Column: Political contests to decide who has power over spending, hiring for taxpayer-funded jobs

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Signs for political candidates fill an island Wednesday in a parking lot at the Cook County Courthouse in Markham.

Signs for political candidates fill an island Wednesday in a parking lot at the Cook County Courthouse in Markham. (Ted Slowik / Daily Southtown)

A relatively small percentage of eligible voters will decide this election who gets power to determine how to spend taxpayer money, award contracts and hire people to fill government-funded jobs.

Turnout in suburban Cook County’s odd-numbered year consolidated elections has averaged 16.4% over the past decade. That means fewer than one out of six eligible voters has determined which officials get to decide which contractors clean public buildings, which vendors provide computer services and who gets comfy gigs on public payrolls for the next few years.

Voters elect trustees and other officers to serve on boards. Boards vote to award contracts and to pick administrators in charge of hiring other positions. That’s how government works and that’s main reason many politicians care about elections.

Of course, the vast majority of elected officials are outstanding public servants. They are ethical people of impeccable integrity who operate governmental units as efficiently and affordably as possible to effectively serve citizens.

Just kidding! Thursday was April Fools’ Day, after all. Even the cleanest politicians have to work in a filthy system. Do you think Chicago has an exclusive patent on pay-to-play? Nah, nearly all politics exist in swamps and only fools believe they can be drained.

Many contests are about voters choosing which side gets control over hiring and spending. Township government is ripe with examples of patronage throughout southern Cook and eastern Will counties. Tuesday’s election results in Bloom, Homer, Orland, Palos, Rich and other Southland townships will decide township contests.

Many township elections, however, are uncontested. For instance, Supervisor Frank Zuccarelli faces no opposition in Thornton Township. The township’s $35 million annual budget helped pay for 90 full-time and 80 part-time employees in 2019, according to the Illinois comptroller. That’s a lot of jobs to fill and contracts to award.

Zuccarelli has been township supervisor since 1993. He has held a seat on the South Suburban College Board since 1978 and has chaired the public Community College District Board since 1987. A woman in Zuccarelli’s office said Thursday he was unavailable for comment.

Blue Island Democratic state Rep. Bob Rita is not threatened for another term as supervisor of Calumet Township, where all offices are uncontested. Patricia Joan Murphy, Democratic Party committeeperson, is uncontested for another term as Worth Township supervisor. Other Worth Township offices are uncontested.

Bremen Township has mourned the recent passing for former state legislator and longtime township supervisor Maggie Crotty. Kathryn Straniero, who was appointed supervisor when Crotty resigned last year, is running uncontested, and other officials are unchallenged.

In Orland Township, Supervisor Paul O’Grady faces his first challenge since taking office in 2009 from apparent aspiring media personality Scott Kaspar. The race features a bizarre video attack ad in which Kaspar accuses O’Grady of being a “crony politician” for deciding which legal firm got hired to do government work.

Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich makes a cameo in the ad. Someone thought it would be a good idea for Blagojevich, an impeached Democrat and felon, to attack O’Grady’s integrity for political gain. In an unintentionally comical exchange, Blagojevich accuses O’Grady of being a disciple of former Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan. Apparently, the ad is intended to “own the libs.”

This style of ugly, bruising politics also is evident in neighboring Homer Township, where Will County Board member and Tea Party firebrand Steve Balich is challenging the incumbent supervisor, Pam Meyers.

Balich reminds me of former President Donald Trump in that he has spent years criticizing Meyers, her board and administration. Some politicians can win elections by appealing to voters who are angry and resentful about high taxes.

But they can also be like a dog that always chases cars and then, one day, catches one. Often, it turns out that politicians who ran on agendas of grievances are short on solutions. Many seem more interested in making names for themselves and leveraging connections than being humble public servants.

Political signs try to grab attention of motorists along Kedzie Avenue Wednesday outside the Cook County Courthouse in Markham.

Political signs try to grab attention of motorists along Kedzie Avenue Wednesday outside the Cook County Courthouse in Markham. (Ted Slowik / Daily Southtown)

Speaking of Madigan, the person who succeeded him as chair of the Illinois Democratic Party has endorsed one of three candidates in the race for Rich Township supervisor. U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly of Matteson has thrown her weight behind the incumbent supervisor, former state Rep. Al Riley.

“I know Al,” Kelly said Wednesday on social media. “All the money, lies and misinformation cannot diminish his record of public service. Now more than ever, people need to have trust in their government.”

Riley is challenged by Calvin Jordan, the Democratic committeeperson for Rich Township who has controlled contracts and hiring as township highway commissioner for many years. Republican Eric Wallace of Flossmoor also seeks the supervisor seat in the Democratic stronghold. All three have slates for township trustee and other offices.

Brannigan and the township board stubbornly resisted the calls, but Brannigan is not seeking another term as trustee. Instead, she is running for township assessor against the incumbent, Robert Maloney, who also is Cook County Democratic Party committeeperson for Palos Township.

Protests produced a couple challengers. Trustee candidate Mervate Mohammad and clerk contender Tammy Georgiou have joined this year’s race. Independent Michael S. McHugh is challenging Gene Adams for highway commissioner.

Incumbent Supervisor Colleen Grant Schumann is unopposed. Jane Nolan seeks another term as clerk. Incumbent trustees Brent Woods, Richard Riley and Pamela Jeanes are joined by newcomer Tasneem Abuzir on a Palos Township Independent Party slate.

The Lemont Township election also has a couple contests this spring. Supervisor Michael G. Shackel is uncontested for another term and heads a Township First Party slate.

James Durham, a chemical company operations manager with extensive community involvement, is challenging Mark Labno, the incumbent highway commissioner and Township First candidate.

Township First trustee candidates are incumbent Debra “Debby” Blatzer and newcomers David Molitor, Jeanette Virgilio and Susan Nathan. Incumbent Trustee Mario Mollo is running as an independent.

The Bloom Township election offers all the excitement one would expect in a district where Republicans switched party affiliations and became Democrats many years ago.

“If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” the saying goes.

Some, however, still show flashes of their true colors. Like when state Rep. Anthony DeLuca, D-Chicago Heights, cracked an egg into a frying pan on the House floor during debate about legalizing cannabis for recreational use in Illinois.

“This is your brain on drugs,” DeLuca said in 2019, recalling a famous Reagan-era war on drugs slogan.

This time, Bloom Township DINOs, or Democrats In Name Only, face challenges from actual Democrats. Lori Wilcox, the township’s Democratic Party committeeperson who also serves as Chicago Heights city clerk, is challenging incumbent Supervisor T.J. Somer, who is also Chicago Heights city attorney.

No one is charged with any criminal offenses, though, and at the end of the day it appears as if one side that wants to control contracts and hiring is raising a fuss about how the other side has controlled contracts and hiring.

That is the essence of township elections in the south and southwest suburbs.

Ted Slowik is a columnist for the Daily Southtown.

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April 1, 2021 at 04:06PM

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