]]>36TH WARD "CINDERELLA":
FROM DRIVER TO ALDERMAN
ANALYSIS & OPINION BY RUSS STEWART
It's a "Cinderella Story" – driver to driven. It could only happen in America. Or, I mean, only in Chicago. Or, I mean, only in the 36th Ward.
John Rice is Alderman Bill Banks' (36th) driver and bodyguard, although he's officially listed on the payroll as Banks' "chief-of-staff." And now he's going to be Banks' successor as alderman.
It's the stuff of Hollywood. It's got movie potential. It's got "success" written all over it: The Driver goes to City Hall, and gets his own Driver…and his own bodyguard.
Parents can tell their kids: Forget the cramming. Who needs college? Forget the lawbooks. Be a good driver, memorize the Rules of the Road, and not only will you get an insurance discount, but you might grow up and become a Chicago alderman.
Banks, alderman since 1983, and Democratic committeeman since 1981, has announced his intention to retire from the city council by the end of 2009. That's precipitated a seismic reaction in City Hall, prompting a plethora of aldermen to begin angling for the chairmanship of the powerful Zoning Committee, a post held by Banks for 20 years.
The early favorite is Pat O'Connor (40th), also an alderman since 1983, and current Education Committee chairman. From O'Connor's perspective, grabbing the Zoning chairmanship could be a prelude to a mayoral run. And, unlike his failed, under-funded 2009 congressional bid, O'Connor would then be in a position to emulate Banks, and raise mega-bucks.
According to the latest campaign disclosures, the three committees controlled by Banks – Committee to Elect Banks, Friends of Bill Banks, and the 36th Ward Democratic Organization – had a Jan. 1 cash-on-hand of $837,349. In the two previous calendar years (2007 and 2008), those committees raised $302,371.
Here's a multiple choice question: Did Banks raise that kind of dough because:
(a) He's just a swell, sweet and wonderful guy, a family man, and has a dog? (b) He's able, as zoning chairman, to dictate committee approval of zoning variances and expeditiously get council ratification, much to the delight of developers, who reap mega-profits and then buy gazillions of tickets – along with their zoning attorneys — to Banks' fundraisers? (c) He's just the beneficent, inadvertent object of everybody's gratitude? Or (d) he gives donors discounted tickets to Great America?
If you answered (a) or (c), you just flunked your UCPT – Understanding Chicago Politics Test – and probably believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and clout-free democracy in the Windy City. If you answered (d), you may want to seriously address your drug dependency.
No "Battle for the Succession" is raging, however, in the northwest side 36th Ward (Galewood, Montclare, and the Cumberland Corridor), where Rice is primed to be his boss' successor – at least until the end of Banks' current term in 2011. The mayor appoints new aldermen to fill vacancies, but there is no doubt that Rich Daley will ratify Banks' choice.
Rumors were once rife that the alderman was poised to emulate so many other Chicago "family business" politicians, and facilitate the appointment and election of son Joseph, a third-year law student, as alderman. But, quite astutely, Banks understands that the 36th Ward Democrats are a political powerhouse, flush with precinct workers and money, only because he is the city's "Zoning Czar." Once he's gone, his ward's "clout" evaporates. Banks can make his son alderman, and remain committeeman to protect him, but Joe would be a junior and inconsequential council member, and the spigot of contributions from developers would be a dribble, not a torrent.
So Banks, who once aspired to be county assessor, will deftly move into the private sector, and join the "land use" (a euphemism for zoning) law practice of his brother, Sam Banks, and nephew, James Banks, along with his son. He'll be the de rigueur lawyer for every get-it-done-now developer in Chicago and the suburbs.
Banks denied that his imminent departure was precipitated by the ongoing federal Operation Crooked Code investigation, which has focused on alleged bribery by developers of city inspectors in the zoning and building departments; fifteen arrests have been made and, according to press reports, some of those indicted were members of the 36th Ward Democratic Organization or clients of his nephew.
