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13th Ward finds little alternative to Madigan

Updated: April 23, 2012 11:47AM

Ron Szykowny was sitting on his motorized scooter chatting with his 13th Ward precinct captain outside a home at 68th and Springfield when I drove up on Election Day.

This was one of those unusual precincts where the polling place is in the basement of a house.

I told Szykowny I was there to figure out how Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan was going to do in his re-election bid, and he gave me a gesture as if to indicate I should just look around.

“All you gotta do is walk down the street,” he said.

I’d already looked around and knew he was referring to the Madigan yard signs — at least one to a yard — blanketing the surrounding West Lawn blocks. There were none in evidence for Madigan’s only real opponent, Michele Piszczor.

There’s a saying in politics that signs don’t vote, but they usually help tell the story in a place like the 13th Ward, a longtime Democratic machine stronghold where Madigan has been the committeeman for more than four decades.

The final unofficial vote tally: 9,498 for Madigan; 2,125 for Piszczor.

Szykowny, 78, understands why those results might frustrate some people around Illinois who would like to see Madigan removed from his Speaker’s post but can’t find a way to get at him.

“As the Speaker, he hasn’t done much but get us in deeper in debt,” Szykowny complained to my surprise — dissenting voices being few and far between on Madigan’s home turf.

“But don’t get me wrong,” he hastened to add. “Madigan and his people have done us wonders around here. I’m not saying anybody else would have done any better.”

In the end, Szykowny said, he couldn’t bring himself to vote against Madigan.

“For one reason, it ain’t going to happen,” he said, referring to what he saw as a half-hearted campaign by Piszczor. “She hasn’t made enough waves to make a difference.”

Plus, Szyknowny added, he didn’t want to disappoint his precinct captains, who are always quick to help if he needs an extra garbage pickup or to have the alley baited for rats.

This was no ordinary precinct but the home turf of one of Madigan’s top political workers, Joe Lullo, previously mentioned in a column I wrote in 2000 for his penchant for dressing up as Uncle Sam on Election Day to get out the vote.

Lullo was in full Uncle Sam regalia again this day and had erected a 35-foot inflatable American eagle in the front yard to mark the polling place.

As each voter approached, Lullo greeted them by name, offered a Democratic palm card and asked them to vote for everybody on it, but “especially for Michael J. Madigan.”

Some poll watchers were upset with Lullo’s aggressive tactics, but it wasn’t as if he had to twist any arms, having met with most of these people many times previously in their homes. In the end, he carried the precinct, 384 to 6.

“I’m just kind of going by what they give me, what they tell me to do,” admitted Richie Wozniak, 31, who grew up in the neighborhood and said he likes the fact that the precinct captains come to the house, sit in the backyard and listen to his family’s concerns.

A young Mexican-American woman — Latinos now comprise a majority in Madigan’s home district — told me she had voted for Madigan because, “I think he’s a great person. He cares about the neighbors, and if he can help us.”

Had she ever actually met him, I asked?

No, she said sheepishly.

At another polling place just up the street, 78-year-old Sally Sykes said she had known Madigan more than 40 years.

“I really don’t know what would happen, not only to this neighborhood but this entire city, if not for Mike,” she said.

In the same precinct, Gerry Bedka, a 52-year-old furniture store employee, seemed less certain.

“I’m not totally thrilled with Madigan,” he said, but he made the same analysis as Szykowny. With no serious alternative, it’s better to stick with the organization. “There’s a tit for tat here,” he said.

There’s a tit for tat in Springfield, too, which is only one of several reasons the expectation is that Madigan will stay right where he is.

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