Appointed aldermen fighting to make their jobs a little less temporary

March 24, 2011

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(WBEZ/Sam Hudzik)
38th Ward Ald. Tim Cullerton goes door-to-door last week in Portage Park looking for votes.

One of the most effective tools a Chicago mayor has to influence the city council is the ability to appoint aldermen when there is a vacancy. Mayor Richard Daley had the opportunity seven times in the past four years. The offices opened up because the old aldermen got new jobs, wanted to retire and - in one instance - pleaded guilty.

Six of the recently appointed aldermen sought  election in February. Two of them failed to win a majority of votes, so they are headed for runoffs a couple weeks from now.

One of the appointed aldermen fighting to hang on to his new job is Tim Cullerton from the 38th Ward on the Northwest Side. He was appointed a couple months ago by Mayor Daley to replace Ald. Tom Allen, who also happens to be Cullerton's brother-in-law. The family actually has a long history in the city council, as Cullerton proudly explains while we walk in the Portage Park neighborhood.

CULLERTON: Before Tom Allen, my father was alderman here. Prior to that, there was a Willie, Willie Cullerton - William Cullerton. And prior to him was Parky Cullerton. And prior to Parky Cullerton was Ed Cullerton. And prior to that it was the Chicago fire.

This Cullerton, an electrician and former city employee, is emphasizing his family's service as he makes his first run for elected office.

CULLERTON: [Voters] should look at our record, and see what we've done for this community, and the people here know who we are. And they keep returning us to office, and I'm proud of that.

Cullerton recognizes his last name didn't hurt his chances to get the appointment. But to voters concerned about nepotism, he says, Focus on the individual candidates.

CULLERTON: Let's compare my record of government service to Mr. Caravette's record as a businessman, as a building owner and a property owner.

Caravette is Tom Caravette, Cullerton's opponent in the runoff. Cullerton's campaign has been attacking Caravette over repeated code violations found by city inspectors at buildings he owns. In one TV ad, Caravette is called a "slumlord," and shown on screen alongside an animated bug and rats.

CARAVETTE: The idea is just to smear me and attack my family and try to attack my credibility.

Caravette blames the bulk of the building problems on tenants trying to avoid eviction.

And he scoffs at suggestions that the Cullertons have a history of service. These are no Kennedys, he says.

CARAVETTE: This is just the Cullertons, who've done nothing but wield their power and influence to hold onto something that they don't own, something they've been long overdue to go away.

Tom Caravette is challenging Cullerton in the 38th Ward.

This winter, Caravette tried to get the temporary appointment to the city council, applying through the mayor's office. He claims the process, including an interview with Daley, was a "dog and pony show."

CARAVETTE: Three minute interview. 'Hi, here's a calendar. See you later. Thanks for coming out.' You know, and that was the end of it. And next time you know Tim's getting the appointment.
HUDZIK: What did you say - a calendar?
CARAVETTE: Yeah, handed me a calendar on the way out. Everybody who came in to interview with the mayor was handed a Chicago calendar.
HUDZIK: Like a souvenir for applying?
CARAVETTE: Right. Yeah. Just so you didn't feel like you totally wasted your time. Well ,I got something out of it. I got a calendar out of it.

Mayoral appointments have also come up in the neighboring 36th Ward, where there's another runoff race. John Rice replaced retiring Ald. Bill Banks there in the fall of 2009.

Banks had asked the mayor to appoint Rice, who at the time was on his staff. Rice says he acted as the office's chief of staff, others claim he was the alderman's driver. Either way, Rice got the aldermanic appointment, and a warm welcome by members of the city council when they voted him in.

BURKE: If he does as good a job as his predecessor Bill Banks, he'll be a great success in this body.
SUAREZ: And I know that that teacher will always be there to make sure to give him the right advice.
REBOYRAS: Follow the aldermanic way, the Banks way, you won't make mistakes, my friend.

John Rice was appointed 36th ward alderman 18 months ago.

In an interview this week, Rice said he had gotten help from his political benefactor in his eighteen months on the job.

He says voters shouldn't think he only got the post because of Banks. The final decision, he stresses, was the mayor's.

RICE: Believe me, Mayor Daley knows every inch of every ward in the city. I mean, you'd be surprised at the questions he can ask you at a moment's notice, and really throw you off guard.
HUDZIK: He'll like ask you about some building on some lot or...
RICE: Well, the first question he asked me was 'What was going on at Grand and Harlem?' 'Well, we're building a new bank - there - Chase bank, in fact I was just out there a little while ago.' And he'll ask you, 'Grand and Sayre - what's over there? Belmont and Nottingham - what's happening there?' He knows.
HUDZIK: It was like he was testing you?
RICE: Oh, absolutely.

In the April 5th runoff election, Rice faces firefighter Nicholas Sposato. Rice says he's got nothing against Sposato, but doubts he's qualified to be alderman.

RICE: The most humble job in the world - being a fireman. I could never do that. And God bless him. But what does that mean - how does he know about legislation? What does he know about government works? Being a fireman doesn't - I'm not running for fireman. Nor would I want to be a fireman, I mean, it's not my calling.

Sposato very nearly wasn't a firefighter either, a story he tells me during lunch at a fast food restaurant in the ward. He says the fireman's entrance exam was scheduled for the same day as a game in his softball league.

SPOSATO: As it ended, it was about a 24-hour monsoon. There was no doubt about it. The parks were flooded. It literally rained for like 24-hours of hard rain. And there was no doubt the game was called off.

So he took the test, he passed, and eight years later Sposato got the call that his number had come up.

SPOSATO: And then here I was, and I was a fireman.

Now, Sposato's trying for alderman,  and not for the first time. Four years ago, he took on Ald. Banks. He says this year he has a better shot, because Rice has never faced voters.

SPOSATO: And the circumstances...he was appointed under left a lot of people kind of scratching their heads. Why him? What did he do to deserve this?

That same question has occurred to Sam Taylor. He's a nurse I chatted with at a laundromat in the ward.

TAYLOR: He was just kind of moved up. He didn't have the experience himself. He didn't have the office himself. He was a driver. And just kind of moved up in the traditional Chicago way.

How Rice got the appointment doesn't bother pizzeria owner Pasquale DiDiana, just up the street.

DIDIANA: No, no. Because if a mayor of the city of Chicago appoints somebody, it means they have faith in the gentleman. Whether he does the job that the mayor thought he was going to or going to do that's totally up to Mr. Rice.

DiDiana would not say who he's supporting.

"May the best man win," he says, adding, "They're both going to give it a hell of a run."