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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

Florida a Quick Knockout Next to Chicago Heights

November 29, 2000|MIKE DOWNEY

When he went to bed on election night, T.J. Somer's bid to become mayor was supposed to be over. But neither he nor the 1,000 or so supporters who filled a local banquet hall to follow the voting results knew whether he'd won or lost.

"One count had us down by three votes. Another by 11 votes. A third one had us winning," Somer says. "And at the same time, the news was reporting that we'd won.

"It was almost like an out-of-body experience."

Same thing for Sam Ciambrone.

The way he remembers it, with a single precinct remaining to be counted, Ciambrone, the incumbent, was considerably behind. But then that final precinct did report in--and put the mayor ahead.

"I was down by 200," Ciambrone says, "and then I won by one."

The final score: Ciambrone 4,360, Somer 4,359.

Or that's how it stood, while--yes, you guessed it--the runner-up demanded a recount. Much the same way virtually defeated Vice President Gore still hasn't waved a white flag before Almost President Bush.

Ultimately, however, on Thanksgiving Eve, with reluctance because he still believed he'd won, T.J. Somer conceded defeat.

Nineteen months after the election.

That's correct--months.

*

So, perhaps you've been wondering of late how long a ballot recount could drag on--in courts, through appeals, if a candidate believes in his heart of hearts that he mustn't surrender?

You might be intrigued by/amused by/horrified by what's just occurred in Chicago Heights, Ill.

Located at the far southern end of Cook County, with a population of approximately 33,000, Chicago Heights is hometown to many diverse individuals, among them the Pulitzer Prize-winning political columnist David Broder of the Washington Post and a Pulitzer-loser from the Los Angeles Times who just wrote this paragraph.

And if you think you've seen hardball politics played in D.C. or L.A., you should know that Chicago Heights can play with anybody. Just check with the former mayor, Chuck Panici, as soon as he gets out of a Minnesota prison, where he's serving a 10-year sentence for corruption while in office.

Cook County is a political hotbed, even in the suburbs. Running for office there isn't for the fainthearted.

Thomas "T.J." Somer, 47, has long been active politically. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress in his district against Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), scion of a gentleman of national repute.

No expressed political affiliation is required in municipal elections, but when he chose to try to unseat Angelo "Sam" Ciambrone as mayor, Somer, a township supervisor, understood where everybody stood. "I think it's pretty clear here that I'm the Republican and he's the Democrat," Somer said this week by phone from his office.

The election was held in April 1999. And after considerable confusion, Ciambrone claimed victory--by a vote.

But it didn't end there. The results were challenged. Ballot boxes were guarded. Charges flew that voters were improperly registered, that absentee votes hadn't been counted, even that ballots had chads--long before that became a household word.

"Well, as you know," Somer says, facetiously, "Chicago Heights has always been a trend-setter."

Ciambrone was sworn in for a second term. Somer went to court. A judge recused himself because of suspected tampering by a state senator. (This is Cook County, remember.) A new judge needed time so she could get up to speed.

Somer appealed again for a new election. The judge took three months, then denied it. Weeks later, she ruled absentee ballots not counted in the original election could be tallied. The mayor reportedly gained 10 more votes.

Last week, $100,000 in legal bills lighter, Somer surrendered. Further appeals might not only cost a fortune, they could take so long, the mayor's term might be nearer the end than the beginning.

*

There is no great animus here. On the contrary, Ciambrone says he and his opponent are "in agreement on 90% of the issues" and that if he'd lost by a vote, he'd have contested the election himself.

The loser says the system is flawed. The winner says the system works. Sound familiar?

"Florida's recount must have fascinated you there," the mayor of the great city of Chicago Heights is told on the phone.

"To tell you the truth," he says, "it was so familiar to me, I went to sleep."

*

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to: Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: mike.downey@latimes.com

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