A Cold April Night in Berwyn
or, Democracy Under Quarantine, Except...
Why did I, on a cold Wednesday night in April, with most people sheltering due a pandemic, spend 70 minutes in my car, parked along 16th Street, facing the Italian-American Civic Organization of Berwyn?
Democracy, friends. “Democracy.”
Cook County, Illinois, is the second-largest county in the United States. (Only Los Angeles County is larger.) About 5,150,000 people live in Cook County.
The county’s governing body is the Cook County Board of Commissioners. It consists of a president elected at-large, and 17 people elected from single-member districts. Each district has roughly 300,000 people.
We live in the 16th District. In 2018, our County Commissioner Jeff Tobolski was re-elected unopposed. But last month he resigned. There’s a whole long story about that, but that’s for another time.
As a result of Tobolski’s resignation, his seat went vacant, with a little over 2 1/2 years left in his term. From now until the end of 2020, the seat will be filled by appointment. For 2021 and 2022, it will be filled by special election. The thing is, the person appointed, and the person who will win the special election, are the same person. The same small group of people will decide both who will fill the seat immediately, and who will be on the November ballot, and will therefore win the special election.
This small group of people is the 16th District Democratic Committee, and its members are the Democratic Committeepersons whose domains overlap with the 16th District. This means a group of 8 people, 7 of whom are the Committeepersons for various suburban townships, plus the Committeeperson for the one Ward of Chicago which is partially within the district. All of the members receive a weighted vote, basically corresponding to the voting power of their respective townships or wards in the previous election.
The Committeeperson with the largest weighted vote is the de facto chair and convener of the meeting. In the case at hand, that is Robert Lovero, who is Berwyn Township Committeeman, and also happens to be Mayor of Berwyn. Since it fell to him, he chose the Italian-American Civic Organization of Berwyn as the location for the meeting.
What does any of this have to do with me?
Well, I asked around and found out what was going on. And I informed Mayor Lovero that I wished to be considered for the vacant position. And so I was told to submit credentials. And so I did. And in so doing I was invited to attend the meeting, where everybody would be six feet apart at all times, and all of the prospective candidates would be waiting in their cars until it was their turn for their 10 minute interviews with the committee.
That is how I wound up on a cold Berwyn street on a Wednesday night in April in the middle of a pandemic.
I’ll tell you how the night went. First, though, I should probably clarify something:
There was no way I was going to be appointed to the County Board.
I knew this, and I went through the process anyway. I knew this, because that is not how these sorts of things work. Committees like this, which do not convene under any other circumstances, do not consist of ordinary unconnected people. They consist of Democratic Committeepersons, most of whom hold public office, maybe even more than one public office. Most such people usually have a preferred candidate going into such meetings.
Me? I’m the classic nobody that nobody sent. I’m a software engineer. I’ve lived in the district for one year. I’d never met any of the Committeepersons.
Since I knew this was going to nowhere, why did I do it?
First, there’s always that weird slim chance. The total number of prospective candidates was about 10. If the committee absolutely could not agree on any of them, but were especially moved by something I said, or absolutely adored my necktie, then anything was possible.
Second, if nothing else, it was a rare opportunity to put my name and credentials in front of a bunch of well-connected politicians in my area. I’ve never been good at networking. Here though was a situation where names could be put to faces, where I could sort of announce myself, possibly for some future situation where a more realistic opportunity might arise.
Third, while I have very strong political opinions, I am also a political junkie, long fascinated by process, or as some people put it, how the sausage is made.
The whole thing was going to be held in a room where everybody was six feet apart, with a very small number of people present. It was all so limited and controlled I didn’t feel like there was any appreciable downside.
Earlier in the day, the Cook County Democratic Central Committee held their annual meeting… via video conference. The reports about this make it sound like it was pretty wild.
There are 80 members of that body: 50 Ward Committeepersons from Chicago and 30 Township Committeepersons from suburban Cook County. The annual meeting is the one at which they elect officers for the next two years.
The meeting I went to later, which involved some of the same people, they weren’t able to hold remotely, which raised questions in the local press. I suspect it has to do with the weirdness of trying to patch in people to be interviewed, but it was still an odd thing that they could pull off an 80 person video conference in the afternoon and not an 8 person video conference in the evening. I assume though that they would have preferred a virtual meeting.
This year’s annual meeting re-elected Toni Preckwinkle to be Chair. She’s also the Cook County Board President. (I realize if you live around here, you know all this!) There was also some weird stuff going on related to some Committeepersons having backed opponents to State’s Attorney Kim Foxx. Kim Foxx is a protege of Toni Preckwinkle, and it seems that Preckwinkle essentially removed anyone from the party’s Executive Committee who bucked her and supported one of Foxx’s opponents.
