John Arena Goes Down in Flames
Farewell to an alderman who brought ruin on himself.
In 2011, the John Arena campaign for a seat in the Chicago City Council was founded in part on the candidate having been a “consistent voice in the community for ten years.” Eight years after his first win at the ballot box, Mr. Arena was unceremoniously ushered to the door by 45th Ward voters in an election loss which could be construed as a cautionary tale about elected officials who sell their soul for a taste of power. Falling far short of the magical fifty-percent mark in his bid to be returned to the Chicago City Council for a third term, in the four-way race for the seat representing the 45th Ward held on February 26, Mr. Arena went down in defeat by an astonishing 2,183 votes. Handed a 14.8-percent loss by the 45th Ward electorate, if Arena bothered to do bare arithmetic, even if voters casting ballots in favor of election rivals Marilyn Morales and Bob Bank had turned out for the ward’s tin-pot dictator, Mr. Arena would have nonetheless been vanquished. Put differently, Mr. Arena was not simply chased out of office, he was shoved off his moral Mount Olympus.
While the only regret among 45th Ward voters opposed to Arena is they were unable to bear the news of his defeat in the flesh on election night, the reason for Arena sustaining such a humiliating loss after only two terms in the City Council may not be shrouded in an impenetrable fog of mystery. Although some residents may be inclined to attribute Arena’s eviction from office wholly to his snake-oil operating over development plans for 5150 North Northwest Highway (5150), many other 45th Ward residents involved in conducting a careful postmortem of the election results found Mr. Arena’s loss was plausibly rooted in the alderman’s difficulty keeping his voluminous mouth shut.
After a relatively unremarkable first term in the City Council, Arena’s fusillade against residents of the 45th Ward began in his second term when he sought to turn the Jefferson Park neighborhood into a Left-wing laboratory experiment. Instead of retching up the entire agonizing episode in detail, the edited highlights involve Mr. Arena unashamedly defying conclusions drawn by a panel of city officials commissioned to study development possibilities for the Upper Third of Milwaukee Avenue to renovate a swath of land at 5150. When residents asserted themselves and challenged his vision to build a Progressive utopia with the construction of a seven-story building slated for low-income residents, Arena branded residents dissenting to his dream a part of a petty, bigoted, grievance-based movement in public statements and on social media. Stung by residents’ counteroffensive to his declaration of war, Mr. Arena spent the remainder of his second term in office willfully disregarding the majority wishes of his constituents by dwelling in a linguistic bunker from which he maligned residents, stoked resentments and ugly passions, and retaliated against opponents to his scheme in the most outrageous manner.
John Arena, according to 45th Ward residents.
Reflecting on reasons for Arena’s loss, three residents of the 45th Ward, all of whom voted against the alderman, shared their perspective of his two terms in office. Describing meetings or public encounters with the alderman, residents said Arena often became so incensed when confronted with contrasts and gaps with his account over the proposed development of 5150, he re-acted with cruelty and vindictiveness.
Recalling the now ill-famed meeting at Branch Community Church in February 2017 to discuss the planned 5150 development, one resident stated:
“At the meeting (Branch Community Church), we knew it was a put on, a total fake gathering. He (Arena) acted as if he wanted everybody to have their say and he would listen. When he faced disapproval or got heckled, it always seemed as if he was ready to viciously attack you if you criticized him or if you called him out if you thought he was lying. He never seemed as if he was willing to own up to his mistakes or accept blame for anything, especially when things went wrong for him.”
Said another 45th Ward resident of Arena:
“As the building issue (5150) got worse and tensions with us (opponents to the plan) got bigger, you couldn’t have a conversation with the guy (Arena). When in good faith we asked Arena to consider alternatives to the height of the building, he acted as if we had no right to second-guess him because he was an alderman. He just has this style about him as if he always wants to get into a down-and-dirty approach to respond to any criticism or resistance to what he wants.”
A third resident added:
“His (Arena’s) tactics were appalling and he always made anyone who disagreed with him as out to get him personally or out to be a wrecker of a great idea for our neighborhood. I don’t think Arena will ever figure out why he lost.”
The creeping resignation to fate and a foul reprisal.
While one can imagine the glacial stare on Arena’s face as he slowly accepted his doom on election night, a perfect encapsulation of Arena’s repugnant disposition for his eight years in the City Council is revealed in his fury with a reminder of his imminent defenestration arriving as his re-election fortunes sputtered. As vote tallies were certifying the 45th Ward strongman would be expelled from office, a resident with a mischievous sense of humor reveling in Jefferson Park’s liberation from Mr. Arena created a meme jeering the alderman’s electoral downfall.
After its circulation among residents sipping on a festive tipple in celebration of the incumbent’s election loss, it reached Arena’s doorstep courtesy of two-time election foe, John Garrido. His political career now resembling flotsam in the wake of a shipwreck, Arena, who one would think could not have possibly caused further damage to his situation, responded in a way which lowered the tone of political and personal discourse to a grade which few could have previously imagined: The failed candidate countered with savage contempt and gutter vitriol.
Illustrating how he relishes the brutal side of politics, in his brass-knuckled response to Mr. Garrido, Arena questioned the police lieutenant’s virility, reminded Mr. Garrido of the election losses inflicted upon him, and mocked the lifelong Jefferson Park resident over the ongoing predicament of municipal pension liabilities. But because John Arena cannot see a belt without hitting below it, he punctuated his uncouth reply to Garrido with a vindictive asperity unbecoming either an elected official or a neighbor: He referred to Mr. Garrido as a “cuck.” A double entendre, “cuck” is applied almost entirely with the intent it be interpreted in its worst sense.
