There are 4 cities in Illinois famous across the country. And just like Cicero’s Presidential election next month, they represent the good, the bad and the real bad. Peoria is referenced for being a town with level-headed, middle of the road voters. Skokie is known for political confrontations between Nazis and Jews. And Chicago and Cicero are remembered for being controlled by the mob. It’s that last city, Cicero, that has yet another chance to throw off the yolk of corruption. But will it?
The legendary town of Cicero has a population of 84,000. Like more and more of America these days, it’s 80% Hispanic and overwhelmingly made up of the poor, working poor, working class, and lower-middle class. Since its creation in 1857, Cicero has slowly been torn apart by powerful neighbors. Originally 36 square miles, a majority of the city has been annexed over the years by Chicago, Oak Park and Berwyn, bringing Cicero’s current borders down to just under 6 square miles.
In describing Cicero’s race for the town Presidency, Chicago’s most trusted and respected political reporter Carol Marin pulled no punches this week in the Chicago Sun Times when she detailed both the town’s troubled past, as well as its questionable present. Calling it, “the town that time forgot,” the city doesn’t even have a Mayor, it has a President. As far as the city’s reputation goes, it may as well have an Emperor.
The current Cicero Town President is Larry Dominick. The 64 year-old Dominick worked his way up through the political machine, starting as a garbage man for the town. He then moved on to the Cicero Police Department, and finally into the President’s mansion in 2005. Dominick promised to clean up the corruption, but failed miserably, or as some point out, quite profitably.
Dominick replaced former short-term President Roberto Gonzalez, who also promised to be a reformer. Upon taking office however, he began filling the ranks of Cicero’s workforce with members of his family, all of them, as the Sun Times describes it. Gonzalez had been elected to replace convicted Cicero President Betty Loren Maltese. Showing how things work in Cicero, before being elected President Betty Loren was a simple barroom patron who hung out with the right crowd – the mafia.
When the FBI brought down the mafia’s Infelise crime family in 1992, it exposed the mob’s continued control of the city of Cicero. Called ‘the most ruthless of Chicago’s Organized Crime Street Crews’ by the Illinois State Police, Rocco Infelise inherited the crime family of notorious mobsters Joseph Ferriola and Joey Auippa, along with a section of their turf – Cicero, Illinois and its $50 million annual budget. Running things for the mob in Cicero was a mafia lieutenant named Frank “Baldy” Maltese, the husband of former convicted Cicero President Betty Loren Maltese. At the time, they all worked for the same man – Cicero town President Henry Klosak, who the Sun Times says, “gave the mob the keys to the town”.
When Larry Dominick was elected Cicero President in 2005, he was supposed to usher in an era of change. But coming from the same political machine as the previous town Presidents, Dominick showed his true colors almost immediately. As Marin and the Sun Times report, “He couldn’t spell ‘reform’.”
Cicero President Larry Dominick knows he’s in a tight race for re-election on February 26. That may be the reason that 2 of the town’s 3 latest deals, currently being promoted on Cicero’s town website, involve mega-corporations AT & T and Target. Dominick also rejuvenated the town animal shelter by holding a meet-and-greet with Santa two weeks ago at the facility. Facing 3 serious challengers for re-election however, the last-minute good will and strategic positioning may not be enough.
The most well-known of Dominick’s challengers is Juan Ochoa, former head of ‘McPier’ – the powerful committee that controls Chicago’s Navy Pier and McCormick Place and the hundreds of millions of dollars that revolve around it. Ochoa hasn’t tried to bill himself as a reformer, as that task would be impossible. He’s the ultimate insider with the clout, power, friends and baggage to prove it.
Ochoa was appointed to the powerful position overseeing McPier by convicted former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich. And before he’s even been elected, he’s showing just how tactically skilled he is. Using the Chicago Democratic Machine’s playbook, Ochoa has lined up the backing of powerful Hispanic party officials like Congressman Luis Gutierez (D-IL). Second, he was a part of the lawsuit that was successful in having the entire Cicero Board of Elections removed and replaced with theoretically impartial administrators.
Taking his effort one step further, Juan Ochoa has filed an objection to Larry Dominick’s own election nominating petitions, attempting to have the town President removed from the February 26 ballot. And finally, showing his seriousness and dedication to taking over Cicero, Ochoa has recruited an entire slate of candidates to challenge incumbent city officials while they simultaneously campaign on his behalf. Usually, those are all ingredients in the recipe for political success.
The second candidate challenging Larry Dominick for Cicero President is Joseph Pontarelli, who the Sun Times simply calls ‘a former town administrator’. Pontarelli’s colorful story is a bit more than that, but in this election, it hardly warrants much mention. He had previously served for 12 years as Cicero’s Director of Senior Services, right in the heart of more than a decade of documented corruption. When word surfaced that he intended to challenge Dominick for town President, he was abruptly transferred to a new position in the financial collections department.