I mention all of this because it’s all central to dynamics within the Democratic Party more broadly. Chicago and Cook County are in some ways unlike almost anywhere else, and in other ways a bellwether for the rest of the country. In recent years the Machine nature of the local Democratic Party has changed quite a bit as some of the oldest of the old guard have faded away. I think these developments remain poorly understood, in part because newer people are still using older mechanics, be that due to tradition, familiarity, or even statute.
Last month the long-time congressman here, Dan Lipinski, lost his primary to Marie Newman. Lipinski is pro-life, anti-immigrant, and voted against Obamacare from the right. Newman went after Lipinski hard on his stance on abortion, and ran on a platform of Medicare for All. The county party hadn’t gotten involved in that race, but seemingly most of the suburban mayors lined up behind Lipinski. That collection of mayors comes off as more traditionally Machine than most subsets of politicians you might find around Cook County these days, a phenomenon that Chicagoans especially seem not to understand very well.
At least two prominent mayors backed Newman over Lipinski. The most prominent of all was Lori Lightfoot, Mayor of Chicago. But so too did the Mayor of Berwyn - and Berwyn Township Committeeperson - Robert Lovero.
Some suburbs are much more interlinked with Chicago than others, and Berwyn definitely feels like one of them. Berwyn, I’d argue, feels more urban than the part of Chicago we moved from last year, which feels more suburban by comparison. Back in the day Berwyn was perhaps best known for its Czech population. Today, like several other suburbs and exurbs of Chicago, it’s majority Latinx. It’s a place with a lot to explore. My wife actually works there. It’s only two suburbs over and, whenever the day comes when we can explore more frequently, I expect we’ll be exploring a lot more.
Wednesday night, though, wasn’t a time for exploring Berwyn. I was instructed to arrive outside the Italian-American Civic Organization of Berwyn promptly at 7:00 and wait in my car until it was my turn to go inside. I arrived to the location on 16th Street at about 6:45.
I found a protest going on.
Earlier that day, a couple states away, a bunch of imbeciles showed up in Lansing, ostensibly to protest Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home orders. Some “protesters” were carrying Confederate flags, which is why I use “ostensibly”. In reality I’m not sure we should extend a noble word like “protest” to people like that. Still, social media was full of pictures and comments about these people. And I mention it all because this is probably fresh in people’s minds, and had perhaps gotten people talking about the propriety of any kind of public protest in the middle of a pandemic.
The protest in Berwyn was a little different. I’d estimate that at its peak there were 20-25 people. At first I couldn’t tell what was going on, because I’d had to park a half-block up 16th Street. Someone had a megaphone though and I was able to pick up some of what was going on. It was cold, so I wanted to stay in the car, but I did walk over at one point to stand across the street and try to figure out precisely who or what was being protested.
When everybody is wearing masks, it’s a little hard to make sense of what a group of people looks like, but this group looked to be mostly Latinx, fairly young, and they were specifically protesting a man named Frank Aguilar.
Frank Aguilar was one of the other candidates who, like me, had submitted his name for consideration for the vacant County Board seat. Today, Aguilar is Director of Community Affairs & Special Projects for the Town of Cicero. Previously, over a decade ago, Aguilar served as a State Representative - but as a Republican State Representative, which was a major talking point of the protesters. The protesters were also claiming he’d pulled a Republican primary ballot as recently as 2016. And they chanted “He failed Morton College, he will fail Cook County”. Morton College is the community college serving the Berwyn / Cicero area and Aguilar, as I learned, has been an elected member of its Board of Trustees for a while, and even the Chair of that board.
(A couple of times the protesters voiced support for one of the other candidates, but in looking back at the list of names, I’m not sure who that was. And they were clearly there primarily to oppose Aguilar, not to support anyone else.)
Now, I had no problem with these people protesting. Under other circumstances I’d probably have gone and hung out with them! Under these circumstances, though, it just added to the added to the surreality of the whole thing. The meeting itself was being conducted in a manner so as to maintain a high level of social distancing, and here were 20 people chanting outside the front door of the place, complaining about a man with whom I was totally unfamiliar, in the context of a process which I was there to engage in.
Here I would note that literally any one of the protesters could probably themselves have been candidates, and I wonder if they knew that. I jumped through almost no hoops to participate myself. I’d contacted the county party, then at their direction had contacted Robert Lovero directly. I was instructed to submit a resume and show up. Name another job where just by virtue of submitting a resume you automatically get an interview.
