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Candidates Cry Foul in North Side Statehouse Race

Appointed to a legislative vacancy 38 days before an election, Yoni Pizer’s candidacy seems inevitable. In most states, it wouldn’t be so easy.

After Yoni Pizer, a Lightfoot endorsee, was appointed to the 12th District vacancy ahead of an election, Gov. J.B. Pritzker backed his opponent, Margaret Croke.   ANTONIO PEREZ; E. JASON WAMBSGANS/CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Last week, Jonathan “Yoni” Pizer was sworn into the Illinois General Assembly as the new state representative for the 12th District, which covers the north lakefront.

Mr. Pizer is a fine, upstanding Chicagoan. He’s a husband, a father, a small business owner, and a volunteer for such worthy organizations as the Howard Brown Health Center and the Human Rights Campaign.

But he shouldn’t be a state legislator. At least not until March 17.

Pizer “won" his seat during a vote of North Side committeepeople held on February 9 at the Center on Halsted. He’s replacing Rep. Sara Feigenholtz, who was appointed by those same ward bosses to take the place of retiring state Sen. John Cullerton. 

Even though he’s already in office, Pizer is also a candidate to win a full two-year term in the March 17 primary. Some of his opponents in that race have cried foul, claiming he benefited from an inside deal that will allow him to run as an incumbent. Pizer already had the endorsement of powerful Democrats, including Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Ald. Tom Tunney, who as 44th Ward committeeperson controlled nearly half the weighted vote in the district.

“This Sunday, 38 days before voters have the opportunity to vote for the next State Representative for Illinois’ 12th House District, Chicago Democratic Party insiders rubber stamped the appointment of Jonathan Pizer in an attempt to boost his chances in the March primary election,” complained Pizer’s opponent Margaret Croke, who also applied for the vacancy but withdrew her name before the vote. 

“Appointing a candidate who is unelected and running for election in a month is undemocratic. This decision should be left to the voters on March 17th.”

Since then, Croke has earned the support of Gov. J.B. Pritzker, whose campaign she worked on and in whose administration she now serves, as deputy chief of staff at the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity.

State law requires a seat be filled within 30 days of a resignation. Kimberly Walz, another primary candidate, suggested appointing “an individual not running for the seat” as a caretaker until the election. Sean Tenner, the 46th Ward committeeperson, offered himself for that role, but didn’t have the weighted vote to make it happen. He withdrew his name, saying he wasn’t “the right fit.” 

Cullerton, who knew Feigenholtz was going to get his State Senate seat, could have prevented this. Had he delayed his resignation by six weeks, Feigenholtz could have been replaced with the primary winner.

Now, Walz has ended her candidacy, writing that the race “is no longer about issues or experience, it’s about powerful allies and their money.”

According to Ballotpedia, Illinois is one of only four states in which party officials fill legislative vacancies. In more than half the states, those vacancies are filled with special elections. (In 2018, 99 state legislative seats were filled in special elections.) In 10 states, they’re filled by the governor, and in seven, by county commissioners.

Granting party bosses a power that most states leave to the voters is just one practice that makes Illinois politics so… special. It works well for the politicians: In Chicago, state legislators are subservient to ward bosses. Every real boss needs a pol in Springfield. Dick Mell elected his son-in-law, Rod Blagojevich, to the legislature. Ed Burke was represented by his brother, Dan, for nearly 30 years.    

It’s even more embarrassing when legislators help choose their own successors — especially when those legislators are accused of corruption themselves. That’s what happened with Rep. Luis Arroyo, who resigned for allegedly attempting to bribe a state senator to vote for a bill that would have benefited one of his lobbying clients. Because Arroyo also serves as the 36th Ward committeeperson, he had a say in the appointment process.

House Speaker Michael Madigan warned Arroyo not to participate, telling other committeepeople that any appointee he voted on would “be challenged by the full Illinois House of Representatives.” The disgraced legislator didn’t show his face at the appointment session, granting his proxy to Ald. Ariel Reboyras of the 30th Ward. That was still too much for 35th Ward Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, who walked out of the session, complaining “the fix is in.”

 “I’ve been urging Ariel Reboyras not to use Arroyo’s proxy for weeks — I told him that would put a cloud over the process,” Ramirez-Rosa said. “It’s clear he’s hell-bent on filling the vacancy with the support and collusion of the disgraced former state rep.” 

Nevertheless, Reboyras used Arroyo’s votes to elect Eva-Dina Delgado, an assistant to the president of People’s Gas. She was seated in the House.

So long as party bosses can appoint legislators, this is how it will go. Our undemocratic system is a vestige of Illinois Machine politics. Why not join most of the country — including California, New York, Texas, and Florida — in filling legislative vacancies with special elections? 

Sure, special elections cost money — often hundreds of thousands of dollars, shared between states and the municipalities that have to set up polling places and hire election judges. But all elections cost money, and so does the propagation of special interests in Springfield. You can’t put a price on democracy — or in yanking out a thread in the tapestry of inside deals that makes Illinois’s political culture a national embarrassment.

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