Long-Time Mayor Signs Off
If you're driving on Cicero Avenue around 138th street, just south of the Cal Sag Channel, you can't miss it. It's a large sign with black, removable letters, and it's the property of Mayor Chester Stranczek. He says the Police and Fire Auxillary gave it to him in 1970, and put it up right outside village hall. Stranczek says 98-percent of the time, he uses his sign to publicize events in the village.
STRANCZEK: About two percent is probably political.
It's those times that get Stranczek noticed. One message in particular from the mid-90s.
STRANCZEK: English is our language. No excetions. (sic) Learn it.
Except, the "p" in exceptions was missing, hardly bolstering the mayor's message. It didn't go unnoticed.
STRANCZEK: When the newspapers came here to look at the sign and take pictures, my assistant ,Frank Gassmere, told the press that the wind blew it over. It really wasn't true. We just put it up there wrong.
The misspelled word clouded an issue the mayor feels strongly about, rooted in his own experience as the son of Polish immigrants.
The debate over gays in the military in the early '90s led to another polarizing message on the sign: “No Gays in My Foxhole.” He's also reportedly posted signs complaining about the O.J. Simpson verdict, the I.R.S. and welfare recipients.
The signs have brought him a lot of attention, but Stranczek's most proud of his more practical work as mayor. He runs the village just like the two businesses he founded. That mentality has led to a reputation as a stern administrator who leads Crestwood and the members of its elected board like a monarch. With few exceptions, projects he likes get approved. And nothing else stands a chance.
Inside the Country House Restaurant – on the border of Crestwood and neighboring Alsip – everyone knows the mayor's retiring. What the hostess, a waitress and the breakfast crowd mention first about Stranczek is the one-of-a-kind property tax refund he arranges for homeowners.
RESTAURANT EMPLOYEES AND GUESTS: Gives us our tax rebate for one thing. I've got to say that…Oh it's outstanding. God, I don't have words to say…Well, it's a nice little Christmas bonus, yeah…Well of course we all like the tax rebate…The taxes are usually pretty high. I mean, all over where you go. But that makes more reasonable then, you know. It makes it affordable…I love it, and I love my mayor.
Since 1994, the village has returned $48-million dollars in property taxes to its residents. Stranczek says the village can afford the rebates by outsourcing most municipal services to private companies.
Not a bad political move. Stranczek hasn't faced an election challenge in decades. And he doesn't get much grief from village residents for his infamous Cicero Avenue political statements.
RESTAURANT EMPLOYEES AND GUESTS: He wants to get a point across, and it works, so…I think it's great. I'm glad to see it…I have no comment. I think it's great…It's his opinion and he's entitled to whatever opinion he wants. (laugh) Like everybody – it's America.
Of course, not everyone in America has access to a big sign alongside a busy road. And as of tonight, neither will Chester Stranczek. He's hoping to give his office and his sign to his son Robert, a village trustee and businessman. The board still has to approve the appointment, but the folks at Country House Restaurant are fine with it - just so long as the tax rebates keep coming.
I'm Sam Hudzik, Chicago Public Radio.