A Democratic challenger in the race for the 28th House District — one of the most expensive in Illinois this primary season — is accusing incumbent state Rep. Robert “Bob” Rita of benefiting from election shenanigans straight out of House Speaker Michael Madigan’s playbook.
Mary Carvlin, a Spanish teacher from Blue Island, Illinois, says the race’s third contestant Kimberly Koschnitzky is a “ghost candidate” put on the ballot by Speaker Madigan’s political organization solely to draw votes away from her campaign. Having a second challenger could split the vote between the two women and help Rita by default.
Rita and Madigan are long-time allies in the Illinois House. Since Rita’s election in 2002, the speaker’s political committee — Friends of Michael J. Madigan — has donated more than $60,000 to his re-election efforts.
After Carvlin accused the Speaker of supporting the race’s third candidate earlier this year, NBC 5 Investigates has confirmed several volunteers and donors from the 13th Ward Democratic Organization — Madigan’s political operation — helped Koschnitzky gather petition signatures to get her onto the ballot.
The Illinois State Board of Elections documents reveal at least six of Koschnitzky’s petition circulators — William Nambo, Ronald Crane, Steven Hensley, Frank Varnagis, Steven Szalko Jr. and John Grzymski — have been affiliated with Madigan’s political operation. In addition, State Board of Elections campaign contribution reports show each of them has donated to the 13th Ward Democratic Organization between $200 and $2,900.
Nambo and Crane were confirmed by multiple sources in and outside of Madigan’s political organization as having been precinct captains for the 13th Ward in the past. When questions were posed to the 13th Ward office, NBC 5 was referred to Madigan’s personal attorney Heather Wier Vaught, who would not speak to us on the record about the alleged ghost candidate.
The idea behind ghost candidates is simple: if an incumbent is vulnerable to a challenge during primary season, having more challengers on the ballot may split the voters who are opposed to a sitting representative. If voters haven’t been following the race closely, they may not be able to distinguish between challengers, voting indiscriminately against the incumbent without concentrating support behind a single candidate.
Ghost candidates have a storied place in Chicago’s history. As a one-time fixture of political machine gamesmanship in the state, candidates running against Springfield’s establishment sometimes find their names next to candidates “who are of the same gender, come from similar ethnic groups or even have the same name,” according to a story Wall Street Journal from 2016.
So what Carvlin is accusing Rita and Madigan of isn’t exactly new. In 2004, when an African-American lawyer named Arvin Boddie ran against Rita, three black women also appeared on the ballot who did not attend candidate forums or otherwise actively campaign during the Democratic primary, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Jason Gonzales, a challenger who ran against Michael Madigan’s house seat in 2016, faced a similar dilemma. After filing his bid, two other candidates — both with Latinx-sounding last names — entered the race within minutes, according to the Wall Street Journal.
With sexual harassment allegations igniting a firestorm surrounding Speaker Madigan’s organization, Carlin last week pointed to Madigan’s support for Rita as indication of what she believes is his indifference to allegations of domestic battery. In 2002, Rita was charged with misdemeanor domestic battery and criminal trespass against his former girlfriend, Elizabeth Miller.
Although a jury found him not guilty on both counts, a judge agreed to extend his Miller’s order of protection against Rita for two months, by agreement with his attorney Enrico Mirabelli, to avoid a second trial.
Carvlin says she has attended a half dozen forums in the 28th District, however Rita has not been present. “Why can’t he stand on his own record?” Carvlin asked NBC 5. She called him “a Madigan guy” and said he was “a placeholder; District 28 is a placeholder in the Madigan machine, and we’re tired of that.”
While spokespeople for Rita and Madigan were reached for comment, neither the Speaker nor State Representative Rita would speak to us directly.
Ryan Keith, a spokesperson for Rita, said, “Bob is only focused every day on meeting with constituents and making his case to win the Democratic nomination for the 28th House District on March 20. He’s talking with them about the damage caused by the extreme agendas of President Trump and Gov. Rauner."
While there’s no agreed-upon definition of a “legitimate” candidate, Koschnitzky’s presence in the race so far has been thin. Since filing to enter the primary in December 2017, Kimberly Koschnitzky has not received, spent or reported a single dollar, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections.
Compared to most candidates running for office a month before election day, Koschnitzky’s online presence is also scant. A Facebook page titled “Kim Koschnitzky for Illinois State Rep- 28th Dist” has just over a hundred likes along with eight posts since its’ first on Jan. 12. Her campaign website —kimforillinois.com — has a single post, dated Jan. 13, along with a 200-word issues page.
Koschnitzky appears in a short, 13-second video on both her Facebook and campaign website, where she says she’s running for the 28th district because “like you, I’m very frustrated with our leadership in Springfield.”
Koschnitzky’s campaign website domain is registered anonymously by 1and1, a German internet company whose “Private Domain Registration” service is specifically marketed to provide buyers “ultimate privacy and anonymity” on their website.
In an email to NBC 5, Koschnitzky wrote, “I'm not a ghost anything.” When asked about her lack of campaign expenditures, she said she planned to file with the Board of Elections “in the next few days.”
“I won't have a lot of money but was able to raise enough to get signs, hopefully a small mail piece or two and maybe some online ads,” she wrote.
According to Illinois Sunshine, the race for the 28th House District has been one of the most expensive in the state so far. With over $1 million raised, it’s the third most competitive for the Illinois General Assembly for the primary election. The lion’s share of that has gone to Rita, who has reported $1,020,000 in donations, compared to Carvlin $3,000 and Koschnitzky’s $0.
Since first running for office in 2002 Much of Rita’s funding has come from large committees associated with the Democratic Party of Illinois, including $129,300 from the Chicagoland Operators Joint Labor-Management PAC, $104,400 from Construction and General Laborers Dist Council of Chicago & Vicinity, $75,400 from the Engineers Political Education Committee and $61,699 from Friends of Michael J. Madigan.