And yet at the same time, everything was going to happen behind closed doors. It was, all at once, the most open, and the least open, process you could possibly imagine.
At 7:55 I got a phone call. It was from Tony Nowak, an Alderman in Berwyn. It was my time.
Imagine, if you will, being Tony Nowak, at 7:10 or so, wandering arond, looking for well-dressed men sitting in cars, doing absolutely nothing.
Well, that’s how he knew I was there. He found me sitting in my Prius, waiting, just like these other people.
I’d been texting my wife and mother to let them know how strange everything was. I’d turned the radio off and lowered the window so I could try to hear the protesters. I’d gotten a couple of Words With Friends moves in. And at the specific moment that Tony Nowak walked up to the car, I was battling another trainer in Pokémon Go. (My go to trio is Metagross, Rhyperior, and Mewtwo. Rhyperior was especially efficient that night. Now you know.)
Anyway, at 7:55 he called me. I was up. So I got out of the car, walked to the corner, crossed over, and walked up toward the door. Nowak was there. So were a couple of Berwyn cops. About 7 protesters were left. One of them told me to stand up for democracy or something like that. Nowak opened the door for me. I walked in through a second door.
There was a high top table near the door and I think there was a box of gloves and something else on it. It wasn’t clear that I should do anything with any of that. That all just happened to be the first thing I saw.
The assembled committee was seated across a wide expanse of tables, all seated about six feet apart from one another. I think 6 people were present, but maybe it was seven. Most were wearing masks. Because of the masks, and because I’d never met any of them before, I wasn’t 100% sure who some of them were. I am still not 100% sure as to exactly who was in the room. Nobody else besides the Committeepersons and me were present, and as it so happened, I was the only one who introduced myself.
Robert Lovero was running the show and sitting in the middle. Nowak had told me everyone was present, but in retrospect I think that meant that everyone who was going to show up had shown up. I read later that at least one Committeeperson’s votes were being held by proxy, but I didn’t know if that meant by some other Committeeperson or by some other person they’d dispatched.
Besides Lovero, the other members of the 8-person committee, and their respective townships or wards, were Blanca Vargas (Cicero), Barrett Pedersen (Leyden), Steven Landek (Lyons), Karen Yarbrough (Proviso), Michael Zalewski (Riverside), Vincent Cainkar (Stickney), and Aaron Ortiz (Chicago 14th Ward). Yarbrough was definitely not there, and I read one report that Zalewski was also not there.
They looked tired.
My actual interview lasted perhaps 6 minutes. I was asked to introduce myself and give some background. I was also asked a couple of very general questions. Only one question about policy - about whether I knew anything about workforce development - was raised. (This wasn’t a question I’d, um, “prepared” for, but I did have a gig 17 years ago where I did Microsoft Office training for people in a workforce development program in Peoria, so I stammered about that for a minute.)
The assembled committee was at some point asked if there were any additional questions. There weren’t. I was free to go. I thanked them for the opportunity, got up, and went out the door. When I left I thanked Tony Nowak, who was outside the door, and then got into my car and drove home.
At about 9:30 I figured there should be news of the result. I went hunting on Twitter. Mostly, I can’t stand Twitter. But it is the most reliable way to find breaking local news. I’m not sure what that says about anything.
In hunting around I found a couple of articles from earlier, and posts from a Chicago Sun-Times reporter who had covered the county party meeting, and who had shown up in Berwyn to be told the meeting was closed. At some point in hunting around posts there was a reference to sources saying the decision had been made, but I never saw confirmation.
This morning there were a couple of articles which combined reporting on the two meetings. And then at about 10:15 Thursday morning, an email came from Robert Lovero. The committee had undertaken straw poll votes, and ultimately selected Frank Aguilar to fill the County Board seat.
I guess I should have brushed up on my knowledge of workforce development.
I have no special insight as to how things went down. I can only read between the lines. I know Lovero had a different preferred candidate, because he’d told a reporter as much earlier in the week. I glean that the committee did not simply take one vote, but rather must have had to go back and forth for a while in order to get a weighted majority to vote a certain way. I can’t meaningfully speculate as to how the vote might have gone down, so I won’t. But based on a couple of other articles I’ve since seen, I anticipate Aguilar will be challenged in the 2022 primary. It’s not just the protesters who were unhappy with the result.
By 2022, though, will the district even still exist? It’ll be post-census and the maps will be redrawn. And what are the odds that this gerrymandered monstrosity will manage to look the same:
Maybe the core of the district will still be Cicero and Berwyn. But the rest of us? Who knows.
