.
“I think people are generally pretty happy with what’s going on in Bolingbrook,” he told Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown earlier this year.
But his career has not been without controversy.
Claar was arrested by Naperville police while driving home from an August 1997 fundraiser, when he refused to take a Breathalyzer test. He was later acquitted of a misdemeanor DUI charge when a DuPage County judge ruled the officers’ descriptions of the arrest were “inconsistent.”
Earlier that year, a Will County judge tossed out a lawsuit against Claar that alleged the mayor used his spot on the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority board to give Bolingbrook preference over other suburbs in annexing land for development along Interstate 355.
He never voted on the I-355 matter, but he stepped down from the board in 2000 after a Chicago Sun-Times report found he solicited more than $100,000 in campaign contributions from tollway vendors.
Claar found himself in hot water again in 2013 when a Better Government Association investigation revealed he took campaign donations from a bar he had investigated while serving as the village’s liquor commissioner. State law does not prohibit such donations.
The tight Claar-Traynere race was just one of hundreds of mayoral contests that played out Tuesday across Chicago area suburbs, including Orland Park, where longtime incumbent McLaughlin was unseated by Republican challenger Keith Pekau.
Pekau beat McLaughlin, 54 percent to 46 percent, with 44 of 50 precincts reporting.
The race drew $200,000 in campaign ads and mailers to oust McLaughlin, who had been in office since 1993 and raised eyebrows when the village board voted last year to make the mayor’s office a full-time job. The move bumped his $40,000 salary up to $150,000 in what Pekau denounced as a “pension grab.” McLaughlin dismissed the claim as “misinformation” because the move eliminated a costly village administrator position.
McLaughlin also suggested the presidential election played a role in his defeat, saying it ushered in “a sea change in the way people cast their votes.”
“The national elections in November taught us those lessons,” McLaughlin said in a concession statement. “The election is over, at least for me. In tact is a team of trustees who love Orland Park like I do.”
“Congratulations to Keith Pekau, an opponent who motivated us to get out and deliver a message to more voters than ever. He delivered a message that resonated with a greater voting base and for that he should be commended. I will help him in the transition to keep Orland Park strong.”
Pekau, a U.S. Air Force veteran and business consultant, said he would opt out of a pension if he won. On Monday, he said the donations from Dan Proft-led Liberty Principles PAC, which received hefty donations from Gov. Bruce Rauner last summer, helped his cause.
“It doesn’t surprise me that an outside group got involved because these pension grabs are affecting everyone, and Orland Park taxpayers pay the brunt.”
The contests were just two of the hotter races Tuesday.
In suburban Cook County alone, 2,541 candidates are vying in 1,031 contests. More than 100 of those are mayoral or village president elections, although not all are contested. Hundreds more candidates are vying for village, city and township offices in the collar counties.
Other elections garnering attention include the mayor’s races in Evanston and Aurora.
In Evanston, management consultant Steve Hagerty was leading the city’s first openly gay alderman, Mark Tendam, with 50.5 percent of the vote — a margin of just 163 votes.
In Aurora, the race to lead the state’s second-largest city was also too close to call, as Rick Guzman — assistant chief of staff to Mayor Tom Weisner, who stepped down for health reasons last year — led by just nine votes as of 10 p.m. over Ald. Richard Irvin.
Absentee ballots were expected to be tallied in both races into Wednesday morning.