City Treasurer Kurt Summers, first appointed in 2014 and elected in 2015, is weighing a run for mayor of Chicago, going so far to set up a new website — ourchicago.net — to measure interest.
But he hasn’t ruled out running for a second full term as treasurer — and that has prompted some political watchers to pass around a portion of a state statute that suggests if Summers opts out of a mayoral bid, he could be blocked by state law from running for re-election as treasurer in 2019.
According to the little-known section of state law “the clerk and treasurer each shall hold office for a term of 4 years beginning at noon on the third Monday in May following the election and until a successor is elected and qualified. No person, however, shall be elected to the office of city treasurer for 2 terms in succession.”
Summers won one elected term in 2015 after being appointed in 2014.
FormerMayor Richard J. Daley changed the city code in 1975 to allow Treasurer Joseph Bertrand to run for a second term in a row, according to the Tribune archives. As part of Daley’s 1971 ticket, Bertrand, a former shoeshine boy, janitor and basketball star, was the first black man elected to a major citywide office.
The city ordinance now on the books reads: “There shall be no ineligibility of, nor disqualification or limitation upon, any person being elected to successive terms as city treasurer. Any prior law, statute or ordinance to the contrary notwithstanding, no restriction on succession in the office of city treasurer shall be applicable.”
Summers’ team argues home-rule authority is on their side.
But Daley’s ordinance change was improper under the Illinois Constitution, three election attorneys told The Daily Line. Article VII, section (f) stipulates that a home rule unit of government like Chicago “shall have the power to provide for its officers, their manner of selection and terms of office only as approved by referendum or as otherwise authorized by law.”
Despite apparent conflict, several treasurers besides Bertrand have run and won multiple re-elections. Treasurer Cecil Partee was elected in 1983 and 1987. Before she went to jail, Miriam Santos won elections in 1991, 1995 and 1999. Stephanie Neely won two elections in 2007 and 2011 before stepping down in 2014. Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed Summers to succeed her.
“I’m not sure any of those folks were entitled to that under the statute,” one experienced local election attorney said, but “apparently nobody in the past for all these various city treasurers filed an objection… My reading would be that the state law applies and whatever ordinance the city passed was not effective, because the only way that could have been done is via referendum,” the attorney said.
“In theory, somebody would have to file an objection,” Chicago Board of Elections spokesman Jim Allen said, but confirmed the state’s provision of “no consecutive terms for city treasurer” has “actually been on the books for decades.”
”It sounds like a hypothetical and we’re going to avoid commenting on it,” Allen said. “We’ll see what happens with both the filings and any objections. We just advise every candidate — it’s always wise to get together with a seasoned election attorney.”
The Board of Elections is not tasked with investigating whether candidates meet criteria for holding office — that is up to challengers.
“If Kurt Summers files nomination papers and nobody objects, he would probably end up on the ballot, there’s no self-enforcing mechanism,” the election attorney said.
“The bottom line, as I see it, is the ‘it’s legal until we get caught’ approach,” said election attorney Andrew Finko in an email to The Daily Line. “Until someone brings it in front of a Democratic Party-elected judge in the Circuit Court of Cook County to decide, and then take it up to the even-more Democratic Party selected First District Appellate Court. The final stop would be the super-Democrats on the Supreme Court. (Sorry, don’t mean to offend, just being realistic about our court system, and its influences).”
“Although the city can adopt ordinances to change how it handles elections, or other procedures, I’m not certain that the city can disregard the Illinois Municipal Code,” Finko said.
Another legal alternative is the quo warranto writ, a civil procedure. Translated to “by what warrant (or authority)?”, the move challenges an individual’s right to hold an office or governmental privilege. A citizen can send a letter to the state’s attorney or the Illinois attorney general making a case about why he or she believes a person is wrongfully holding office, which could result in a hearing.
Finko has had one of his candidates tossed out because of quo warranto action — a popular school board member in Thornton who was convicted of a felony during his teen years.
Illinois State Board of Elections spokesman Matt Dietrich said its general counsel was examining the issue but said “it looked like something that could end up in the courts.”
Ald. Ameya Pawar (47) is the only prominent Chicago politician openly considering a run for treasurer. But Pawar said he’s awaiting Summers’ final word. Pawar is not running for re-election in his North Side ward.
“Kurt is a friend and I don’t know what decisions he’s making, I know he’s got a lot of options,” Pawar said. “I’m not interested in nudging or elbowing someone out. I just think that there is a tremendous opportunity to use this office to drive meaningful social change, and that’s where I’m at.”
Pawar said he is interested in issues including creating a public bank, refinancing student loans locally, creating a universal basic income program and other measures to reduce income inequality.
“If Kurt wants to be the one to do that, I’ll stand behind him,” Pawar said. “But if he’s not running again, then I’ll take a hard look at it and start putting the pieces together.”
Alex Sims, an advisor to Summers who helped run his 2015 campaign and now has her own firm, APS & Associates, said the conflict between the state law, Constitution and city ordinance was a “moot point,” noting that several treasurers have served multiple terms.
“This ordinance was enacted to allow a black treasurer to serve, the first one to serve in citywide office,” Sims said. “It seems like stirring from a certain group of people.”