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Ex-aldermen out of prison, on ballot

`In Chicago, you can get a second chance': Four convicted of corruption run to reclaim seats on the City Council.

February 17, 2007|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — His arms stuffed with campaign signs and brochures, Ambrosio Medrano spent a recent evening knocking on neighborhood doors and telling voters why he deserves a seat on the City Council in this month's election.

He'd take care of cracked sidewalks, he said, and improve trash pickup. "Besides," Medrano told one voter while standing on the front stoop, "I was an alderman here before and I did a very good job representing the people."

But Medrano skipped over the reason he left politics in 1996: He pleaded guilty to extortion and taking bribes while in office, and served 21 months in federal prison. Prosecutors said he used some of the $31,000 in bribes to build an addition to his home in the west-side neighborhood of Pilsen.

"What? I made a mistake. I paid the price," said Medrano, 53. "In Chicago, you can get a second chance."

The field for the Feb. 27 council race has an only-in-Chicago feel: Medrano is one of four candidates who are trying to reclaim seats after serving time on corruption convictions.

Three of the men -- Medrano, Virgil Jones, 57, and Percy Giles, 55 -- were busted in the sweeping federal Operation Silver Shovel in the 1990s. Separately, Wallace Davis Jr., a 55-year-old restaurant owner, was convicted in the 1980s of extortion and taking bribes as an alderman.

Their campaigns have sparked a statewide conflict over the rights of ex-convicts.

Medrano's and Jones' bids to return to positions at City Hall, which come with annual paychecks of more than $98,000, are being challenged in court. The state Supreme Court is reviewing briefs filed by both men and their opponents, and is expected to issue a decision before the Feb. 27 election.

Illinois law says a felon may not hold municipal office. But the state constitution allows people with a criminal past to hold a state job -- including governor and attorney general -- once their sentence has been served and parole is complete.

Both sides, as well as local election officials, hope the ruling will decide whether the state constitutional right of a felon to be a state public servant extends to city jobs.

The Legislature is weighing in, too: Rep. John Fritchey, a Democrat who represents part of Chicago, has introduced a bill to bar former elected officials convicted of crimes related to their public office from seeking any elected position -- local or state.

"These are people who sold their office," said Clint Krislov, a Chicago attorney for a resident suing to block Jones from the ballot. "Why should the law give them the chance to do it again?"

Medrano's response when told of such criticism: "Haven't you ever heard of turning over a new leaf? Finding redemption? Learning from your mistakes?"

At least one Chicago City Council candidate said being a felon can actually help a local candidate.

Daryl Jones, a prosecutor with the Cook County state's attorney's office, is running for the seat in the 37th Ward on Chicago's west side. So is Giles.

In 1999, voters reelected Giles as their alderman. Around that time, he had been indicted for, among other crimes, bribery and racketeering. (Giles stepped down later that year when a jury found him guilty.)

"There are a lot of people who either have served time in prison or have a family member who's been convicted of a crime," said Jones, 29. "How can you criticize a candidate for going to prison, if you'll alienate the voters at the same time?"

In a city with more FBI corruption investigation units than any other -- and in a state where racketeering cases long have been part of the political landscape -- facing federal charges has sometimes seemed an occupational hazard.

Dozens of city employees and members of Mayor Richard M. Daley's administration have been arrested in recent years. In January, Alderwoman Arenda Troutman was charged with taking a $5,000 bribe in exchange for helping a real estate developer win a project in her South Side community.

Many Chicagoans have resigned themselves to a government greased by graft, in the same way they wearily accept that the Cubs can't escape a decades-old curse or that colorfully named mobsters are treated like local celebrities.

But the number of politicos seeking forgiveness at the polls -- and the chance to get back on the city payroll -- is seen as particularly audacious, even by Chicago standards.

"I've been telling everyone it's like Marion Barry has come to the Midwest," Fritchey said.

The 25th Ward, just southwest of downtown, is dominated by working-class neighborhoods where city workers live side-by-side with growing pockets of wealthy professionals. The University of Illinois at Chicago campus is here, as are clusters of Italian restaurants and cozy tea shops in Chinatown.

Medrano was raised here and, since 1967, has lived in the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Pilsen.

The son of Mexican migrant workers, he got his first taste of politics in his 20s when he began volunteering in local aldermanic races and worked on Daley's successful mayoral campaign in 1989.

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