Deposed 36th Ward Alderman Blasts Challenger

Wed, 04-06-2011

Just a few years ago, the 36th Ward Democrats were an important cog in Mayor Richard M. Daley’s machine who essentially enjoyed control over Chicago’s real estate boom.

After Tuesday’s election, though, the once-formidable patronage army no longer could claim even the alderman’s seat in the middle-class ward on the western edge of the city. Nicholas Sposato, a firefighter who has railed against the ward bosses for years, unseated Ald. John Rice, a lifelong organization loyalist, in the biggest upset of the City Council runoff election.

Unlike other defeated candidates, Rice offered no congratulations to his foe on Wednesday in his first public comments since the polls closed.

“It’s a sad day for the people of the 36th Ward, because the people have no idea what they just did to themselves,” Rice said, alleging that the ward would suffer because Sposato does not understand the inner workings of local government – and does not know the major players at City Hall – as well as he does.

Rice is a protégé of the former alderman and veteran Democratic committeeman William J.P. Banks, best known for his 20 years as chairman of the council’s Zoning Committee, starting from the time Daley took office in 1989.

In that capacity, Banks oversaw the city’s historic housing boom and the overhaul of the zoning code, but he gained notoriety as his family profited from his zoning panel’s eagerness to approve new real estate projects. His late brother, Sam Banks, and nephew, James Banks, ran the busiest zoning law practice in Chicago, winning approval from the zoning committee for hundreds of plans put forward by developers.

Banks resigned as alderman in 2009, and Daley honored his request to appoint Rice – who was his driver – to complete his term. The succession plan worked smoothly until Sposato forced a runoff by finishing second and keeping Rice short of a majority in the February election.

Banks did not return calls seeking comment Wednesday.

Sposato had failed in his attempt to unseat Banks in 2007. The odds against him also appeared to be high in Tuesday’s runoff, given that Rice won 48 percent in the six-way, first-round voting compared to Sposato’s 24 percent.

Sposato said he too did not think he would win when he saw that the turnout was low, a trend that historically favors organization candidates with legions of campaign workers to get out their vote.

Rice’s campaign committee received donations of more than $139,000 since July, with Banks contributing $27,500 and $10,000 from former state Sen. James DeLeo, another prominent ward Democrat. Sposato had less than $48,000 in his campaign coffers, including $20,000 of his own money.

Still, Sposato captured 56 percent of the vote on Tuesday.

“People are tired of machine politics in the ward,” Sposato said. “They just wanted a little more openness. They didn’t want this guy rammed down their throats.

“Obviously, it doesn’t look too good for the 36th Ward Democratic Organization. [Rice] was their guy.”

Rice also was Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel’s guy in the race. The 36th Ward is in Emanuel’s old congressional district, and the ward Democrats aided his first U.S. House campaign in 2002. The CNC reported last year that 36th Ward Democratic loyalists collected nominating signatures for Emanuel’s mayoral bid.

But Rice ended up as the only one of the 10 Emanuel-endorsed runoff candidates who did not receive any help from the New Chicago Committee, a political fund formed to help the mayor-elect’s council allies.

Rice said Wednesday he had no hard feelings toward Emanuel.

“I had the money to run my own campaign,” Rice said. “I didn’t need his money. It’s not Rahm Emanuel’s fault. Rahm Emanuel has been very supportive. He will be a great mayor.”

Rice saved his anger for the city’s political reporters as well as Sposato.

Shortly before Daley appointed Rice to the council, the Chicago Tribune reported that Rice displayed a Fraternal Order of Police medallion and sticker on his car even though he is not a police officer, which is illegal. After being confronted about his use of the insignia, Rice quickly removed them from the car that he had used to shuttle Banks as his driver. The police union endorsed Sposato.

Rice also organized a retirement party for Banks in 2009 and asked invitees to write $200 checks to Banks. The party was called off after it became fodder for more negative press.

“You guys in the media want to control it, and now you guys have, so I hope you guys are happy, because this is because of stuff you write, the lies and innuendos you write, and the stuff they put on TV, and it’s misconstrued,” Rice said Wednesday. “You guys as little news reporters are very happy to control Chicago politics. Have a ball with it.”

During the runoff campaign, Rice filed a lawsuit against Sposato after the challenger called on federal authorities to investigate alleged ties between the ward organization and organized crime figures. Sam Banks, who was a powerful behind-the-scenes figure in the ward organization until he died a year ago, was a criminal defense lawyer with mob-linked clients.

“You have a gentleman who is elected because he lied to the people about mob stuff that has nothing to do with me,” Rice said of Sposato.

Rice began his political career when he was a boy, tagging along with his father as he made his rounds of the neighborhood as a 36th Ward Democratic precinct captain. He inherited the post when he turned 18 and steadily worked his way up the organization’s ranks, driving the alderman between City Hall and his office in a ward studded with Italian delis and cafes.

After the blizzard in February, Rice boasted that his clout at City Hall helped procure snow removal for the ward’s streets and alleys while less politically powerful aldermen waited for help. On Wednesday, he said Sposato would not be able to get city workers to do the same sorts of favors on behalf of the ward.

“He has no friends,” Rice said. “These are people I’ve worked with for 20 years. They’re friends of mine, and we have all worked together at some point throughout the city. He doesn’t have those relationships. What is he going to do? Call the fire department to wash the streets down?”