Three key questions to ask in aldermanic races

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If you think the just-concluded governor’s race got nasty and personal, then you’ve never gotten an up-close look at the hotly fought battles for those plush, high-backed City Council seats.

During the city election campaign eight years ago, opposition research revealed much more than you’d ever want to know about some candidates — and about the cost for a certain sexual act in a couple of Chicago’s rougher neighborhoods.

According to records their opponents dug up, two wannabe aldermen had been arrested for soliciting the same sexual favor before they sought to become members of the august body.


In one part of town back then, the “service” could be illicitly obtained for $15, the records showed. In another ward not too far away, the same thing cost a candidate just $12. (Or at least that’s what the he paid an undercover cop.)

Both candidates/johns were frustrated again in their desires to become aldermen. But the story offers more than just another chuckle about the tawdry nature of civic life in a town sometimes seen as a political house of ill repute.

As Mayor Rahm Emanuel and council members get ready to ask voters for another four-year term in February’s election, it’s worth remembering to take a close look at the challengers, too.

Elections can turn into a referendum on an incumbent, and the mood of voters is particularly ornery these days, with good reason. There could be many city elected officials — maybe even the mayor — who have overstayed their welcome.

Yet what good would it do to throw out even a bum, only to replace him or her with a different bum?

With candidates filing their nominating signature petitions at the city election board this week, three big questions loom:

Who are the serious candidates?

After federal anti-corruption investigations essentially dismantled former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s patronage armies, there was an increase in the number of council candidates. Incumbents were more vulnerable in 2007 and 2011 than at any time since the “Council Wars” era a generation ago.

The early filings this week were down compared to four years ago. Either way, more candidates is not necessarily merrier. 

Before you can anoint serious challengers, take a look at their nominating petitions. Many of the pretenders to the cushy seats in the council chamber won’t even make it onto the ballot because they will be shown to have failed to collect enough valid signatures.

For those who survive petition challenges, money is more of an issue than ever. Besides campaign cash that comes into ward races from real estate interests and liquor-license holders, business and labor groups have taken an increased interest in the last two city elections.

Who are the significant outside interest groups?

After organized labor spent huge amounts in 2007, culling several weak Daley allies from the council flock, some aldermen suggested limiting contributions from city-employee unions.

Nothing came of it. The Chicago Teachers Union and leftist activists haven’t been major players in city politics but are promising their most extensive push this time — for mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia and for some council candidates.

Emanuel’s allies have formed a well-funded political action committee. Given his low approval ratings, his stamp of approval could hurt more than help some of his endorsed candidates.

Four years ago, Emanuel’s coattails were short, even as he won the mayor’s job on the first ballot. His pick then in the 47th Ward — where Emanuel lives — lost to a political neophyte.

Who will get Waguespack’d?

Gentrification’s impact on local politics was first felt in 2007 in the 32nd Ward, where young newcomer Scott Waguespack unseated lifelong party hack Ted Matlak. Waguespack’s campaign benefited from a ditty titled “Been Matlak’d again,” performed in a YouTube video of Matlak-approved condos towering over modest older homes.

In 2011 in the 47th Ward, rookie candidate Ameya Pawar upset the once-vaunted ward Democratic organization’s choice.

Many challengers may have heavy baggage and prove to be amateurs taking on pros, like the two who were arrested for soliciting prostitutes. 

Still, we could again see some rising stars expose aldermen who’ve been unresponsive to constituents.

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