However, it did not take long for Arena, Chicago’s worst elected official, to return to the news, and for all the wrong reasons. As word spread of his scurrilous smear, Arena issued a terse statement expressing truculence over remorse for indulging in his worst instincts.
Referring to his text response to Garrido as “rude,” Arena gracelessly stated:
“I apologize to Mr. Garrido for my rude text message. I should not have let my frustration at his comments get the better of me. This is an emotional time for many of us who have withstood bullying attacks from right wing Republicans for eight years. I hope that we can all rededicate ourselves to partaking in a thoughtful and respectful effort to make this a more inclusive and tolerant community.”
A “sorry-not-sorry” retort, Arena never directly contacted Mr. Garrido, preferring to blame his vindictiveness and wrath on “eight years” of presumed conservative demagoguery. Vintage Arena, instead of acknowledging any wrongdoing for his crudeness, the notoriously thin-skinned alderman donned a mask of contrition, reflexively assailed political opponents, and sought refuge in the hallucination he and his supporters are the object of a nefarious political plot. In John Arena’s world, none who dare cross or challenge him shall escape his whipping.
John Arena lost more than a seat in the Chicago City Council.
In politics, the occasion to offend others, allies or adversaries, can be excruciating and unwelcome; it is also sometimes unavoidable. For John Arena it may be both an art form and a vocation. Unfortunately for Mr. Arena, the loss he incurred on February 26 demands he surrender a treasure for which he has always appeared to lust: Power.
A man who for eight years constantly gave the impression he was weaponizing elected office, John Arena’s departure from the Chicago City Council in May means he will no longer have the power of an officeholder to scandalize 45th Ward residents as bigoted cranks. Once he is dislodged from his elected post, Mr. Arena will not have the paraphernalia of public office to amass a database to surveil or hector city employees with whom he holds conflicting political views. When Mr. Arena is forced from the City Council, he will no longer have the means to harangue residents over a parking spot, harass and daunt female residents favoring his political adversaries or at his disingenuous “Ward Night” meetings, or outshout residents over policy matters in the public square. Now hounded out of office, Mr. Arena will be denied a position in government to use deviant artas an engine to power his Progressive imperatives. Most important, Mr. Arena will not have the advantage of political office to file manifestly false complaints against police officers and firefighters residing in the 45th Ward alleging racism on social media. Effective May, the bully pulpit, the echo chamber of Chicago’s liberal media, and the trove of tools endowed by public office Mr. Arena had at his disposal to defame 45th Ward residents will all vanish from his reach.
But perhaps the biggest loss for Mr. Arena is the forfeiture of support from his Praetorian Guard, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). A powerful labor union which has funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign cash to Arena’s political coffers, the SEIU’s envoy to Arena is Jerry Morrison. Described by one resident as somewhat of an “militant enforcer” for Mr. Arena’s eight years in office, Morrison’s presence online in exchanges with Arena opponents left one resident with this impression:
“When any news on Arena came out and people started talking about the alderman on Facebook, He (Morrison) was right there trashing everybody who disagreed with Arena. It got so bad a lot of residents called him (Morrison) an online Peeping Tom because he trolled so many people on the Internet.”
Explaining the crude language and bluster harnessed by Morrison, one Jefferson Park homeowner recounted the SEIU official constantly lurking about the Web intimidating, harassing, and hurling insults at residents:
“The guy (Morrison) is just unruly. It happened so often I don’t remember the specific time, but Morrison was badgering us, calling everybody dumb if we believed this or that, calling one woman stupid over and over again, and constantly ending his Facebook posts with ‘GFY.’ Many of us residents have long thought both guys (Arena and Morrison) organized a huge amount of totally phony social media accounts to bully or slur residents or, on the other hand, promote Arena as a great public servant.”
Recollecting numerous online encounters with Morrison, and referring to the SEIU official as a “political hit-man,” one resident said:
“I don’t know what this guy (Morrison) really does for the SEIU, but he can’t be much help to members or the president with all the time he spent slandering us. He was like an attack machine delivering propaganda and pummeling us online. If we (45th Ward residents opposed to Arena) posted even just one criticism of Arena, Morrison would stick his head out of the sewer, start up with the non-stop name calling, running people down, and a lot of times directing profane comments at us.”
John Arena disqualified himself from representing the 45th Ward.
45th Ward residents have much to look forward to with optimism. His election loss an utter embarrassment, Mr. Arena’s banishment from office is not just an event worth celebrating, but an immense victory for the neighborhood. Having spent the last eight years trekking through the wilderness and enduring Mr. Arena’s blithe abuse, taunts, and insults, for residents of Jefferson Park, John Arena’s defeat at the polls put a perfect period on a difficult chapter in the history of the 45th Ward. A man who paid the highest penalty at the ballot box for his refusal to prioritize the will of his constituents, Mr. Arena consistently demonstrated his view of public service was his personal political interests prevailing over principle, decency, exemplary behavior, and integrity. When an elected official bends rules or plows right through them, they surrender the authority and credibility of office. Discouraged by Arena’s repeated betrayals, fabrications, and divisive stewardship, 45th Ward residents lost faith in Arena, pursued him in court, and eventually swept him out of the City Council.
Though some of his supporters may desire to see the 45th Ward adorned with monuments erected in Mr. Arena’s name, none will ever be raised in his honor. John Arena’s lasting legacy as alderman of the 45th Ward will be seriously disrupting the harmony in a thriving northwest side neighborhood, painting a glum portrait of a neighborhood filled with bigots, and transforming the 45th Ward into a deeply-divided partisan warzone.
John Arena entered office in 2011 posing as a hero running into a house on fire. He leaves office in 2019 after setting the 45th Ward ablaze.
[Nadig Newspapers] [cdobs.com] [Chicago Tribune] [Photo courtesy Chicago Sun Times]