Backroom Boogie | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Backroom Boogie 

How did the mayor get two popular candidates to agree to drop out of a potentially gripping race?

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In the weeks leading up to Christmas it looked as though rival north-side factions within Mayor Daley's political machine were getting ready for war. John Fritchey, a progressive state representative with family ties to powerful pols, was running against Alderman Ted Matlak, one of Daley's City Council apparatchiks, for Democratic committeeman of the 32nd Ward. "This was going to be a tough fight," says Kevin Lamm, a longtime north-side independent activist who once ran against Fritchey.

But then Daley told both sides to go into a room and close the doors. After a series of intense negotiations, both Matlak and Fritchey withdrew from the race. "Now everyone wants to know what happened and why," says Fritchey. "I know it's confusing."

The 32nd Ward, centered in Bucktown, has been controlled by the Rostenkowski family since the 1930s, when Joe Rostenkowski was alderman and committeeman. He was succeeded in the early 60s by his son, Dan, who went on to become a U.S. congressman and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee but remained committeeman throughout the 80s. For years committeemen had plenty of prestige and authority, which they used to help slate candidates such as aldermen and to distribute jobs and favors. Even at the apex of his congressional career, when he was writing federal tax laws, Rostenkowski made a point of jetting home for committeemen meetings, taking his seat in smoky rooms to bicker with the other local bosses over which one of their apprentices got slated for what.

But by the late 1980s racial infighting and antipatronage rulings had made the position largely symbolic. In 1988 Rostenkowski turned the job over to one of his chief acolytes, Terry Gabinski, then the 32nd's alderman, though many observers believe Rostenkowski's still the real power broker in the ward.

In 1998 Gabinski resigned as alderman, and at his request Daley appointed Matlak, a 32nd Ward office aide, to fill the vacancy. For the most part Matlak's been the kind of alderman Daley likes--an anonymous loyalist. In return for Matlak's obedience Daley gives him virtually complete control over zoning and permit requests in his ward. In 1999 Matlak ran for election, a hard race against a couple of challengers who wound up splitting the independent vote. He easily won reelection last year. "It's hard to get all worked up against Ted," says Lamm. "I'd like a little more independence, but he's just such a nice guy."

Last summer Gabinski said that he was stepping down as committeeman and that Matlak would replace him. (Neither Gabinski nor Matlak returned calls for comment.) In September, Fritchey astonished many people by announcing that he was going to run against Matlak.

Like Matlak, Fritchey has machine ties. His parents divorced when he was young, and his mother married Sidney Swibel, whose older brother, Charles Swibel, was a legendary wheeler-dealer in the administrations of Richard J. Daley and Jane Byrne. Fritchey grew up in Marina City and went to the Latin School, the University of Michigan, and Northwestern University's law school. In 1992 he married Karen Banks, who happens to be the daughter of Sam Banks, one of the city's top zoning lawyers, and the niece of 36th Ward alderman William Banks, chairman of the council's zoning committee. Most observers contend that Fritchey got his start in politics after his wife's uncle and father negotiated a deal with Alderman Richard Mell--who has his own prominent son-in-law, Governor Rod Blagojevich.

"Here's how I heard it happened," says one north-side Mell ally. "In 1996 Rod Blagojevich was stepping down as state rep to run for Congress. So the Banks brothers and Mell cut a deal. The Bankses endorsed Mell's son-in-law for Congress, and Mell endorsed Sam's son-in-law for state rep. Hey, in Chicago we call that family values."

But Fritchey insists that he's worked hard for whatever success he's had. He says, "I was a scholarship student throughout my years at Latin and in college and law school." He says he rarely even saw Charlie Swibel when he was growing up--"other than, you know, Passovers at the Standard Club." As for Mell's endorsement, he says he won that on the strength of an interview: "I was just a 32-year-old lawyer--no one knew me. I sort of think I get a bad rap on this family-tie thing. I like to think I got Mell's endorsement on my own."

In the '96 race Fritchey was up against Lamm, who was backed by independents. Fritchey won, then surprised many independents by establishing himself as a fairly progressive representative, breaking with the Democratic Party on issues such as property-tax reform, ethics legislation, and gun-control laws. He says he had no intention of running for committeeman until he heard that Matlak was getting slated. "I admit I've not had the best relations with Ted or Terry," he says. "I think it's because I didn't endorse Ted the first time he ran--I was neutral in the race. But this is not personal. This is not about any burning ambition to be committeeman."

