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Friday, March 28, 2003 02:20 pm

Politics as usual

The more things change . . .

Tim Davlin ÒIÕm different. IÕm not business as usual.Ó

One way to gauge how very close this mayoral race is would be to look at the daily paper's latest poll. Another would be to look at all the last-minute political maneuvering among City Council members.

Last Tuesday night's vote on an ordinance offering an early-retirement incentive program for city employees was surrounded by all manner of partisan jockeying. The previous week, Democratic council members prevented Republican council members from getting the proposed ordinance out of committee. In the days that followed, Dems took an official position questioning whether early retirement would truly save the city money: The majority of eligible and interested employees (147 of the 175 who returned the city's survey) work for City Water Light & Power--an account separate from the city's troubled corporate fund. Republicans took the position that the ordinance should be adopted simply because any savings are good savings. The unanswerable question is how much it will cost to compensate early retirees for their unused sick leave and vacation time. This amount, whatever it is, would come out of the city's delicately balanced self-insurance fund.

Meanwhile, both sides offered theories--off the record, of course--on how the whole scheme came about: It was supposedly motivated by polls showing Democratic mayoral candidate Tim Davlin with a slight lead over Republican mayoral candidate Tony Libri. Dems said certain city department directors felt sure they would be fired by Davlin and hoped instead to get the option to retire at their current cushy pay scale. Republicans said that Davlin was maliciously gunning for three specific directors, and that Democrats were unfairly plotting to deprive these three directors of their rightful pensions.

Davlin denied targeting anyone. "I have not promised one person a job nor have I agreed to fire anyone," he said. "It's a rumor. And rumors are like garbage: The more you stir 'em, the more they stink."

He did, however, question the need to offer an early-retirement incentive to people whom he says are destined to leave anyway. "There are people that are afraid I'll replace them immediately," he said. According to Davlin, offering them an early-retirement incentive is the same as giving them a bonus.

The 6-4 vote itself was almost anti-climactic, with council members and Mayor Karen Hasara hewing to party lines (Frank McNeil, Chuck Redpath, Cecilia Tumulty, and Tom Selinger voted against the ordinance; Frank Kunz refused to attend the meeting). It was so quiet, in fact, that a dozen or so interested city employees in attendance didn't realize they had won until a few minutes after the vote was taken. They then broke out in delayed-reaction applause.

Within a matter of hours, the jockeying resumed as Democrats explored the possibility of using some technicality to have the vote nullifed. By Wednesday morning, they had given up on that idea, but some still expressed reservations about the ordinance.

"My biggest concern is the self-insurance fund," Redpath said. "Now we're going to have a mandate to pay a lot of money out of that fund."

Another sign of the closeness of this race is the candidates' gravitation toward non-substantive issues. At the conclusion of a recent radio debate, when each candidate was given 30 seconds to sell himself to voters, Davlin used his time to make sure listeners understood that he's not part of the current Republican regime. "I'm different. I'm not business as usual," he said.

"Yeah, he's a fresh new face and I'm part of the old bad guys--that's it in a nutshell," Libri said later, suggesting that Davlin is the one with a big political machine behind him. Not only was Davlin the only Democrat in the primary--he has long-standing ties to politicians in both parties. "This guy has gotten this far only because of his political affiliation, not because of any plan he has put forward."

Davlin says his main selling point is his pledge to run the city like a successful business enterprise. Libri counters that his resume includes more business experience than Davlin's. "He has never managed a large staff, had to meet payroll, had to budget millions of dollars," Libri says.

Libri even counters Davlin's claim to represent change. "Just because I'm a Republican doesn't mean I'm going to do everything the older guard wants me to do," he says. "I've got ideas that go against the grain of the old guard, and I'm not apologizing for it."

There's one thing no one quibbles with at either Libri or Davlin headquarters, and that is the monumental importance of voter turnout.

"I think that'll be the key to who wins this race," says Todd Renfrow, former chair of the Sangamon County Democratic Party and a key volunteer at Davlin headquarters.

"It's going to hinge on who turns out to the polls," says Brian Reardon, Libri's media relations volunteer. "There's a lot of distractions with the war in Iraq, but the best way to support our troops is to go to the polls. That's probably the most patriotic gesture you can make."

County clerk Joe Aiello predicts a 53 percent turnout, which sounds lower than the 61 percent of registered voters who showed up at the polls when Hasara was first elected in 1995. But Aiello says that's just because the motor voter law has increased the number of registered voters, while the number of people who actually exercise their right to vote is relatively unchanged.

"Both groups are really well organized," Aiello says. "They're going to get the vote out. And the weather should be nice."

Both campaigns have small armies of volunteers ready to make sure you do that duty on election day, this Tuesday, April 1. If you're registered with either party and haven't voted by mid-afternoon, expect the traditional call or visit from a campaign runner, often with a car ready to give you a ride to the polls. u

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