By Dan Haley
In the closing days of the election campaign for a new Oak Park village president, all the worst instincts of the Village Manager Association (VMA) came into view. It wasn't pretty. It wasn't fair. It wasn't effective.
And so before I go forward to celebrate the powerful, decisive victory of Anan Abu-Taleb I need to step back and do some upbraiding in hopes that the leaders of the VMA will do some serious thinking about the campaign they just waged. And here I'd largely separate — oddly but true I think — John Hedges, the VMA candidate from the campaign itself. Hedges was, on paper, a better candidate than the campaign provided to him by the VMA.
This was a VMA campaign that pivoted from confidence to highly defensive as it became obvious sometime in early March that Abu-Taleb was charismatic, a quick learner, a dogged campaigner, and someone who had built a sleek and modern campaign apparatus that would be well-funded, and we'll soon see just the degree to which it was self-funded by the candidate.
Accustomed to coronations of its chosen presidential picks — though the VMA has now lost two of the past three elections for village president as David Pope ran as an independent eight years ago — the insular leaders of the VMA turned hard negative on Abu-Taleb as lawn signs for Anan multiplied, his debate performances became fairly riveting and the buzz grew in town that Hedges was beatable.
Specifically, the VMA latched onto two issues its leaders thought could inflict damage on Abu-Taleb. They were wrong on both because the VMA badly underestimated the frustration level of voters toward the status quo in town.
The attempted take down on Abu-Taleb for the pardon issued to him by Gov. Rod Blagojevich for his 2004 conviction on a tax fraud charge backfired completely. Jon Hale, a respected former VMA-elected trustee, was the thug in a One View he penned for the Journal and in subsequent attack comments he posted to our website. He based his unsubstantiated accusations of pay-to-play on a poorly reported 2009 story from the Sun-Times at the time of the pardon. In that piece, a Sun-Times reporter gathered the usual suspects to tsk-tsk at Illinois' brutally corrupt politics using Abu-Taleb's pardon as the current manifestation. Trouble is, there was no evidence then or now that either Abu-Taleb or his lawyers did anything wrong.
Hale needs to do some soul-searching over his role in this election-week attack.
The VMA's more legitimate argument was over the liquor license held by Abu-Taleb's family for Maya del Sol. It presents some legal challenges that are going to have to be addressed. Voters clearly did not see those issues as reflecting poorly on Abu-Taleb or as any sort of barrier to election. The VMA, and former village attorney Ray Heise, should have eased up sooner.
By the final days of the campaign, a very tight group of VMA stalwarts were foaming on social media over a robo-call for Anan made by Secretary of State Jesse White, everybody's favorite grandpa/tumbler. They were sputtering over unproven allegations that Abu-Taleb was giving free desserts at Maya to people who took a lawn sign. (Note to diners: If you've never been given a free drink, dessert or appetizer at Maya you're in the minority.) Notable by their presence in this sad little echo chamber were trustees Ray Johnson and Colette Lueck. They've got some explaining to do.
In today's Viewpoints section we have a One View from trustees Bob Tucker and Adam Salzman that reflects exactly the right tone of congratulations to Abu-Taleb and a clear recognition that voters demanded change in this election.
VMA leaders can either offer up their respects and their cooperation right now or they can start preparing for an intense election for village trustee seats two years hence. Clearly the VMA is not unbeatable. And on this Wednesday, a week out from the election, it is not particularly admirable either.