Ladies and Gentlemen, Start Your Machines; One Way to Trip Up an Incumbent? Untie His Shoelace 

You gotta do more than get up early to make it onto the aldermanic ballot.

At about 6 AM on Monday, December 11, the doors of the County Building, at 69 W. Washington, swung open and aldermanic candidates poured in as the 2007 campaign officially began.

By 8:30 there were a couple hundred people lined up along walls in the basement, waiting to be led into the processing room, where clerks would stamp and file their nominating petitions. It was a City Council who's who: Berny Stone, Ed Burke, Burt Natarus, Walter Burnett, Emma Mitts, Toni Preckwinkle, Margaret Laurino, Joe Moore. Ed Smith wore a dapper red handkerchief in his jacket pocket, Natarus an outback-ready duster and hat.

There's really no pressing need for candidates to show up so early. Line up by 9 AM and you're eligible for the lottery that determines the coveted top slot on the ballot. "It's just bragging rights," says Moore.

Few incumbent aldermen actually stood in line; most had lackeys hold their places. Instead they mingled, discreetly pointing out opponents and old adversaries. Mitts, the 37th Ward alderman, said it was a shame that the chamber of commerce was making campaign contributions to punish Moore for his support of the big-box living-wage ordinance. Moore, the 49th Ward alderman, said it was too bad the unions were going after Mitts for voting against it.

Meanwhile wannabes tried their damnedest to get on TV. Jim Ginderske, who's running against Moore, had brought his campaign chair, Tom Westgard, dressed as a goose to draw attention to Moore's role as the leader of the foie gras ban. "I don't think it's a serious issue," Westgard said.

For challengers, it's a hopeful time, when victory still seems possible. Many predicted upsets. "I'm give-'em-hell Mell," boasted Mell Monroe, who's running against Dorothy Tillman in the Third Ward. "Dorothy's going down."

In reality, many of the would-be candidates won't even make the ballot--their nominating petitions will be challenged almost as soon as they're filed and they'll spend the remainder of the campaign season fighting to stay on the ballot. Typically the person challenging the petitions is a city payroller who owes his job to the incumbent. Cases are usually handled by election-law lawyers on a first-name basis with the members of the Chicago Board of Elections commission, the three-person panel that oversees petition hearings. Commissioners are appointed by a panel of Cook County circuit court judges who rose through the ranks of the local Democratic Party, which is controlled by the same political powerhouses who run the City Council. So if you're an independent aldermanic candidate fighting to stay on the ballot, you find yourself at the mercy of hearing officers and commissioners who owe their positions to the old guard represented by the person you're intending to unseat.

That's what happened to William "Dock" Walls, a current mayoral candidate, when he ran for city clerk in 2003 against James Laski. Eventually the commission struck Walls from the ballot, and Laski wound up running unopposed. Earlier this year he resigned after being convicted of taking bribes in the hired truck scandal.

Some of the challengers in line on Monday had already been down this road. Victor Rowans, who's running against Burnett in the 27th Ward, got kicked off the ballot in 2003 for not numbering his petition pages. "I had hundreds of signatures too," he says. "And they were all good."

This year he's determined to do it right (he even had a few dozen jackets made up with his name and ward emblazoned on the back). But a few weeks ago he discovered he'd been circulating the wrong kind of petitions. "We were using general primary petitions and we had about 1,800 signatures," Rowans says. "But this is not a party primary--it requires different petitions. So we had to go out and circulate again with the right petitions."

He's convinced he's on the ballot to stay this time. "No way Walter's kicking me off," he says. "Not that he won't try--you know how they are."

But ballot access is just one handicap a challenger has to overcome. Check the campaign disclosure statements at elections.state.il.us/CampaignDisclosure/welcome.aspx and you'll see that most incumbents bring in well over $100,000 a year in contributions, a good chunk of it from developers, lawyers, and contractors with the city. By contrast a typical challenger is lucky to have $1,000.

And then there's the prevailing political culture of Chicago's voters. All the latest public opinion polls say voters are eager to reelect Mayor Daley despite rising property taxes and incessant City Hall scandals. Old-timers used to say that people will overlook corruption so long as the trains run on time. Considering the way the Red, Blue, and Orange lines run, it doesn't look like we're demanding even that these days.

But it's still not impossible for a challenger to prevail. In the 2003 election, 4 of 50 incumbents were ousted. If a race comes down to a runoff, the incumbent is usually in trouble. Bottom line: look for four, maybe five incumbents to fall. But go ahead, prove me wrong.

One Way to Trip Up an Incumbent? Untie His Shoelace

When 45th Ward alderman Patrick Levar filed his nominating petitions on Monday morning, several clerks from the Board of Elections commission leaned forward with curiosity to see how they were bound.

That's because in 2003 the binding of Levar's petitions was the subject of one of the more entertaining challenges in recent history.

As Levar, a five-term incumbent, well knows, there are dozens of picayune rules governing the process of getting on the ballot. Make one mistake and an eagle-eyed lawyer will nail you. Levar uses Thomas Jaconetty, one of the savviest election-law wizards around, to try to make sure he's impervious to challenges.

But in 2003, almost on a whim, Ron Ernst, a community activist from Jefferson Park, decided to take a peek at Levar's nominating petitions. "The clerk brought out this stack of petitions," Ernst recalls. To his shock, they weren't bound. "I looked through the election code, and it was clear petitions have to be bound."

So Ernst--no fan of Levar's--asked that the elections board commission knock the alderman off the ballot. In the ensuing case, Levar testified that a shoelace had bound his petitions when he filed them but had been subsequently removed.

"When I cross-examined him I said in my experience shoelaces come in pairs. Do you have any idea where the other shoelace is?" says Ernst. "And Levar reached into his pocket and pulls out an envelope and brings out this blue industrial-strength shoelace. I couldn't believe it--he had the shoelace." Later Jaconetty called 36th Ward alderman William Banks, who testified that he'd been standing next to Levar in line and had noticed that his petitions were bound by a shoelace. "I asked Banks, 'Oh, really, what color were they?'" says Ernst. "He said a dirty color. I objected. I said 'dirty' is not a color."

Eventually the case came down to the testimony of an election commission clerk, who said he had cut the shoelace. "I asked him what he did with the shoelace that he cut," says Ernst. "And he said he put it in a drawer. And I said do you have it today? And he brings it out. I guess he just happened to save that shoelace."

To this day Ernst contends that all of the testimony was too good to be true. But the hearing officer ruled for Levar, as did the elections board commission when Ernst appealed. Levar stayed on the ballot and went on to trounce his opponent.

This time when Levar filed his petitions, Jaconetty at his side, he made a point of noting the white shoelace that bound his petitions.

"See the shoelace," Levar said to one of the clerks.

"Just like he always ties it," said Jaconetty.

"I see," said the clerk.

"I want to do it all right in case I get challenged," said Levar to the clerk. "In case I'm challenged, I'm calling you in as a witness."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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