A Cook County Circuit Court judge upheld an objection to Rev. Michael Stinson’s election petition today and ordered the pastor off the ballot in the 28th Ward aldermanic race, citing a 2-year-old Illinois Supreme Court ruling that makes candidates ineligible for office if they owe the city money.
In a rare move, Circuit Court Judge Robert Bertucci overturned a previous Chicago Board of Elections decision, saying the panel was “clearly erroneous” when it shot down an objection filed by a staffer to newly appointed alderman – and Stinson competitor – Jason Ervin.
The objection claimed that Stinson should be removed from the ballot because of an outstanding parking ticket debt to the city of Chicago.
Stinson said he plans to appeal.
“This is really the old style of politics,” said Stinson, 44, pastor of the First General Assembly Church in Englewood. “Instead of debating the issues … knock ‘em off the ballot, and then we don’t have to debate ‘em.”
Friday’s ruling is a clear victory for Ervin, who is vying for a full four-year term on Feb. 22. The objection– which was filed by one of his workers, 28th Ward Community Service Coordinator Eileen Jackson – succeeded in removing one of Ervin’s competitors from the race, increasing the odds that Ervin will receive the 51 percent of the vote needed to avoid a run-off election.
That leaves three candidates on next month’s ballot – in the 28th Ward: Ervin, the village manager of Maywood and longtime aide to former Ald. Ed Smith; Carmelita Earls, commander of operations for the Chicago Fire Department’s Training Academy; and bar manager William Siegmund.
Ervin said earlier this month that he was aware of Jackson’s objection but that it was not his place to comment on it. Jackson has not responded to requests for comment.
Would-be politicians frequently challenge one another’s election petitions as a way of knocking competitors off the ballot. For years, candidates have taken aim at the validity of one another’s petition signatures and residency claims, and competitors who are unfamiliar with the election process or can’t afford a lawyer tend to be easily knocked off.
But this election is the first in which a candidate’s alleged debts may also be used against them. Until 2008, candidates who were found to have outstanding debts to the city could cement a place on the ballot, as long as they paid their debts before taking office, said Stinson’s attorney, Adam Lasker.
An Illinois Supreme Court ruling, Cinkus v. Village of Stickney Municipal Officers Electoral Board, changed that. Since that quiet-but-important ruling, candidates must be free and clear of these debts when they sign their candidacy paperwork.
Jackson filed numerous objections against Stinson, but the one that stuck was a “Cinkus” claim alleging that the pastor owed more than $600 in parking tickets, dating back to at least 2003. Stinson has denied having any outstanding tickets and has said he didn’t own a car at the time the tickets were allegedly issued.
Earlier this month, a hearing officer overseeing Stinson’s case found that the candidate likely did have outstanding tickets. However, the Board of Elections voted against the hearing officer’s findings, stating that the first-time candidate should be allowed to stay on the ballot because there was no proof Stinson had been notified about those tickets.
Jackson appealed, and Bertucci on Friday overturned the panel’s decision, in essence determining that even if Stinson was unaware of the debt, its existence still makes him ineligible for office.
“That’s the fact of the case, and what the law dictates,” the judge said.
Lasker said the decision could create a “dangerous precedent” in which incumbent politicians could fabricate debts to get their opponents kicked off the ballot – especially in smaller suburban communities.
“I see all kinds of funny things happening in these electoral board cases in the suburbs,” he said.
Ballots for the 28th Ward race have not yet been printed, said James Scanlon, Board of Elections general counsel, so Stinson’s name will not appear.