As Fritchey points out, committeemen aren't paid and their primary function is to help slate candidates. But, he says, "I think there's an important symbolic issue here. I think it's important not to have the same person be your alderman and committeeman. For that reason, I was against Ted getting the job as committeeman while being the alderman. I'm against consolidation. I think it breeds apathy. I think it's bad for the voters. I believe voters need a choice. People were coming up to me and asking me to run. I did it for the good of the ward."

The race was clearly important to Daley. "Even if the job isn't what it used to be, the mayor takes these things seriously," says one north-side fund-raiser with close ties to the mayor. "He doesn't like dissent or disorder or fights--he wants everyone to think everything's going smooth in his town. If Matlak loses, think about how embarrassing that is--the mayor's boy can't even win on his home turf."

From the outset, Gabinski and Matlak recognized the threat Fritchey posed. "Fritchey's no bullshit independent," says the fund-raiser. "He's a good-looking guy--he looks like a yuppie and he's got a pretty independent record. He knows how to raise money, and he's slick--really slick. I think he could beat Matlak."

Gabinski had his followers circulate nominating petitions for him as well as Matlak. "I knew they were doing that," says Fritchey. "It's all part of the chess game. They were trying to cover themselves. Obviously they weren't going to run Gabinski and Matlak. That would only split their vote. They wanted to have options to figure who was the best candidate to beat me."

In the meantime, Fritchey says, the mayor's allies were urging him to get out of the race. "I got calls from everyone," he says. "They told me everyone wanted me out. They didn't want any controversy--no open fights. Even my uncle [Alderman Banks] wasn't supporting me."

Fritchey plowed ahead anyway. He circulated nominating petitions, opened a campaign office, and put out a flyer: "After 67 years," it read, "it's time for a change." In December he said, "I'm in this race to stay. I ain't getting out."

On December 8, the first day for filing nominating petitions, Matlak filed, but Fritchey didn't. "You have one week to file your petitions, and I never intended to file on the first day," he says. "I knew they were going to challenge my petitions. That's how they play the game. And I wasn't going to give them an extra week to go over them."

On December 12, three days before the filing deadline, Fritchey got a call from one of Daley's chief political strategists. "He told me, 'Terry wants to meet,'" says Fritchey. So he and Gabinski met with the strategist that afternoon. "Terry was clear--he wanted me out of the race. The threat was made. 'If you do this, we'll run someone against you for state rep.' Terry said, 'You can lose everything.' I knew that was coming. I knew they'd been collecting signatures for some guy just in case they wanted to run him against me. I said, 'I stand on my record. I'm not afraid to lose.' Terry said, 'Why are you doing this?' I said, 'The ward needs an independent voice.'"

Three days later Fritchey and Gabinski filed their petitions for committeeman. And one of Gabinski's allies, a policeman named Michael Kuzniar, filed to run against Fritchey for state rep. "Everyone had played their cards," says Fritchey. "That afternoon I called Terry. I wanted to see if I could get what I wanted without an expensive campaign."

And what was that?

"I wanted Matlak out of the race. I'm telling you--all along that was my primary objective."

The next day Gabinski and Fritchey met alone for breakfast. "I said, 'Ted has to withdraw from the race,'" says Fritchey. "I told Terry that if Ted withdraws I will withdraw. That would leave Terry alone in the race. I told him, 'You have to give me your word you're going to serve your term.' I didn't want him stepping down after a few months and appointing Ted to replace him. He agreed to that. Then he asked me about the state rep race. I said, 'Do what you want.' I wasn't worried about their candidate."

A few days later Matlak withdrew from the committeeman's race, and Kuzniar dropped out of the race for state rep. "After Ted withdrew I withdrew," says Fritchey. "Then I went out of town on vacation with my family."

So Gabinski was stuck running unopposed for a position he'd wanted to dump. Matlak had been embarrassed, but he's so loyal to the machine no one's asking if he got anything for his pains. People are asking whether Fritchey got some political concession. "To me they both look a little wimpy--like Ted's afraid to run on his home turf, and John's afraid to risk a hard run," says the fund-raiser. "You have to figure Fritchey got something for dropping out. I heard Daley agreed to back him for city clerk if [Jim] Laski doesn't run in 2007."

But Fritchey insists he got no concessions from the mayor. "That city clerk thing's a joke," he says. "Everyone asks, 'What did ya get?' I'll tell you what I got--I got Matlak to withdraw and I saved the ward from consolidation. That's what I wanted, and that's what I got." But many people wonder, if that's all he got, was it worth it?

Fritchey concedes many of his closest allies are disappointed that he dropped out. "I'm not saying I made the right choice," he says. "But I am saying you have to pick and choose your fights. I chose not to fight this time. Who knows what's gonna happen next time."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.

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