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Incumbents rather run unopposed

Updated: February 6, 2012 9:40AM

Given the chance, most politicians would just as soon run unopposed for election.

That might seem obvious on the one hand and counterintuitive on the other — politicians allergic to real elections.

But it bears stating aloud in light of Wednesday’s strange tale of the political nobody who says he secretly recorded for the FBI an incumbent state senator offering him a state job and cash to drop out of the race.

By the usual benchmarks, the candidacy of Little Village community activist Raul Montes Jr. would seem to pose no danger to the election hopes of state Sen. Steve Landek, who also is the mayor of Bridgeview.

Montes, 36, has never held political office, has raised no campaign donations and, judging by his one-man effort to circulate nominating petitions, has no network of volunteers behind him. He lives with his parents in Little Village and works as a substitute teacher.

In short, other than his obvious energy and a proven knack for identifying issues that garner media attention, Montes doesn’t have a lot of political assets.

Yet Landek has waged a full-bore legal campaign to challenge Montes’ nominating petitions and remove him from the ballot.

And, Montes says, Landek followed up that effort last week by inviting him to a skybox at Toyota Park, owned by the village of Bridgeview, where he says Landek used a carrot-and-stick approach to try to back him out of the race — alternately threatening to dirty him up in the petition challenge while also offering financial inducements.

Neither tactic is considered all that unusual.

I’ve written previously about the cutthroat business of petition gathering and petition challenges overseen by a small cadre of election lawyers who make it their specialty to keep candidates on or off the ballot. It’s a world where incumbents almost always have the upper hand.

But every election is also replete with rumors and allegations about what rewards various candidates have sought — or been offered — in exchange for dropping out.

What’s different here is that Montes brought in the FBI to secretly record his conversation with Landek.

While I’m convinced that much is true, I make no judgment about what transpired during that meeting or whether Landek did anything wrong.

Montes said Landek promised him a job working on his campaign and later with his Senate staff — if he agreed to withdraw from the race. Landek isn’t commenting, but his lawyer, election law specialist Burt Odelson, said Landek understood his legal bounds and offered Montes nothing improper.

Though little known outside Bridgeview, where he has been mayor since 1999, Landek is an important suburban political power.

He’s been the Lyons Township Democratic Committeeman since 1998, and a year ago was selected by party bosses on the Southwest Side and suburbs to replace retiring Sen. Lou Viverito in the General Assembly.

Landek currently represents the 11th Senate District, but legislative redistricting has pushed him into the 12th District, where Montes is his only would-be opponent.

So why would Landek, who can expect to have the entire Democratic establishment behind him, be intent on eliminating a rival who by all appearances stacks up as weak?

That goes back to what I said in the first place: Politicians would prefer never to face an election opponent. If they have an opponent, there’s always a possibility, however remote, that they could lose. And when they do have an opponent, therefore, they’re pretty much obliged to mount a campaign.

Campaigns take time, energy and, probably most important, money. You and I may think of that as the price of democracy, but we wouldn’t make very good politicians.

Montes said Landek remarked on the cost of running a campaign several times during their talk to explain why it was worth his while to strike a deal.

Redistricting also creates uncertainty for incumbents. While Landek has only been in office a year, now he’s faced with running on new turf where Montes is bound to get some traction because of his Hispanic heritage.

On top of all that, officeholders have to take into account the potential risks from an anti-incumbent mood expected this year.

The job of a politician would be so much easier without elections — and FBI wiretaps.

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