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36th Ward race: Condos, clubby atmosphere, experience all campaign fodder

36th Ward aldermanic candidate Nick Sposa(left) 36th Ward Ald. John Rice.

36th Ward aldermanic candidate Nick Sposato (left) and 36th Ward Ald. John Rice.

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Updated: April 28, 2011 12:20AM

Do six-story condominiums belong out here in the 36th Ward?

Firefighter and aldermanic candidate Nick Sposato, 52, doesn’t think so.

“They were turning our single-family community into a condo community,” Sposato said of the Banks family that has run the 36th Ward for decades. Former Ald. William J.P. Banks’ nephew James Banks and his wife were involved in many of the development deals that put six-story mega-condos in the largely residential ward.

John Rice, 42, was William Banks’ administrative aide/driver/chief of staff/right-hand man and was named to replace Banks when Banks retired a year and a half ago.

Rice said he ran the community meetings when the development projects that Banks’ nephew Jim Banks was involved with were discussed. And when the neighbors didn’t want the projects, the uncle killed his nephew’s proposed projects, Rice said.

“Jimmy does a great job — he’s a great zoning attorney,” Rice said. “But if the people went against it, we said ‘No.’ On Belmont, the old Venetian Banquets property, they were going to build one of those massive buildings, 60 units. The people said ‘No,’ so the answer is ‘No.’ The developer came back with a different project: three-flat condos. That got approved.”

But even Rice agrees the Northwest Side ward has enough big condo developments now.

“As far as I’m concerned, we’re done building condos here,” Rice said. “We need commercial restaurants, some shopping. I’m not looking at any more condo development. We’ve had enough. A guy wants to come in and build 30 single-family houses, let’s go, but condos? No. Our streets are filled up.”

Sposato is making his second run for the office of 36th Ward alderman because he says the ward office feels like a club closed to outsiders.

“The 36th Ward is not open — it’s like an exclusive club,” Sposato said. “If you’re an insider you could get whatever you want.”

What really set him off was a call he got from his wife before the last election, when he had a sign up in his yard for a buddy running for state Senate against the incumbent, who was backed by Banks’ organization.

“One of his goons comes by the house one day, he pulls up in the black Cadillac and gives her a hard time about having my friend’s sign up: ‘We don’t want this sign up, We’re not backing this guy. We’re backing the other guy.’ She says, ‘He’s a friend of ours we’re backing.’ She calls me rather upset.”

Rice insisted his precinct captains wouldn’t do that.

Sposato got 24 percent of the vote to Rice’s 48 percent in the Feb. 22 first-round election. The other four candidates endorsed Sposato.

“There needs to be a change in the ward,” said former candidate Sgt. Thomas Motzny. “They’ve had a stranglehold on the ward for 25 years. Nick has no underworld ties. He’s a straightforward guy.”

After news reports a few weeks ago quoting a member of an organized crime family saying organized crime operators have been involved in the 36th Ward Regular Democratic organization over the years, Sposato held a news conference asking the U.S. Attorney to investigate.

Rice filed a slander suit against Sposato, saying it was unfair to tie his name to those reports. A judge has ruled that at least for now Sposato can continue to raise the organized-crime issue.

Rice wasn’t named in those reports. Nor was he implicated when zoning inspector William Wellhausen, a member of the organization, pleaded guilty to bribery charges in 2009.

Rice sees himself as a workhorse alderman, making sure potholes get filled, school additions get built, new field houses go up at the parks. He said he worked six days straight making sure the streets were cleared after the February blizzard.

And he tries to recruit new restaurants to the ward, even though they complain that the city’s bureaucrats turn what takes six months in the suburbs into a two-year ordeal here — something Rice wants to change with a revamp of the city’s building permit process.

Rice was one of eight candidates on next month’s ballot to win Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel’s endorsement.

Emanuel has a long relationship with the 36th Ward organization. Rice drove him around to L stations and grocery stores when Emanuel first ran for Congress.

“When they first came to Chicago, the first people they met with were myself and Committeeman Banks,” Rice said. “We’ve been on board since Day One. He carried the ward. We gave him 6,000 signatures.”

But, curiously, while Emanuel’s New Chicago Committee has given tens of thousands of dollars to the other seven endorsed candidates, it has not yet given a dime to Rice.

“The election is two weeks away, I got my first mail piece going out Friday. I don’t need the money April 6, I need the money before April 6. I’m not a nagging person but this week I’ve been nagging.”

Rice said the committee performed a poll for him, as it has done for other candidates, but it had not shared the results with him.

“We’re helping out each campaign in different ways,” said Emanuel spokeswoman Tarrah Cooper.

Rice and Sposato both grew up in the ward.

Rice is a former zoning inspector who became Banks’ right-hand man. He bristles at the term “driver,” saying his time driving back and fourth to City Council meetings gave him and Banks a chance to do business uninterrupted.

Sposato is a former UPS driver who has been a firefighter for 17 years.

Sposato is endorsed by the police and fire unions. Rice is endorsed by the Chicago Federation of Labor and most of the other unions.

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