As Cicero president seeks third term, town employees wear two hats

February 21, 2013

Once upon a time, it was hard to get a government job in the Chicago area without going through a precinct captain or another party boss. Over the years, federal court orders and corruption prosecutions have helped draw a sharper line between public service and politics. But the message hasn’t gotten everywhere. With an election looming in Cicero, many employees of that western suburb are wearing two hats.

MITCHELL: Cicero officials this week called a press conference to warn about what they described as fraud that could swing the results of next Tuesday’s election. It was a holiday, so Town Hall was closed. But the officials had keys. They opened up the building, invited the reporters into the council chambers, and took the podium.

HANANIA: Alright. My name is Ray Hanania. I’m the town spokesman. . . .

MITCHELL: Hanania told the reporters they couldn’t speak with Town President Larry Dominick, who’s running for a third four-year term. He was speaking for Dominick. And he didn’t try to distinguish Dominick the town official from Dominick the candidate.

HANANIA: We’re here in part to respond to some of the false charges made by the other candidates and also to set our story straight. . . .

MITCHELL: Hanania called someone else to the podium.

HANANIA: Emo Cundari is the head of the Cicero Voters Alliance. . . .

MITCHELL: That’s Dominick’s political operation. After the press conference, Hanania told me Cundari had participated not as the campaign leader but as the town’s property-tax assessor. It’s the sort of double identity you see a lot in Cicero. Members of Dominick’s organization hold jobs throughout the town’s bureaucracy and have occupied seats on all sorts of commissions — even the Cicero Election Board. Until December, that board consisted of Dominick himself and two officials seeking reelection on his slate. Their conflict of interest — in ruling, for example, which candidates qualified for the ballot — was so obvious a Cook County judge replaced the entire board with members from outside Cicero. The politics also extend to the town’s blue-collar ranks. Tony Loconte is a maintenance worker in a local school district governed by Dominick allies. I found Loconte and other town and district employees campaigning this week at Cicero’s early-voting sites.

MITCHELL: You still working at Morton West High School?
LOCONTE: Yes, I am.
MITCHELL: Is this part of the job, handing out palm cards for Mr. Dominick?
LOCONTE: No, it’s part of my precinct captain — doing it for my precinct.
MITCHELL: Are you on the clock right now for the town?
LOCONTE: No. I’m not on the clock for the school either.
MITCHELL: Does your job have any connection to this campaigning work?
LOCONTE: None, whatsoever.
MITCHELL: You’ve never felt any pressure to do this sort of campaigning for your job.
LOCONTE: Excuse me. You want to follow me to the bathroom too?
MITCHELL: We’re not at the bathroom.

MITCHELL: Last weekend, a campaign trying to unseat Dominick videotaped uniformed town employees canvassing voters door-to-door. Our requests to speak with Dominick about the canvass were declined. Hanania, his spokesman, said the town was just investigating possible mail-in ballot fraud. And Hanania points out that Cicero’s hardly the only place where public employees get involved in politics.

HANANIA: You’re not seeing town employees at their offices or at their windows, saying, ‘Thank you for paying [for] the vehicle sticker. Please vote for Larry Dominick.’ These people are entitled to do whatever they want on their own time and they have to request their vacation time to do it.

MORRISON: When there’s such an overlap between the political apparatus and the town employees, it’s too much to be coincidental.

MITCHELL: David Morrison heads a watchdog group called the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. He says the overlap hurts taxpayers.

MORRISON: They end up paying for employees that are doing political work as opposed to taxpayer work. They’re told from the beginning, in essence, that, ‘It doesn’t matter what your job duties are. What matters is that your candidate wins.’ And, when that’s the rule, they don’t pay attention to what their job duties are, they don’t worry about punching in on time. Because they understand that there’s a secret system operating that means, as long as they deliver their precinct, they get paid.

MITCHELL: Morrison says that system will stay in place until Cicero voters get tired of it and find cleaner candidates to run.

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