Ald. La Spata 'encouraged' by slim margin in 1st Ward — but casts wary eye to ballots trickling in by mail

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Freshman Ald. Daniel La Spata (1st) picked up a slim majority in his reelection bid on Monday, potentially allowing him to avoid an April runoff against a man whose last name was once a household word in Chicago.

La Spata had 50.1% of the vote after the latest batch of mail-in ballots was tallied, putting him just 12 votes over the minimum needed to avoid a runoff against challenger Sam Royko.

It was the latest twist in a City Council race that has already seen its share of drama, and the incumbent was tempering his excitement with the knowledge that even though it’s a week after Election Day, the race remains far from over.

La Spata, a Democratic socialist, finished first last week, but he fell short of a majority at the time with just 49.22% of the votes tallied by Tuesday. Royko — the son of famed newspaper columnist Mike Royko — came in second in the four-way contest. If no candidate wins a majority, the top two face off in the April 4 runoff.


But any mail-in ballots postmarked by Feb. 28 will be counted as long as they are received by March 14, meaning La Spata must hold his new victory margin over the next eight days.

"I’m feeling encouraged by the ward’s support but saving ‘confident’ till the last vote is counted," La Spata said in a text message to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Summing it up in a tweet, he dubbed it "a mail-biter."

Sam Royko declined to say whether he expected any outstanding mail ballots to push La Spata back into a runoff. But his campaign offered a simple reaction to the latest tally.

"Votes are still being counted," said Aviva Bowen, the challenger’s spokeswoman.

Joshua Kaufman, La Spata’s campaign manager, agreed.

"As I just said to our team, this doesn’t change anything," Kaufman said in his own text to the Sun-Times. "We’re obviously hoping to win outright, but we’re full steam ahead to a runoff.

"Very few people predicted we would even have a chance of avoiding a runoff with all the money spent against us in this race. This goes to show what our relentless volunteers and organizers understood from the start, that every single vote matters."

And while they might not all be returned, 1,791 requested mail ballots could still be returned from the ward — which includes parts of the Logan Square, West Town and Wicker Park neighborhoods.

"We’re excited!" said Chris Ridgeway, La Spata’s communications director, in a statement. "Feeling confident, but of course know we will need to wait until all the votes are in. It’s possible for another batch to trend downwards, for instance. But the trend for every rolling update has been us progressing higher."

From the start, the race was considered one of this year’s marquee City Council contests.

La Spata, 42, faced Sam Royko, 35, a lawyer; Stephen "Andy" Schneider, 43, a magazine editor and publisher; and former Ald. Proco "Joe" Moreno, 50.

Royko’s late father made a career of skewering Chicago politicians in print at the Chicago Daily News, Sun-Times and Tribune.

And Moreno was trying to make a comeback four years after La Spata ousted him amid Moreno’s alcohol-fueled implosion, which included a drunken crash in the Gold Coast. The former alderperson credited two years of counseling in helping him get his life back on track.

But Moreno fell far short in his bid to get his Council seat back.

The latest tally Monday put La Spata in the lead with 50.1%, Royko in second place with 23.46%, Schneider third with 19.63% and Moreno last with 6.82%.

No matter what ultimately happens in the 1st Ward, runoffs are expected in at least 13 other wards — the South Side’s 4th, 5th, 6th, 10th, 11th and 21st; the West Side’s 24th; the Northwest Side’s 30th, 36th and 45th; and the North Side’s 43rd, 46th and 48th wards.

In the West Side’s 29th Ward, Ald. Chris Taliaferro was holding his slim majority, escaping a runoff against challenger CB Johnson by a mere 35 votes after Monday’s mail votes were counted.