Over the past few years, the Banks Clan has gotten some very negative exposure. Banks' committee handles roughly 1,000 zoning variances annually. During 2004-05, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, nephew James handled 32 36th Ward zoning variances before his uncle's committee, and won 29. In addition to being a zoning lawyer, James Banks is also a realtor, developer and banker. The alderman recuses himself from any committee vote on cases brought by his nephew.
Another Sun-Times expose, in 2008, detailed how the Belmont Bank & Trust, founded in 2006 by James Banks and located in the 36th Ward, was his own veritable piggybank, with a third of the $155 million in mortgage loans made to James Banks' family, friends and clients, including $12.2 million to his sometime developer partner.
Ald. Banks has been quoted as saying that "it is time" to retire. Firefighter Nick Sposato, who ran against Banks in 2007 and got a paltry 23.8 percent, vociferously concurs. "He (Banks) is an oppressive force. He tries to bully and control everybody and everything. Now," added Sposato, who intends to run again in 2011, "we have the opportunity (in the 36th Ward) to elect an alderman who will serve the people, not the developers. I won't be running against the Million Dollar Man."
According to Sposato, Banks can field up to five workers in each of the ward's 55 precincts, 250 workers on Election Day to get out the vote, and pay for five of six mailings into every ward household. If Banks retires, "those days are over," said Sposato. "It will be a level playing field" in 2011. "Rice is not Banks, and anybody could win."
Hugely impacted by a Banks retirement would be his close ally, State Senator Jim DeLeo (D-10), who is up for re-election in 2010. As of Jan. 1, DeLeo, an assistant Democratic majority leader, had $658,549 in his campaign account. But DeLeo, one of disgraced former Governor Rod Blagojevich's key Illinois Senate allies, was passed over for chamber president, a job won by another Chicagoan, John Cullerton.
With legislative service stretching back to 1985, DeLeo, age 57, could retire with maximum pension, and become a highly-paid lobbyist. DeLeo reportedly owns interests in various Rush Street restaurants and, with his associations, could become Illinois' premier "entertainment industry" lobbyist. Hotels and eateries would be as eager to put him on retainer as developers would be to snare Bill Banks.
But count on this: DeLeo won't quit unless he can hand off the job to another 36th Warder – and that will be either ward sanitation superintendent John Donovan Jr. or assistant city zoning administrator Mike Tinerella. Former Harwood Heights Mayor Peggy Fuller is gearing up to challenge DeLeo in the Feb. 2, 2010 primary. But she has neither money nor organization, and she retired after one failed term as mayor. In a primary, DeLeo would demolish her; he'd win with 65 percent.
So here's what will likely happen: DeLeo will resign his seat and senate nomination in April or May of 2010, and the 10th District's Democratic committeemen, dominated by Bill Banks, will choose Donovan or Tinerella as his ballot replacement and as the new senator. Since Banks and DeLeo have an unwritten "non-aggression pact" with the 41st Ward Republicans – Alderman Brian Doherty and State Representative Mike McAuliffe (R-20) – in the north end of the 10th District, there won't be a Republican state senate candidate. So Donovan or Tinerella will then waltz into the seat unopposed.
As for the zoning committee chairmanship, black Alderman Ike Carothers (29th), the current chairman of the Police and Fire committee, has evidenced interest. His council service, however, only dates to 1999. The most senior black is Alderman Ed Smith (28th), first elected in 1983. If Smith used his seniority card to checkmate O'Connor, then another white alderman with longer service, such as Dick Mell (33rd) or Gene Schulter (47th), both elected in 1975, could opt to take that plum.
If O'Connor succeeds Banks, and if O'Connor uses the post to build a $1 million campaign warchest, then O'Connor will be well-positioned to run for mayor when Daley retires.
Being a "chief of staff" seems to be in vogue. Rahm Emanuel gave up his congressional seat to be President Barack Obama's chief-of-staff.
Here's a final multiple-choice question. Emanuel's White House job description does not include one of the following: (a) Advising the president; (b) determining who talks with or sees the president; or (c) driving Obama around.
E-mail Russ@russstewart.com or visit his website at www.russstewart.com.
]]>36TH WARD "CINDERELLA":