When in Doubt, Read the Manual | Essay | Chicago Reader

When in Doubt, Read the Manual 

Screwups by two aldermanic challengers in the 48th Ward leave incumbent Mary Ann Smith in the catbird seat.

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For most of the summer and into the fall, Chris Lawrence and Chris Persons were both busy planning campaigns to unseat alderman Mary Ann Smith in the 48th Ward, which includes Edgewater and parts of Uptown. Each man thought he was the best candidate to make the run; the one thing they agreed on was that Smith, a four-term incumbent, was ripe for defeat. "Let the best man win," said Persons.

Now it looks likely that neither will get the chance to try, as Smith has deployed election law to bounce them from the ballot. If she succeeds her hardest job may be trying not to gloat. "I learned a long time ago when I started in politics that you have to play by the rules," she says. "If you're going to play the game, you have to know the rules."

As you probably know, you can't just up and run for alderman. You have to fill nominating petitions with signatures from several hundred voters in your ward--a process governed by dozens of complicated and convoluted rules--before you even make the ballot. Then you have to survive any challenges to your candidacy. Challenging nominating petitions has become a favorite tactic of incumbent aldermen who have a huge advantage in money and moxie over their neophyte opponents. At the moment there are a couple hundred challenges pending before Chicago Board of Election hearing officers, most having to do with the validity of nominating-petition signatures.

Lawrence and Persons say they knew their petitions would be challenged, so they went out of their way to make sure they followed every rule governing signature collection. But Smith didn't challenge them on their signatures. She challenged them on something called a "statement of economic interest."

In that document aldermanic candidates disclose any business interests they have with the city. According to the election rules--as clearly stated in the board's information pamphlet--the statement is supposed to be filed with Cook County clerk David Orr's office. Upon receiving it, Orr's office issues the candidate a receipt, which he or she is then supposed to file with the board of elections.

Apparently neither Lawrence nor Persons had read the pamphlet or knew the rules. Lawrence filed his statement of economic interest with the clerk, but he didn't file the receipt with the board of elections. Persons got the economic interest statement confused with the ethics statement, another document aldermanic candidates must file. He filed the ethics statement with the board of elections commission (even though he's supposed to file it with the board of ethics) and didn't file an economic interest statement at all.

After the filing period ended on December 18, Smith pounced. She got two of her supporters, Susanne J. Henning and Albert L. Lewis, to file objections. Now Lawrence and Persons have been called before election board hearing officers to defend their candidacies. At his hearing on January 5 Persons argued he shouldn't be punished because he--or rather his campaign manager Stephanie Lane--was only following advice given to him by the election-board clerk who took his nominating papers. "The person at the election commission--the clerk on duty--gave me a receipt saying I had correctly filed with them," says Lane. "I specifically asked her, 'Have I filed the right thing?' and she told me that I had."

Persons said he should not be punished for the clerk's mistake. "We would have happily complied with the rule--had we known the rule existed. How can we be held accountable if we were following the rules that the experts gave us?"

The hearing officer, Mario Correa, ruled that the election commission is not responsible for the advice, good or bad, its employees give prospective candidates. It's a

candidate's duty to make sure he's following the rules. Correa recommended that Persons be removed from the ballot.

As Persons sees it, his case symbolizes all that is wrong with the process. "It's outrageous that people in the 48th Ward are losing their electoral franchise because of what amounts to a clerical error," he says. "The system is kind of intentionally set up as an impenetrable thicket of procedures so newbies like me don't make it through."

Persons says he doesn't have the money to appeal Correa's ruling to the full board of commissioners, so his candidacy is over. But Lawrence, a former army officer who served in Iraq, says he's prepared to fight.

"We filed our economic statement--I was just unaware that we had to file the receipt," he says. "OK, I admit that. But so what? For that I should be kicked off the ballot? Don't you think the penalty is a little harsh for the violation?... You've got the mayor arguing that [Barack Obama], who used illegal drugs, should be allowed to run the country, but I'm to be disqualified from being alderman because I didn't file a receipt?" He's filed a counterclaim against Smith, arguing that she's not acting in good faith. If he loses, Lawrence, who says he'll file a federal lawsuit to get back on the ballot, says, "Smith is using the technicalities of election law to disenfranchise the voters of the 48th Ward."

Unless Lawrence prevails--and the odds are against him--Smith will be left with only one challenger, a relative unknown named Rosita Spane. But Spane may not make the ballot either: Smith has challenged her for not having the correct number of signatures.

Smith says if she runs unopposed, Lawrence, Persons, and Spane have no one to blame but themselves. "The first thing I learned when I got involved in politics way back when is that you have to pay attention to the details," she says. "It was a shock to go through their petitions and see they were a mess."

Lawrence is trying to pressure Smith to voluntarily drop her challenge against his candidacy on the grounds that it's only fair to give voters a choice. Fat chance of that: "I think that would be foolish," Smith says. In fact, she notes wryly, Persons originally challenged both Lawrence and Spane. He dropped his challenges after Smith filed hers. "We have a reason for running," she says. "Whether we knock ourselves out in the election or knock ourselves out before the election, our goal is the same: win."

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

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

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