Metropolitan Water Reclamation District elections aren’t the ones that typically generate a great deal of voter excitement or turnout, particularly in an election with bigger, far more expensive races.
But this election cycle, the race to fill the seat left vacant by the sudden death of Commissioner Tim Bradford late last year has generated high-level endorsements, a protracted court battle, edgy campaign ads, lots of unanswered questions — and tens of thousands of voters taking the time to write in the names of candidates.
Some even spelled the names correctly.
But ten months after the death of Bradford, described by family members as “The Godfather” of south suburban politics, voters still don’t know whether they’ll get to choose the candidate for the spot.
Election officials opted to have an unusual write-in primary election because the timing of Bradford’s death left no time for candidates to file petitions to get on the March ballot.
More than 54,000 voters wrote-in their vote for Democrat Cam Davis — or as some voters knew him, Carn Davis, Carr Davis, or Camden Davis — but no Republicans ran as write-in candidates.
Instead, Gov. Bruce Rauner appointed Republican David Walsh to the vacancy three days after the primary.
That clouded the water even more.
What if a commissioner died a day before the election? What if it happened today? These were the questions that were debated in court this week, along with the minutiae of Illinois’ election code and the law that governs the water treatment board.
Davis, whose background includes a stint as President Barack Obama’s “Great Lakes Czar,” ran an organized campaign with the support of other Democrats on the board. Commissioner Debra Shore, in an attempt to generate interest for one of the most boring political contests during the primary, flashed her “C-A-M-D-A-V-I-S” knuckle “tatoos” in an edgy political ad. Toni Preckwinkle, on behalf of the Cook County Democratic Party, filed her support for Davis in the court dispute.
At the end of the primary, Davis and Green Party candidate Geoffrey Cubbage received enough write-in votes to be eligible to be on the November ballot. But Walsh, the sole Republican on the board, is fighting in court for the $70,000 salary appointment to last through 2020. This would be the third time he’s been tapped by Rauner, meaning he would serve five years on the board without being elected.
“It goes against the voter’s wishes,” said Cook County Clerk David Orr, who announced the special write-in election to fill the vacancy and is now a defendant in the court battle.
“I have no problem with him serving during the appointment, but to throw out the election for the public, that was improper,” Orr said.
A decision is on the horizon — Cook County Circuit Judge Patrick Stanton will make the call by Thursday.
The court battle brings attention to the obscure board. Despite a taxpayer-financed budget over one billion dollars and authority the district has throughout most of Cook County, the board’s elections have largely stayed under the radar.
The nine-member Board of Commissioners oversees the budget used to handle storm and sewage water in Cook County. Back when Chicago became one of the first American cities to install a sewage system, it took care of the side effect of pollution draining into Lake Michigan by reversing the flow of the Chicago River.
Today, the agency governed by the board is among the highest-paying public agencies in the state, with an average salary of $100,000. It operates seven treatment plants, treating billions of gallons of water and collaborating with overlapping water departments in Cook County.
To complete large projects such as a recently expanded Burbank reservoir to smaller projects such as transforming asphalt yards in Chicago Public Schools into water sponges, the district contracts cover 775 union employees represented by 16 different unions, former executive director David St. Pierre told the Better Government Association in 2016.
The district’s reputation for patronage hiring goes back to the 1980s when the BGA investigated the district resulting in a lawsuit filed by the Illinois attorney general. More recently, post-recession reports revealed substantial salary increases despite the larger pattern of layoffs and reduced benefits for government employees.
In 2018, a cloud still hangs over the board’s elections. In March, The Daily Herald reported the Green Party’s analysis that $722 million in government contracts were awarded to campaign donors over the past five years. Candidates have had to answer to questions about whether they would adopt the campaign contribution limit imposed on Cook County Board candidates — $750 in the primary cycle and another $750 in the general election cycle from “entities doing business or seeking to do business” with the government.
Cubbage called it an “open secret” that perhaps some commissioners on the board would prefer not to bring in either candidate on the ballot this November, out of fear political reforms.
“I don’t see Walsh being the kind of full-throated advocate for those reforms,” Cubbage said.
Walsh declined to publicly address the remarks.
The need for an independent inspector general has been a question this election cycle, an issue that first came up in 2015 with the dismissal of a police officer in the district who used racial slurs and bragged about sleeping and drinking on the job over police radio.
Davis said as commissioner he’d focus on protecting clean water, reducing flooding and keeping invasive species out.
“If that’s what MWRD’s mission is, that it’s really not that different. Reform is in the eye of the beholder,” Davis said.
And voters still don’t know why executive director and highest paid MWRD employee St. Pierre resigned after an investigation by the board. He made about $292,000 in 2017 and resigned in June after running the 2,000-employee agency since 2011. The district announced his resignation, and their payment to him of $95,000, but didn’t specify the reason other than to say it wasn’t over criminal or sexual matters.
Rauner himself called MWRD “a little fiefdom, a little kingdom for a politician. Where they have their buddies, and their cronies.” Both Walsh and Ken Dunkin, a Rauner allied Democrat, were appointed by him this year. And two commissioners, Barbara McGowan and Frank Avila, have daughters employed by the agencies at salaries over $99,000.