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updated: 3/13/2013 1:40 PM

Why suburban mayoral races are so crowded

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  • Ron Drake, left, and Thomas Hayes, center, and Mark Hellner, right, are candidates for Arlington Heights village president.

    Ron Drake, left, and Thomas Hayes, center, and Mark Hellner, right, are candidates for Arlington Heights village president.

  • Tony Arredia, left, and Matthew Bogusz, center, and Mark Walsten, right, are candidates for Des Plaines mayor.

    Tony Arredia, left, and Matthew Bogusz, center, and Mark Walsten, right, are candidates for Des Plaines mayor.

  • Arlene Mulder is retiring after 20 years leading Arlington Heights, creating one of the more sought-after mayoral openings in the suburbs.

      Arlene Mulder is retiring after 20 years leading Arlington Heights, creating one of the more sought-after mayoral openings in the suburbs.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Mary Black, left, Suzanne Branding, center, and Thomas Poynton are candidates for Lake Zurich mayor.

    Mary Black, left, Suzanne Branding, center, and Thomas Poynton are candidates for Lake Zurich mayor.


Traditionally low voter turnout. Part-time pay. Being constantly on call.

While some might say serving as a suburban mayor might be more work than it's worth, it's clear that interest is high, with 29 out of 59 seats in suburban Cook, DuPage, Kane, Lake and McHenry counties contested.

Twelve of those races feature three or more candidates -- more than in municipal elections in 2009 or 2005. Roselle and St. Charles each have four candidates for mayor.

While no two suburbs are quite the same, two major trends emerge in analyzing the reasons behind these contested races: the departure of a longtime incumbent either by death or resignation, and a push to revitalize suburban downtowns -- an issue that was a campaign platform for many candidates in the 2009 election as well.

Local elections motivate candidates who believe it's the most immediate way to have an impact on their communities, especially during tough economic times, Roosevelt University Professor Paul Green noted.

"During times of economic stress, when things are rough and not improving, involvement in federal government and state government (can seem) far too complicated, far too away from friends and neighbors," Green said.

"All the issues you read about on the national level are alive and well on the local level," former Elgin Mayor Ed Schock said. However, he conceded, "it's a tough job. The mayor in local government is the focal point. Very few people can name members of their city council. Everyone knows the mayor. He or she gets the credit or blame. Over time it takes a toll."

Still, plenty of candidates want to give it a try.

In several suburbs, the departure of longtime mayors opened the door for a crowd of contenders.

Arlington Heights will have its first mayoral race in two decades without an incumbent with longtime Mayor Arlene Mulder retiring this year.

Three candidates have stepped in to run for Mulder's $8,500-a-year post: Ron Drake, who was mayor of a similar-sized town in the Phoenix suburbs; Mark Hellner, an attorney and member of the housing commission; and Tom Hayes, who was elected to the village board in 1991.

Mulder was elected as a trustee in 1991 and as village president in 1993.

In April 2009, her last election, she defeated challenger Philip Walter by a 2-1 ratio.

In the days right after Mulder announced her retirement several trustees seemed interested in running for her job, but they eventually deferred to Hayes. Drake and Hellner both said they had several groups of people approach them and ask them to run.

The race is shaping up as one of experience versus change. Hayes says he will provide a "steady hand" for the village going into the future.

Drake, citing the "economic engine" of Schaumburg's Woodfield Mall, says it's important to "restructure the business climate" to provide more revenue for the village.

Hellner said the village "should view its role as both helping the business community to flourish while ensuring we don't fail to protect our residents."

Hellner and Drake support slot machines at Arlington Park.

Hayes said he could support slots during racing hours, but would not favor having a separate area open year-round to house slot machines.

In Lombard, political divisions surfaced after the Aug. 18 death of 20-year village president Bill Mueller left a leadership void. Trustees divided into two groups, deadlocked on several votes and took more than a month to settle on a temporary president to serve until this year's election.

Without an incumbent, three candidates have stepped up seeking to lead the Lilac Village in the $16,080-a-year part-time position. Trustee Keith Giagnorio wants the seat, as do former York Township Trustee Moon Khan and former DuPage County Treasurer John Novak.

Candidates' relationships with various factions of the board has emerged as a major theme.

Giagnorio has voted with trustees Greg Gron and Bill Ware, forming one of the camps that developed after Mueller's death, but he says he could unite the board as president.

