By Stump Connolly

On the work front, the holiday calendar is as bleak as Montrose Harbor in winter. The months ahead appear as one vast sheet of whiteness just over the New Year’s breakwater. So it is in times like these I console myself with the little pleasures of the season, not the least of which this year is the spectacle of 20 people vying to become Mayor of Chicago.

It hasn’t taken long for the field to divide itself into a top tier––consisting of Rahm Emanuel, Danny Davis, Carol Moseley Braun, James Meeks, Gery Chico and Miguel Del Valle––and all the rest. Although the rest are a distraction, at best, they are a wonderful distraction, bringing cheer to the season and no small dose of chicanery to the political process.

A Record 426 Objections

On Monday, for instance, the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners will take up a record 426 objections to the nominating petitions filed by candidates for mayor, aldermen, city clerk and city treasurer. These include aldermanic races in 9 of Chicago’s 50 wards where lawyers are trying to kick off the ballot every single one of the 76 candidates who have filed for office. Twenty-one citizens have filed objections claiming Emanuel is ineligible to run for mayor because during his term as White House chief of staff he rented out his Chicago home; and ten other mayoral candidates are also under scrutiny, mostly from each other.

William “Doc” Walls III has filed petitions to knock Rev. Meeks and former Sen. Braun off the ballot. Ald. Patrick O’Connor (40th) and Mary Ann Smith (48th), allies of Emanuel, are contesting the petitions of his tenant, Rob Halpin, who mysteriously jumped into the race at the last minute. And if you never heard of Howard Ray, Frank White, Tyrone Carter, Wilfredo De Jesus, John Hu and Fenton Patterson––all of whom filed petitions to run for mayor, all of which are in dispute––don’t despair. Their chances of their winning will go out with the lights when the election board hearings are over.

The one issue that overshadows all others is Emanuel’s residency, and I suspect the three Chicago election commissioners will rule on that early. The challenge is being brought by the wily and well-traveled election attorney Burt Odelson, who has done his homework on the applicable law. Whatever the Chicago election commissioners decide, Odelson is confident the challenge will go on to the circuit court and won’t be resolved until the Illinois Supreme Court weighs in, hopefully before the February 22 primary.   So this one will take time, and patience, and it will cost Emanuel money (After all, isn’t that the point?) but if Emanuel’s name is not on the ballot, you can bet your M-#@%&^$ F-*^* ass that O*%#**&%)**$^%^. [translation: there will be consequences.]

The New Politics

The focus on the candidates’ nominating petitions this year has had the illuminating effect of calling attention to how any candidate gets on the ballot these days –– and the fact that only in Chicago do we start fighting over election results before the votes are cast.

Richard Daley’s 21-year run as mayor of the city sort of lulled the media to sleep on election procedures. While he cruised through re-election after re-election, subtle changes were taking place on the political landscape. Television commercials were replacing ward organizations as the driver of voter turnout; federal lawsuits were tying the hands (sometimes in handcuffs) of public officials who used to trade patronage jobs for loyal party service; and many of the old ward bosses who once commanded armies of precinct workers adept at the nuts and bolts of electioneering were, frankly, dying off.

To run for mayor in Chicago you need 12,500 registered voters to sign your nominating petitions. Years of practice have created a breed of lawyers in the city who have become specialists at knocking opponents off the ballot by nit-picking those petitions. (Remember how Barack Obama won his first election to the state Senate by challenging the nominating petitions of incumbent Alice Palmer?)  So to be bullet-proof, candidates as a rule now file at least three times the requisite signatures as a pile-of-bricks defense against their litigious opponents.

Because the old Democratic machine has fallen into such disrepair, however, getting those signatures has also spawned a sub-rosa network of professional political consultants called “circulators” who pay day laborers roughly $1 per signature to stand at El stops, grocery stores and malls getting names on petitions. Some of this year’s candidates still rely on the old precinct captain model. Congressman Danny Davis cobbled together 50,000 signatures from his coalition of African-American ministers and community activists; City Clerk Miguel del Valle used his ward boss contacts and an aggressive Facebook campaign to gather his; and Gery Chico, the former school board president, turned to old hands in Ald. Ed Burke’s 14th Democratic ward organization and Joe Berrios’s 31st for assistance with his petitions.

But more and more politicians are using professional circulators to supplement their own efforts. Mike Noonan, campaign manager for Braun, freely admits it. “Our work force came from a lot of people who are out looking for jobs in this bad economy,” he told the Chicago News Cooperative. And why shouldn’t they? When you are about to spend $3 million running for mayor, the $35,000 a candidate might pay for signed, sealed and delivered nomination papers is the very definition of penny ante politics – chump change, the kind of street money that goes out the campaign office backdoor with no one the wiser for where it went or who it went to.

