Opinion: Ill. 39th District Race Entering Rough-and-Tumble Phase

Campaign on city's NW side is starting to take on tougher flavor

No one ever told Will Guzzardi it was going to be easier the second time around. Maybe now is the time it becomes clear just how hard it will be.

Guzzardi is the young Logan Square resident who is challenging incumbent Democrat Maria “Toni” Berrios for the state representative seat in the 39th Illinois House district on the city’s Northwest side. It’s his second time around after losing to Berrios by a mere 125 votes in 2012 in what was seen as one of the most shocking near-upsets of that election cycle.

In turn, Guzzardi’s candidacy electrified progressives across the city, who were looking for a young, articulate voice for progressive ideals willing to take on an entrenched machine politician. And, by many measures, Toni Berrios fits the description of the kind of politician they were looking for.

Her father, of course, is Joe Berrios, chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, County Assessor and Democratic committeeman for the northwest side 31st Ward. His daughter Toni has represented the 39th District since 2003.

From the beginning, Guzzardi, 26, knew taking on the daughter of such a powerful political figure would be no easy task. For a political family like the Berrios clan, a lot of money, resources and campaign tricks can be brought to bear in an election. For a political newcomer like Guzzardi, navigating the obstacles that can be thrown in the way can be daunting.

Guzzardi says he’s running against Berrios, who describes herself as a progressive, because her record simply fails to support such a claim. He points to her previous support for school vouchers, voting for millions of dollars in tax breaks for large corporations such as Sears and CME, and her support for SB1, a previous pension-reform measure that many saw as drastically reduce pension benefits for retirees.

For her part, the Berrios campaign has chosen, behind closed doors, to paint Guzzardi as an out-of-town dilettante without a job, in reference to his North Carolina roots and the fact that he is a full-time candidate. The Berrios folks like to say she’s a “legislator” by contrast, even though she’s often described as generally keeping a low profile in the General Assembly and sponsors few notable bills.

Recently, however, the campaign has taken a few turns towards the suspicious and perhaps even underhanded. In January, a Guzzardi supporter received a robocall touting Berrios by name but giving potential voters the wrong date for the upcoming March primary.

Berrios spokesman Manuel Galvan flatly denied his candidate had anything to do with the call, telling Ward Room it was way too early for the campaign to engage in recorded calls and suggesting it may have been from a past campaign.

Then there was the whole issue of the IVI/IPO endorsement. For progressives, an endorsement from the Independent Voters of Illinois/Independent Precinct Organization can prove valuable, and there’s a long, complicate questionnaire and voting process the organization goes through to select candidates.

After endorsing Guzzardi for his first run in 2012, IVI/IPO failed to endorse a candidate in the race this time around. Some observers felt the process was, in essence, hijacked by Berrios supporters who, while not arguing for their candidate in the endorsement process, simply wanted to make sure Guzzardi wasn’t chosen. Soon after, a petition was started, urging IVI/IPO to reverse its decision and citing the use of a secret ballot as reason enough to overturn the decision.

It’s the first attack-mailer of the campaign, however, that may offer a clue as to what the race may be like in its final weeks before Primary Day.

Paid for by a group known as Democratic Majority, the direct mail piece tells voters that Guzzardi—a vocal advocate of increased public school funding who has been endorsed by the Chicago Teachers Union—supports an education plan that would “rob our schools and fail our children” and features a picture of a sad child on the front that will “most likely never learn how to read or live up to her potential.”

Galvan told Ward Room Democratic Majority ran the mailer and its contents past Berrios before they went out, and she approved them.

While attack mailers designed to undercut a candidate's position are nothing new, what’s interesting is where the dollars for this particular mailer come from. Democratic Majority is a political action fund controlled by Mike Madigan, and one that boasts millions and millions of dollars in donations from large corporations and unions over the years and has funneled those dollars into campaign accounts of some of the most powerful politicians in the state.

Clearly, somebody out there doesn't like Will Guzzardi.

Perhaps it’s all to be expected, however. After all, he came pretty close to winning the seat last time.

I can't imagine the political power structure in Illinois wants to take a chance something like that might happen again.

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