Lesson Learned | Essay | Chicago Reader

Lesson Learned 

Aldermen in other wards are paying close attention to the sort of zoning complaints that lost Ted Matlak the 32nd Ward--including would-be congressman Manny Flores.

In the April 17 runoff election, 32nd Ward alderman Ted Matlak was backed by Mayor Daley, Congressman Luis Gutierrez, Congressman Rahm Emanuel, House Speaker Michael Madigan, Attorney General Lisa Madigan, and Alderman Tom Tunney, who ventured over from his adjoining Lakeview ward to walk door-to-door on Matlak's behalf.

Matlak also had a ten-to-one advantage in campaign contributions and the election-day support of legions of city workers, an inheritance from his political mentors, 32nd Ward powerhouses Dan Rostenkowski and Terry Gabinski.

His opponent, Scott Waguespack, was a first-time campaigner with next to no name recognition and no high-profile political support. By many accounts Matlak, not known as a gifted orator, got the better of Waguespack in several debates.

And still Waguespack won.

It was close--the election hung on a mere 121 votes. But the runoff itself was a sign of a significant rebellion growing in Bucktown, Wicker Park, Roscoe Village, Lakeview, and other 32nd Ward neighborhoods. Many voters appear to be sick and tired of lousy service and passive-aggressive indifference to their opinions on zoning proposals and development deals--enough to force the runoff, then swing an upset.

Give them basic services and Chicagoans will put with a lot, but apparently, there's only so much some of them will take.

Matlak's found himself on the unpopular side of at least four contentious battles during the course of his last term. He opposed residents and sided with developers who wanted to build a condominium complex on the playground of the Association House, at 2100 W. North, even though it fell within the Wicker Park Historical District. And he pissed off preservationists and residents by approving a zoning change that allowed a campaign contributor to demolish the build-ing housing the Artful Dodger tavern--a distinctive Queen Anne structure rated historically significant by the city's own survey--without a single public hearing.

He ignored persistent calls from residents who begged him to have the city clean up or fence off the litter-strewn lot at the corner of Lincoln and Diversey, which was owned by another campaign contributor. And despite howls from his constituents, he said there was nothing he could do to stop the Pleasure Chest, a sex-toy boutique, from moving to a largely residential neighborhood on Lincoln near Addison.

In each case he defied the will of the majority--or at least the majority of people who showed up at meetings to plead with him to go their way. In the election, these voters got their revenge. In the precincts around the Pleasure Chest, Waguespack pulled roughly 68 percent of the vote. In the precincts near the empty lot on Diversey, Waguespack got 55 percent of the vote. In the precincts around Association House, Waguespack got 73 percent of the vote. And in the precincts around the Artful Dodger, Waguespack pulled roughly 50 percent of the vote. By comparison, Matlak took about 76 percent of the vote in these precincts in 2003.

Apparently, the lesson behind Waguespack's upset has not gone unnoticed. For the last couple weeks 47th Ward alderman Gene Schulter has had locals in an uproar over his support for a zoning change a developer needs to erect a seven-story, 88-unit mixed-use complex at 1822 W. Irving Park. Residents have started gathering petitions demanding that Schulter oppose the change. Now he's telling reporters he'll do whatever the residents want.

Skating on even thinner ice is First Ward alderman Manny Flores, who has Wicker Park residents enraged over his wishy-washy stance on a zoning change that would allow a couple of developers to erect a seven-story, 90-unit condo building on the 1300 block of North Milwaukee. Residents are particularly incensed that Flores didn't tell them about the proposal when he first learned of it--they had to read about it on a zoning department Web site.

But in the last few days Flores has begun telling residents to relax--the zoning change isn't a done deal. He can't afford to irritate constituents, no matter how much developers may contribute to his campaign: he's gearing up to run in the Fourth Congressional District now that Luis Gutierrez has announced plans to step down after his term ends in 2009. Flores's main rival for the slot, 22nd Ward alderman Ric Munoz, is already making hay with the rampant upzoning on the near northwest side. "You won't see those 14-unit monstrosities in my ward," Munoz says.

Voters throughout the city ought to be paying attention. Show a little independence and it's amazing how responsive an alderman can be.

For more on politics, see our blog Clout City at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Ted Matlak, Manny Flores.

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