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Airbags

As the saying (or reality) goes, the Polish get the City Clerk, the Irish get the County Assessor — and everything else, too.

Now that City Clerk James Laski, who you may recall from his near-orgasmic delight when the City Council allowed him to go into parking garages to give tickets for no city sticker, has resigned after getting folded into the Hired Truck scandal for allegedly taking bribes, Chicago political organizations will be looking to extract the maximum advantage from the vacancy. As insane as it may sound to those not versed in Chicago politics — or for those versed in, well, democracy — the City Clerk is a "historically Polish" office, and the Mayor meddles with that at his own peril.

"He gets their vote no matter what," says Frank Coconate, a former Water Department worker and founder of the fiercely independent Northwest Side Democratic Organization. "White voters, I mean." Coconate suffered a humiliating defeat in 2000: after disobeying the party and running in, and winning, the Democratic primary for a state rep seat, the Regular Democratic Organization sent in legions of precinct captains and campaign workers to push the Republican candidate, Mike McAuliffe. Coconate got beat, and a subsequent attempt in 2002 netted the same result.

Laski, you'll recall, ran for City Clerk as the reformer candidate, and brought coos of joy when he, miracle of miracles, set up a website for the office and began (kinda) posting the Council's Journal of the Proceedings. Once a part of Bill Lipinski's Southwest Side organization, then-Alderman Laski led a charge against the mayor on the issue of property taxes and was promptly dismissed (or so he says) from the regular party apparatus. Later, of course, he'd be brought back into the fold as the ideal Pole to fill this historically Polish seat. The Pole who preceded Laski, Walt "Koz" Kozubowski, went to jail for ghost payrolling. The Sun-Times quoted staunch Daley ally and 7th Ward Alderman William Beavers as saying, "The last two Poles resigned or went to jail. So maybe it's my turn. I haven't asked for it, but I'm here. I'm available." Classy.

White ethnics in the neighborhoods are increasingly disaffected with His Elective Majesty the Mayor, both for his lack of deference to their ward organizations and their perception that he is purposefully accelerating the "yuppification" of their neighborhoods. Still, as Coconate said, they are ironically in the reverse situation that many African-American leaders decry every election cycle: they are such reliable votes, they are taken for granted. "He's funneling neighborhood money into the Loop, and people resent that," Coconate told me, "I mean, you're from Chicago, right? What do you think?" I declined to answer on the record.

But of course white ethnics are going to vote for Mayor Daley, right? Who else are they going to vote for, Jesse Jackson, Jr.?

Well, maybe. Congressman Jackson, who will not confirm that he really, really wants to run for Mayor in 2007, is aggressively courting the white ethnic vote through a surrogate: namely Frank Coconate.

In 2005, Coconate got fired, he claims for opposing the Party. The City, of course, denies this. So he began publicly grumbling about Daley and with a few of his city worker allies he began a nascent ground operation across the Northwest Side white wards designed to field an aldermanic candidate in all of them; depending on how you count, that could be about 13 wards, which in Mayoral elections will likely comprise about 40 percent of the total votes cast. Coconate is tentatively allied with the service employees union in this effort, which he has dubbed Opposition 2007. Coconate is a strange bedfellow in this — I guess you could call him a "reformer" in the sense that he wants to "reform" Daley out of office, but "more power to the city worker" is not something you typically hear from the stereotypical reformer. Not saying that I disagree with his position — I'm just sayin'.

As for Daley, he faces the "Coconate problem" with the City Clerk vacancy. He will appoint a successor, and that successor, as the incumbent, will be the prohibitive favorite in 2007. The media and reformers will push for a Latino, who are more or less invisible in city leadership; and of course the different ward organizations will jockey for their own candidates. But if Daley bows and makes a very public change — handing a "historically" white ethnic seat to a Regular Party Latino, or African-American, or worse, a suit — Coconate and people in the neighborhoods will definitely take notice. It's like that what do they call it — dog whistle politics. Except in this case the dog whistle would be more like a flugelhorn.

Just two weeks ago, a Southwest Side resident wrote in to the Southwest News-Herald about the possible resignation of Laski, writing, "[O]n the City Clerk issue, the Hispanic politicans and all non-Polish politicians need to back off... If the mayor wants to be assured of solid support in the Northwest and Southwest side wards in 2007, he'd be wise to name a qualified Pole as City Clerk."

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Comments

Ann C. / February 8, 2006 11:21 AM

Good column. You are no Ramsin, but quality analysis. Could you give me a background on yourself?
Thanks.

Richard H. / February 8, 2006 11:54 AM

Excellent column on how Chicago's politics still manage to remain balkanized (and medieval when it comes to loyalties) despite years of reforms. It's a sad fact that there are many whites in the bungalow belt who will never vote for a non-white mayor. Laski's resignation is only going to increase Daley's power within the government.

Foxhorn / February 12, 2006 6:18 PM

To me, Coconate and company have evaluated the situation based on demographics and politcs that are no longer relevant. The Polish vote is dimishing commodity in Chicago. With years of success and hard work the Poles have begun to move up the social ladder leading many of them that did vote to flee the the outlying suburbs where education and cost of living considerations are more reasonable for middle class families. Those that remain in the City are first, the well-off and would figure to support Daley since most of their wealth was generated under his tenure and second, recent immigrants who rarely make it to the polling place. The traditional white ethnic in Chicago is now a combination of Croatian, Bosnian, Ukranian, Romainian, Serbian etc. These newer immigrant classes have sprung up in neighborhoods all around Chicago. Unlike past generations of immigrants this new class is better educated and strive for more then a simple life with a decent job. They send their children to the best colleges and enjoy the the international flavor and prestige chicago has devolped under Mayor Daley. The Mayor has carefully cultivated relationships in these communities through the devolpment of Cultural centers, consulates and international visits from foriegn presidents. That the Polish are so desperatly struggling to hold on to the measly clerk's offive show's how quickly the glory days of Polish politics in Chitown have passed. Puchinski, Laski, Lechowitz....Lipinski?

Brien Sommers / February 24, 2006 4:08 PM

I disagree with Foxhorn, Coconate has been the only person to be effective aganist the Daley Administration. His agenda of exsposing Mayor Daley for what he really is done funny and to the point. I like the honesty in your work.

 

About the Author(s)

Richard Carnahan is a true South Side Sox fan who's played a bit part in Chicago politics more than once over the years. Contact him at .

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