MAR 09, 2022
Crowded Water Reclamation District race emerges as insurgent slate looks to take on party picks
From left: Frank Avila, Rick Garcia and Cristina Nonato are running on a slate together for Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Board of Commissioners. Elizabeth Joyce is also running on the slate for a two-year term.
An ousted commissioner of the $1.2 billion agency responsible for treating Cook County’s wastewater is leading an insurgent slate of candidates to reclaim seats on its board this year, setting up a test of the Cook County Democratic Party’s power in down-ballot races.
The nine-member Board of Commissioners for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago serve staggered six-year terms, meaning three seats are up for grabs every election cycle. And this year, the race is more wide-open than ever thanks to a retirement, a promotion and a campaign for higher office.
Eight candidates submitted petitions on Monday to put their names on Cook County ballots for four open seats on the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District board, with another batch of candidates expected to throw into the race as the window for petitions closes next week. Candidates typically time their entries to get their names to appear first or last on voter cards, especially in crowded races.
The vacancies include a special two-year stint to finish out the term of former reclamation district Comm. Debra Shore, who was tapped by President Joe Biden last year to head up the Midwest regional office for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
All nine seats on the board are elected at large, meaning they are not confined to any specific batch of county voters.
Mariyana Spyropoulos, who was first elected to the board in 2010, is the only incumbent in the race as she seeks a third full term in the post. Comm. Barbara McGowan is retiring this year after serving 24 years on the board, and Comm. Josina Morita is stepping away to pursue the seat on the Cook County Board of Commissioners being vacated by retiring Comm. Larry Suffredin (D-13).
More than a dozen would-be candidates swarmed the Cook County Democratic Party’s two-day slating session in December to ask for the party’s endorsement — a major boon in down-ballot races. Party leaders gave an instant blessing to Spyropoulos and voted to endorse Matteson Village Clerk Yumeka Brown, opting to slate her over Anita Hayes, a longtime McGowan deputy who had the retiring commissioner’s backing.
The party also endorsed Crestwood Village Trustee Patricia Theresa Flynn, who came up just short in a crowded 2020 race after running against the Democratic Party slate. And their pick for the two-year vacancy was Daniel Pogorzelski, a longtime aide to Illinois Treasurer Michael Frerichs and Sen. Robert Martwick (D-Chicago).
“I think our slate is balanced and diverse,” Cook County Democratic Party Executive Director Jacob Kaplan told The Daily Line on Tuesday. “Mariyana Spyropoulos is the incumbent, so she comes in with that advantage.”
In Brown, the board would “finally have someone from the south suburbs,” which has not been represented on the body since former Comm. Tim Bradford died in 2018, Kaplan said.
Flynn “has backing from organized labor, and is also from the southwest suburbs, another place we’re lacking representation,” and Pogorzelski is “an incredibly hard worker” who will be the “first Polish American slated for county office” in years, Kaplan said.
In addition to helping pass around signature petitions during the winter, the party will boost the four slated candidates with mailers, social media ads and punch cards — all decisive advantages in a crowded race for an obscure office.
The party went three-for-three in the 2020 Metropolitan Water Reclamation District race, carrying newcomer Hanover Park Village Clerk Eira Corral Sepúlveda to victory and ousting veteran commissioner Frank Avila after Avila fell out of favor with party leaders.
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But this year, Avila is looking to reclaim the seat he held for 18 years. He submitted petitions on Monday to run for the water board again, joining candidates Rick Garci, Cristina Nonato and Elizabeth Joyce as part of a collective slate. The group is betting it can prove it is both more diverse and more experienced than the party-backed slate, according to Frank Avila, Jr., who is Avila’s son, attorney and spokesperson.
“A lot of employees at the water reclamation district have been coming to my father and telling him that the other commissioners do not know what they’re doing,” Avila Jr. told The Daily Line on Tuesday.
Avila, 83, was the only civil engineer on the district’s Board of Commissioners before he was ousted in 2020. He is “the only one with the scientific and technical knowledge” to oversee programs like testing for viruses in wastewater, a process that has come under the spotlight amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Avila Jr. said.
Kaplan retorted that the water reclamation district “is a citizen board — not a board that requires a particular area of expertise.” But he also noted that Spyropoulos carries more than a decade of incumbency experience, Flynn has “dealt with a lot of water issues” as a suburban village trustee and Pogorzelski has a deep history of “volunteering in the environmental movement.”
Brown’s experience is less direct but no less meaningful, she told The Daily Line during last year’s party slating session.
“I’m running to bring my governance experience as president of the Rich Township Democratic Organization, and to become a voice for the Southland region,” Brown said at the time, adding that her son “contracted an environmental waterborne illness that nearly took his life.”
But the younger Avila also blasted Democratic Party leaders for backing three white candidates among its four picks — a skew that drew some grumbles from party officials during December’s slating session. Brown, who is Black, is the only candidate of color on the party’s slate for the water reclamation district board.
“If they were all engineers or scientists or the best in the class in terms of treating wastewater and flooding control, that would be fine,” Avila Jr. said. “But that’s not what we have here.”
Garcia, who is an LGBTQ activist, would fill a void left on the board after Shore’s departure left the group without queer representation, Avila said. And Nonato, a longtime Cook County circuit court clerk who is Filipina American, would maintain an Asian American presence on the board after Morita, who is of Chinese and Japanese descent, moves on. Joyce, an environmentalist and former federal worker, is running for the two-year vacancy.
The candidates approached Avila and asked to run as part of a team with him, Avila Jr. said. Together, they hope to strike a blow against the party writ large.
“To be honest, we don’t want to be on a slate with Boss Preckwinkle and increased taxes and increasing crime,” Avila Jr. said. “The crime and the taxes are pushing people and businesses out of the city.”
Gov. JB Pritzker last year appointed reclamation district staffer Chakena Perry to fill the vacancy left by Shore. As of Tuesday, Perry had not yet filed petitions to run for reelection, but she told The Daily Line that she is mounting a campaign this year for the two-year bid to finish Shore’s term.
“I’ve really enjoyed my job and look forward to continue doing it, which is to say, absolutely I’m running,” Perry said. She said she’s focusing her platform on a promise to boost community engagement to help people and local governments protect against flooding, coupled with expanding procurement to include diverse contractors.
“As a voting rights advocate and someone who enjoys civic engagement, I am approaching this role through that lens,” Perry said. “I don’t think of it as just going to board meetings…there’s work that has to be done between the meetings, and that’s meeting with community members.”
Precious Brady-Davis and Sharon Waller have also mounted campaigns for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District this year but had not yet filed petitions as of Tuesday. Waller told The Daily Line that she plans to file before next week's deadline.
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