Ethical Problems Abound with the Rich Township Endorsement for Park Forest Mayor

Rich Township Democratic Organization endorsement mailer
The endorsement piece from the Rich Township Democratic Organization. (Photo: Gary Kopycinski)

Park Forest, IL-(ENEWSPF)- One person benefited more than anyone else by an endorsement mailer sent by the Rich Township Democratic Organization: the unofficial mayor-elect, Jonathan Vanderbilt. Yet Mr. Vanderbilt, a sitting trustee in Park Forest, told eNews Park Forest via text on Saturday, March 30, 2019, “I did not ask for the endorsement nor did i [sic] accept the endorsement of RTDO.” However, a text message shared with ENEWSPF by Trustee Tiffani Graham from Sunday, March 24 and Monday, March 25, 2019, makes it clear that Mr. Vanderbilt was aware of the existence of the endorsement mailer before it was sent.

Mr. Vanderbilt never publicly decried or attempted to distance himself from the endorsement mailer after it was sent to every residence in Park Forest.

Reached by phone Friday evening, Mr. Vanderbilt declined a phone interview.

Here is the exchange between Trustees Tiffani Graham and Jonathan Vanderbilt from Sunday, March 24 and Monday, March 25, 2019:

RTDO endorsement exchange, Tiffani Graham and Jonathan Vanderbilt
Text exchange between Trustees Tiffani Graham and Jonathan Vanderbilt, supplied by Tiffani Graham.

“Congratulations on the endorsement,” Mr. Vanderbilt wrote.

“Thanks you too,” Ms. Graham responded. “Hey Jon, Where did you get this? I don’t see anything on the site nor did I receive any notices.”

“Maybe Wednesday,” Mr. Vanderbilt replied.

“Who sent it out?” Ms. Graham asked.

According to Ms. Graham, when Mr. Vanderbilt wrote, “Maybe Wednesday,” he was referring to when the mailer might arrive to residents of Park Forest.

All candidates have who run for office in Park Forest signed an agreement with the Committee for Non-Partisan Elections in Park Forest that includes the following: “I understand that I may accept the endorsement and support of a group (other than a political party) providing the group advocates only my candidacy.” Signing the agreement with the non-partisan committee allows candidates to do the following, according to the organization:

  • It makes it convenient for any legally qualified resident to run for public office at little expense and regardless of race, creed, sex, age, or political party.
  • It gives Park Forest voters the opportunity to hear all candidates and ask them questions at open meetings.

In essence, agreeing to the rules set down by the Committee for Non-Partisan Elections and later accepting an endorsement from a political organization allows one to have one’s proverbial cake and eat it. One benefits from the free exposure provided by the Committee for Non-Partisan Elections and later from endorsements from political organizations.

The piece also endorsed Tiffani Graham, Candyce Herron, and Joseph Woods for the office of Village Trustee in Park Forest. The three needed no endorsement as they were the only candidates running for three open seats.

The piece further endorsed Linda E. Marron and Marcus Hampton for Library Trustee in Park Forest. The two were on the ballot running unopposed for two open seats.

Ms. Marron told eNews Park Forest Friday evening she was “livid” when she saw her name on the piece.

The mailer further endorsed candidates for Rich Township High School District 227 and candidates running for Prairie State Community College District 515.

On Election Day, April 2, eNews Park Forest received a phone call from Rich Township Committeeman Calvin Jordan demanding a retraction on a piece published April 1. Mr. Jordan said he did not endorse anyone for mayor in Park Forest nor did he hold any endorsement sessions. When asked specifically about the RTDO endorsement mailer, however, he did not reply. Mr. Jordan also insisted he never asked anyone to run for mayor in Park Forest.

This last statement is directly contradicted by Park Forest Trustee Tiffani Graham, who told eNews Park Forest after the Village Board meeting on Monday, April 1, 2019, that Mr. Jordan did indeed ask her to run for mayor of Park Forest. She declined to run for mayor and ran for re-election as a Village Trustee instead.

After speaking with Mr. Jordan on Election Day, eNews Park Forest once again reached out to Trustee Graham via text, “You confirm that Calvin Jordan asked you to run for mayor? He called me yesterday and was adamant he endorsed no one, held no endorsement sessions. Did that piece really come from the RTDO? He would not answer that directly.”

“Yes,” Ms. Graham responded. “I was asked 1st [sic]. I get the same run around.” She said she was told by the president and vice president of RTDO that they knew nothing about the endorsement and that Mr. Jordan “went rogue and did it himself.”

According to Ms. Graham, she tried to get in touch with Calvin Jordan and he did not return her phone calls until Election Day.

“I asked Jon V where it came from he would not tell me just that I would know by Wednesday,” Ms. Graham said via text. “If you don’t know who did it, how do you know when I will find out?”

For the record, after speaking with Rich Township Committeeman Calvin Jordan on Election Day, I texted the number from which Mr. Jordan called me, “Calvin, Did [sic] you authorize or send the mailer from the RTDO? It went village-wide in Park Forest.”

I received a terse reply two minutes later, “Don’t text this phone this is not calvin [sic].”

text message
Text exchange with phone Mr. Calvin Jordan used to call me on April 2. (Photo: Gary Kopycinski)

It certainly was Mr. Calvin Jordan with whom I spoke at that number at 5:54 p.m. on April 2. I tried texting another number a few minutes later that ostensibly belongs to Mr. Jordan but received no reply.

What About the Realtors’ Mailer?

What about the endorsement from the Realtors’ Association that also favored Mr. Vanderbilt? While this piece did not violate the agreement signed with the non-partisan committee, it certainly raises ethical questions.

According to Mayor John Ostenburg, “My concern about the Realtors’ mailer on behalf of Trustee Vanderbilt is because the Village currently is in a dispute with the Association over our building inspection process. You may recall that the previous mailer sent Village-wide by the Association attacked the Village for our procedures. A sitting Trustee should NOT be accepting such a mailer at this time; it clearly bows to a special interest. A contribution at any other time would not be a matter of concern for me.”

“Now the RTDO endorsement is a different matter at any time when it would be given, for it is a clear violation of Non-Partisan Committee rules,” Mayor Ostenburg said.

Agreed.

This election is not yet certified. Regardless of the outcome, however, troubling ethical questions will linger for a long, long time.