The 51 year-old Pontarelli now insists his transfer was retribution by Cicero officials for daring to run against their leader. Spokesmen for the city have denied the accusation, insisting Pontarelli wanted the transfer because it will increase his current Cicero salary from $90,000 per year to $93,000, “and it’s an easier job.” The 30-year Cicero employee says it’s a lie and nothing short of, “punishment” for challenging Dominick for leadership. Joseph Pontarelli may be in the process of learning an age-old political lesson the hard way. You can represent the Machine or you can be a reformer, but you can’t be both.
The surest path to power and riches in Illinois is to fall in line with the Chicago Democratic Machine, acquire a political patron, and put in a decade or two of work until it’s your turn to run for office. If you do all that, the Machine will help you, as it’s helping McPier boss Juan Ochoa in this race and it helped Larry Dominick, Betty Loren Maltese and Henry Klosak before him. Cutting in line and stepping on toes, however, is frowned upon, and hazardous to your freedom. Just ask Rod Blagojevich, Jesse Jackson Jr., Mel Reynolds, Miriam Santos and a parade of other former Machine powerhouses that stepped out of line.
The fourth and final candidate for Cicero Town President doesn’t sound like a typical grassroots reformer at first glance. Lizveth Mendez isn’t just a Democratic Party insider, she comes from the heart of the Machine – the Madigan family. Illinois Rep. Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) is the Speaker of the Illinois House and arguably the most powerful man in Illinois since the retirement of Chicago’s political godfather Richard Daley. His daughter is Illinois’ top criminal justice official – Attorney General Lisa Madigan.
Mendez proudly proclaims her affiliation on her campaign’s website. “Eight years ago, I was appointed by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to be her office’s Latino Affairs Liaison,” she says, “That has meant for the past eight years, I have spent my time at the neighborhood level working with families to do things like educate seniors about elder abuse and inform people about how to protect themselves from consumer fraud.”
Positioning herself as a reformer in the same sentence she promotes her link to the Madigan political family, Lizveth Mendez says her loyalty will be to the people of Cicero. “In my position with Attorney General Lisa Madigan, I used government to help families,” she explains, “Similarly, I am running for Cicero Town President because for far too long, our Town President has used town government to largely help just his family. As your Town President, I will use town government to help you and your family.”
While Cicero is overwhelmingly Hispanic now days, the Italian establishment has proved it doesn’t go down easily. In this race, both the Italian and Latino vote are split between Machine-backed establishment candidates – Dominick and Ochoa – and insurgent candidates – Pontarelli and Mendez. The one who unites their base the most will have the advantage. With the town’s ever-increasing Hispanic population, that makes Ochoa the early favorite.
But Lizveth Mendez isn’t giving up the title of guardian of Cicero’s Latino population without a fight. As an immigrant from Mexico as a child, she’s using it as a cornerstone of her campaign. “Cicero’s a family oriented community, whether immigrants came from Central America, Mexico, or anywhere else,” Mendez said in her announcement speech, “For 150 years, Cicero has been a truly American community, a place that has drawn people from all over the world, who have come in search of better opportunities and a better life.”
Presenting herself as the only reformer of the 4 candidates, Lizveth Mendez next takes aim at not only current Town President Larry Dominick, but also the culture of decades of corruption that has shut honest Cicero residents out of their own government.
“We have struggled to realize the full benefits of the struggles of generations after generations of Cicero residents who worked diligently, played by the rules, and earned their place in America,” Mendez says, “What has prevented us from realizing all that Cicero can be is a political culture that allows the town President to behave like a feudal lord, and to treat Cicero residents as his indentured servants.”
What candidate Lizveth Mendez lacks in experience, she more than makes up for with her charisma, energy and political contacts. A veteran of the Hillary Clinton for President campaign in 2008, she’s intelligent, attractive, inspiring and seemingly sincere. But she’s an 8-year veteran of the Madigan political dynasty. If she can be taken at her word, Mendez would be a breath of fresh air for the citizens of Cicero and the best candidate for town President. But if it’s all a political act, the last thing residents need is another city in the pocket of the Madigan family.
As a column of, by and for independent voters, the closest thing to an independent candidate in this race is Lizveth Mendez. As a longtime grassroots community activist, she brings an energetic and empowering underdog quality to the race that we can only hope would carry over into her administration. We wish Lizveth Mendez the best of luck and recommend independents contact and support her campaign for Cicero President.
For more information on Lizveth Mendez and her campaign for Cicero Town President, visit her website at Lizveth.com.
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