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It’s Time to Can Committeepeople Once and For All

The county party positions have allowed toppled politicos to cling to their clout for too long.

U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, pictured here in 2015, was ushered into his seat thanks to an influential 23rd Ward committeeman: His father Bill Lipinski, who held the seat before him. Photo: Antonio Perez / Chicago Tribune

Former Ald. John Arena, who was booted out of the City Council in April, recently found himself with an opportunity to get back into politics — by appointing himself to the state legislature.

Thanks to a chain reaction of political promotions on the Northwest Side, the state representative’s seat in Arena’s neighborhood came open. Although Arena is no longer alderman of the 45th Ward, he is still its Democratic committeeman, his party’s chief political officer, with a seat on the Cook County Democratic Party Central Committee and the power to fill political vacancies.

Aldermen like to add the committeeperson’s post to their portfolio, because controlling the party machinery prevents any rivals from building a power base. Since the next election for committeeperson isn’t until March 2020, some defeated politicos are hanging on to this vestige of their power. Joe Moreno still runs the 1st Ward Democratic Party, as do Joe Berrios in the 31st Ward and Patrick O’Connor in the 40th Ward. (In the 49th Ward, Joe Moore chucked the job over to state Rep. Kelly Cassidy as soon as he lost.)

In June, the Nadig Newspapers reported that Arena “would have enough votes to be appointed to [19th District Representative Robert] Martwick’s former position, as Arena has about 45 percent of the weighted vote.”

Arena didn’t end up taking the job. Instead, he threw his weighted votes behind new state Rep. Lindsey LaPointe. Not because it would have been unseemly to appoint himself, but because, again according to the Nadig Newspapers, his “decision on whether to become state representative could be impacted by a possible job offer from Mayor Lori Lighfoot, as Arena needs 2 more years on the city payroll to secure a city pension.”

So, it could have been worse. And on the West Side, it actually was. After state Rep. Melissa Conyears-Ervin took up her post as state treasurer, the committeepeople got together to choose her replacement. That turned out to be Omar Williams, a city laborer and, more importantly, the stepson of 27th Ward Ald. Walter Burnett, who controlled the lion’s share of the weighted vote.

“Why not him?” Burnett asked. “Just because he’s related to me?”

In this day and age, committeepeople are an anachronistic vestige of Chicago’s Machine politics. It’s time to abolish the office, or at least strip it of its power to fill vacant offices, which has resulted in endless examples of nepotism (see above), cronyism, and all-around backroom dealing. The system has repeatedly enabled powerful politicians to dictate their successors, without input from the voters. It encourages politicians to quit mid-term as a strategy for short-circuiting the democratic process.

That’s what former U.S. Rep. Bill Lipinski did. In 2004, Lipinski won the Democratic primary, then decided not to run in the general election. At the time, Lipinski was 23rd Ward committeeman, which gave him a big say in his replacement — who turned out to be his son, Dan.

Would old man Bill have dropped out if he hadn’t been able to control the succession? Are the Daleys Catholic?

At meetings of the Central Committee, committeepeople are responsible for “slating” candidates for countywide office, as they did last week when they endorsed Kim Foxx for state’s attorney and Michael Cabonargi for Circuit Court Clerk. This is a big source of power for Ed Burke, lord of the 14th Ward, who has long chaired the party’s judicial slating committee — a post he used to advance his wife Anne to the state supreme court.

Even on the North Side, not known for its tolerance of cheap Machine maneuvers, committeepeople have installed most of the Springfield delegation. In 2006, Rep. Greg Harris was appointed to replace Larry McKeon on the ballot, when McKeon stepped down after winning the primary. In 2011, Rep. Kelly Cassidy was appointed to replace Harry Osterman, who had been elected alderman of the 48th Ward. Osterman, in turn, had been appointed to replace Carol Ronen, after Ronen was appointed to replace Arthur Berman in the state senate. They’ve all been fine legislators, but none of them entered office as the result of a conventional democratic election.

In many states that are not Illinois, political vacancies are filled with special elections rather than closed-door meetings. Is this more expensive? Yes, it is. But at least it allows voters to have their own say in nepotism and cronyism. We might want to try it.

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