Many people, I think, would regard the meeting last night, and the entire process surrounding it, as antithetical to democracy. But I gained some insight from my involvement. As with a lot of other things, I have a nuanced take on what I experienced.
I don’t know if the meeting would have been notably different if not for the pandemic. I suspect the protest would have been larger! But I don’t know if any part of the meeting would have been public. Now, I think that would be preferable. But the informal votes preceding the formal vote… within the context of everything else, I guess I don’t know how you could have that be public. It would just lead to all of those discussions taking place outside of the meeting, and that might lead to excluding some of the members of the committee. Unless you can come up with a better overall system for how to handle short-term vacancy replacements - and I mostly don’t have one - then I don’t know how you’re supposed to do away with meetings like this.
The real problems I see with the process are much broader in scope. For example, Illinois is unusual in that the primary for all offices is in March. Other states tend to separate the presidential primary from the other primaries, and hold the others later in the year, maybe even much later in the year. I also think that the way this district is drawn is so absurd that it should be illegal.
To put it another way, so far as the mechanics specific to the particular process which played out are concerned, there just wasn’t much that could have been different. It’s the statutory system which encompasses the democratic structure of the State of Illinois generally which is most deficient here. At the county level they could improve things like the way the district maps are drawn. But most of the problems can only be addressed by the Illinois General Assembly. Perhaps when the day finally comes that House Speaker Michael Madigan relinquishes power, things will change. (And, just maybe, that day is fast approaching.)
I assume the protesters represent a larger group of anti-Aguilar people. I don’t know how much larger. But I’m very curious now. I’m going to poke around and see what that’s all about. Maybe an opponent in 2022 will come out of that group.
It won’t be me.
Now, I think I would do a great job in a body like the County Board. I’d be able to prove I belonged. But first a person has to actually get there. And the kind of work you have to do to get to a place like that isn’t work I’m good at: networking, fundraising, smiling, smiling some more. I might be able to cover for those deficiencies in a smaller race. In a district of 300,000 people, though, it would take unusual circumstances.
Maybe this is why I found this entire vacancy process less bothersome than others might. It’s true that processes like these have a tendency to lead to results that reek of nepotism, insider dealing, or whatever else you might imagine. But a process like this could just lead to a straightforward interview process not unlike the one I participated in. The trappings are there for a policy wonk to shine over a glad-hander.
Honestly, it’s not easy to find a way to engage with the overall political process. You can show up for public meetings and speak, but then you’re just the person who shows up at public meetings and speaks. You can join some kind of civic organization, but there’s an old-school nature to that which doesn’t translate so well to newer times. You can get involved in a local activist group, but that can tend to leave you at the fringes of any kind of formal process. So it’s easy to engage with a fragment of the process. But it’s hard to actually feel like you’re engaging with The Process.
I’ve been looking for a logical place to engage for a while now. We’ve been in Brookfield for a year. I think I’m at the point now where as much as anything I just want to participate. Sure, there are also aspects of participation which I really do not care for. I spent half my workday in meetings. In past years I’ve spent hours weekly in meetings. Most meetings feel soul-sucking to me now. But if the meetings are actually accomplishing something, I can roll with meetings.
It would help if I found a group where I fit in. What I’m coming around to wonder is if maybe trying to find an ideological fit is misdirected. Maybe there are common interests more relevant than ideology. Maybe raw fascination with the political process is one such interest. The catch is that a lot of people with whom I tend to be ideologically in sync are also very turned off by political process. Or maybe it’s high time to join the local Moose Lodge. Or, for all I know, the real political networking hotbed around here is Little League.
I’m happy though that I pushed myself to participate in this surreal undertaking of filling a vacant County Board seat. It’s helped me reorient my thinking. It’s helped get me back to a place where I can imagine myself as a real participant. When the pandemic lockdown lifts, a lot of crazy things are going to happen in government, and I adamantly believe there’s a role for outside-the-box innovation and people who can provide it. We’re also, of course, in the midst of a protracted fight for the country’s soul, which will play out in some less-than-ideal fashion this November, but will play out nevertheless. It just doesn’t seem right to be fully on the sidelines, even if, for the moment, almost everyone is stuck on the sidelines, waiting for this virus to fade.
This may not all be the democracy we want, but if you don’t engage, you’re acceding to the status quo. Democracy only has a chance to thrive when people participate, and we need a thriving democracy and people participating if we’re going to successfully get through the post-virus recovery.
I doubt this will take me all back to 16th Street in Berwyn any time soon. But maybe this bizarre exercise will somehow be a catalyst for me. I very much hope so.