A Common Practice

Rahm Emanuel, for instance, filed 90,000 signatures on his nominating petitions, boasting of participation from citizens in all 50 Chicago wards. After the filing, Emanuel invited the media to watch him buy lunch for two lucky South Side volunteers as a reward for their getting the most signatures. But an analysis of Emanuel’s petitions by the Chicago News Cooperative showed that the top circulator for Emanuel was actually a suburban Mundelain man, Christian Moree, who personally signed 185 of the 5,300 petition pages. And he was not the only suburbanite working on Emanuel’s behalf.

Four of the top 6 circulators for Emanuel, in fact, and 7 of the 20 busiest gave suburban addresses in affidavits accompanying their petitions, according to the News Cooperative. So while Emanuel did indeed have people in every ward circulating petitions, fully 25 percent of the pages he filed were circulated by people who live outside Chicago (and presumably love Rahm so much they ride the train in on weekends to sign up supporters for him or, as spokesman Ben LaBolt suggested, work for his campaign office.)

The Uptown Phenom

The News Cooperative analysis published in The New York Times last week didn’t attract much attention. But Monday’s revelation in the Tribune that a homeless man in Uptown named Arthur Hardy Jr. was credited with obtaining over 7,000 nominating signatures in the mayoral race sure did––especially when it came out he did it for two opposing candidates.

Hardy, 37, is a down on his luck ex-con who has been in and out of prison for years, once for 2nd degree murder and again for aggravated sexual assault on a 13-year-old. This is not the resume of a typical political protege so reporters combing through the nominating petitions were surprised to discover Hardy listed as the circulator of petitions containing 3,160 signatures supporting Rev. Meek, and doubly surprised when his name turned up as the circulator of petitions containing 3,990 signatures for Halpin.

When the Tribune went to see Hardy at the homeless shelter listed as his address, he was nowhere to be found. But Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown tracked him down yesterday at Wallace’s Catfish Corner, a West Side restaurant where Hardy said he volunteered to help out. “I thought this was just a job,” he told Brown. “The only thing I was trying to do was make some money.”

As Hardy tells it, he was recruited into the political game by Bishop C.L. Sparks, a West Side minister and proprietor of the Sparks Group LLC, a consulting company, and delivered petitions circulated by himself and others to a Sparks colleague, Tyrone Tucker, whose business card identifies him as president of the A-Team Political Campaign Unit, “circulators of petitions, canvassing and posterizing.”  A Meeks spokesman confirmed the campaign contracted with Sparks and Tucker to provide notarized signatures, and when Hardy wanted to collect for his efforts, he said Sparks sent him directly to Meeks’ office because he was going out of town to a funeral. When he arrived, a Meeks aide wrote out a check for $540 and handed over four $100 bills, Hardy said.

While Tribune reporters were looking into Hardy’s prolific output, they found a second circulator named Diamon Arrington, of Maywood, who is credited with gathering 2,000 more names for Halpin. Arrington, 29, was easier to find at her home in Glen Ellyn. But she said she never collected the signatures, doesn’t know Halpin and hasn’t lived in Maywood for over a year. That’s when the Tribune found a third circulator on Halpin’s nominating petitions named Abbie Graham, 34, who claims she hasn’t circulated political petitions in over 10 years.

A Chain of Fraud

While the Tribune had the corner on the circulators, Sun-Times reporters Tim Novak and Chris Novak went out looking for the notary public who certified the petitions. Moving up the chain of fraud, they found Maricela Rodriguez, a notary with PLS Financial Services, whose signature and seal appear on over 400 Halpin petitions (including 266 circulated by Hardy). Both the signature and seal are forgeries, she said. To prove it, she showed the reporters the signature she uses on her driver’s license and the seal she uses in her business. “There is something very odd about it,” she said. “I would think I would remember doing 200 notaries for this person.”

Only a day later, Rodriguez’s name came up again in relation to the now-abandoned campaign by Ald. Sandi Jackson to become city council clerk. The Sun-Times again discovered Rodriguez’s notary seal was used to certify 488 of the 500 petitions Chicago Ald. Sandi Jackson filed in that race, and Rodriquez again said she never signed them.

This stew of new allegations over fraud in the nomination petitions is making life hard for Odelson. On one hand, he’s aggressively pursuing a challenge to Emanuel’s residency, on the other, he’s got to defend his other clients, Rev. Meeks and Ald. Jackson, against charges they are involved in election fraud. When asked about the fraud allegations in the Jackson case, he sounded a little feisty. “The petitions come to me. . . I don’t review them. She doesn’t review them. We don’t check the notary,” he said. “What happened here is they hired people to pass petitions. It happens every election. When petitions came back notarized, we added them to the pile.”

But if it happened here, in a lowly race for city clerk, under the watch of one of Chicago’s most astute election lawyers, and “it happens every election,” how many other fraudulent filings are out there?

I guess we’re going to find out.

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