Khan and Novak say they are independent and would not necessarily side with Giagnorio's group or the other, which includes trustees Peter Breen, Laura Fitzpatrick and Zachary Wilson.

In Roselle, 20-year-incumbent Gayle Smolinski's bid for state Senate might have opened the door for more candidates who envisioned she might leave village office. But she was unsuccessful in the Senate bid last year and is running for another term as mayor, challenged by trustee Ronald Baker, attorney James Banks and territory manager Jim Schelling.

A long-term plan for the village's fiscal stability has been among the topics debated, with the village recovering from a $1 million budget shortfall three years ago.

In Lake Zurich, how to best spark a long-stalled redevelopment of the downtown has again drawn interest from three mayoral candidates, as it did in 2009 when Suzanne Branding defeated incumbent John Tolomei and challenger Scot Unger. This time, Branding faces Trustee Tom Poynton and political newcomer Mary Black in the April 9 election.

The downtown, which borders the town's namesake lake, has been a prime issue for more than a decade.

In August 2001, village trustees approved a special taxing district to lure developers, but nothing significant has occurred since then because of the crumbling economy and other factors.

In Des Plaines, former Mayor Marty Moylan resigned his post Dec. 31 and was sworn in as state representative in the new 55th House District in January. Moylan in 2009 won a four-way race against business owner Dick Sayad, former Maine Township Supervisor Michael Lake and lawyer Mark Thompson.

This year, former Des Plaines Mayor Tony Arredia is vying against two sitting aldermen, Matt Bogusz and Mark Walsten, for the part-time job that pays roughly $9,000 a year.

All three cite a need to improve the city's dilapidated downtown as a major campaign platform.

"I don't think this administration spent enough time courting businesses," Arredia said, adding that when he left office in 2009, Metropolitan Square was 80 percent occupied.

Walsten, 55, who runs a home inspection business and is in the middle of his second term, believes the Des Plaines Theatre's revival is key to increasing foot traffic in downtown and could serve as an economic engine for the area.

Bogusz said over the last four years the city has paid down $20 million in bonded debt, increased its reserves from roughly $1 million to $18 million, and avoided raising the property tax levy in the last three years.

"We want to tear down the obstacles," Bogusz said, adding that the city needs to create business incentives that are competitive with neighboring communities.

In St. Charles, a four-way race to replace retiring Mayor Donald DeWitte has renewed excitement as candidates lay out visions for revitalizing downtown.

Third Ward Alderman Ray Rogina wants to use the Arcada Theatre as the center of the city's downtown, while attorney Jotham Stein wants to eliminate empty retail space.

Retired Army Colonel Jake Wyatt wants to add more parking and apartments along the city's First Street hub, and entrepreneur John Rabchuk envisions St. Charles becoming a center for cycling enthusiasts through a renewed marketing and business development plan.

West Chicago sees both trends of a tough business climate and a lack of an incumbent intersect.

Like in Lombard, the three-candidate field in West Chicago is crowded because the former mayor, Mike Kwasman, died in office this past year.

Kwasman ran unopposed in 2009. And like in Des Plaines, attracting and retaining businesses has become a major theme in each of the candidate's campaigns.

Acting Mayor Ruben Pineda has only been in the position since May, but as a 15-year alderman he said he's been aggressive in trying to recruit new business through local grant programs and by continuously being in contact with city business leaders.

One of his opponents, fellow Alderman Nicholas Dzierzanowski, said Pineda has not been aggressive enough. Dzierzanowski said the city needs a "cheerleader at the top" who can spread the word of West Chicago nationwide.

Wayne Woodward, a former alderman, agrees with both his opponents about the city's reputation.

"West Chicago has a name for being hard to get along with if you want to build anything from a single-family home to a factory," Woodward told the Daily Herald. "But we're the customer. The city should be doing what we ask."

While money matters in local races, Northern Illinois University political science chair Matt Streb said "good old-fashioned campaigning" ultimately is the game changer.

"What matters is grass-roots campaigning, loyal supporters, a good network. It's a much easier election to win than if you want to run for state or congressional offices."

• Daily Herald staff writers Marie Wilson, Melissa Silverberg, Justin Kmitch, Madhu Krishnamurthy, Kim Mikus and Robert Smith contributed to this report.

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