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Aldertrack Traces Ward Races and Follows the 2015 Campaign Money

By Ted Cox | December 8, 2014 5:38am
 Jimm Dispensa and Mike Fourcher discuss their Aldertrack project in the offices of Rivet News Radio.
Jimm Dispensa and Mike Fourcher discuss their Aldertrack project in the offices of Rivet News Radio.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

WEST LOOP — The "hobby" of two city political junkies just might be the best source of inside information on the upcoming 2015 municipal elections.

Aldertrack, a website created by Jimm Dispensa and Mike Fourcher, takes the inquisitive statistical analysis of a baseball sabermetrician and applies it to Chicago politics.

"From my perspective, local politics is at least as interesting as sports," Dispensa said. "I think it's way more interesting myself."

Dispensa digs in on readily available data — such as the objections filed with the Board of Election Commissioners over candidate petitions and campaign funding reported to the state — and sets out, he said, to "organize it, coalesce it and put it into a form people can quickly get through."

 Aldertrack's Racing Form for the 2015 municipal election includes the new ward maps and playful nods to notorious Aldermen Tom Keane, "Bathhouse" John Coughlin and Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna.
Aldertrack's Racing Form for the 2015 municipal election includes the new ward maps and playful nods to notorious Aldermen Tom Keane, "Bathhouse" John Coughlin and Michael "Hinky Dink" Kenna.
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DNAinfo/Ted Cox

In that, Aldertrack serves a bigger, better purpose for Chicago voters than the media on some days — and in many cases informs those very same reporters.

"We supply content for a specific group," Fourcher said. "I think of ourselves as a hobby vertical news service."

It began during the 2007 city election cycle when Dispensa decided it would make good subject matter for a first foray into the nascent blogosphere.

"I really started it just so I could get familiar with what a blog was," he said in the offices of Rivet News Radio, where Fourcher manages partnerships with other news organizations and businesses. "And it just became this project."

Fourcher was an early fan and jumped onboard before the next city election cycle came around in 2011, saying, "If you're gonna do all this work, we should probably charge money for that."

They hooked on with the Chicago News Cooperative, which had a good, short run of a few years as an independent news agency also supplying content to The New York Times. They began the Early & Often column that eventually morphed into the Sun-Times politics blog after that paper bought up what the news co-op had left when it closed shop in 2012.

"We had trouble figuring out how to make it into a longer-term product," Fourcher said.

Yet, with the 2015 municipal elections approaching, Aldertrack relaunched in August, as a website and a daily email update, as well as a Daily Racing Form-style campaign tout sheet. They've sold 350 of those in print form (now out in a second edition online), and have built up a readership of 3,800 subscribers to the daily emails.

Even so, it remains an avocation, not yet a vocation.

"I think that for both of us, this is like a nighttime gig," Fourcher said. "This is not our jobs, and we get to experiment and do a lot of goofy things. ... We have nothing to lose."

"I get a pass every four years to just come home from work and go into my office for five, six hours a night to pull this together," Dispensa said. Otherwise, the "straight gig" for the Bridgeport resident is managing demographics and space planning for Chicago Public Schools.

Fourcher, who lives in Lincoln Square after growing up in Lincoln Park and Hyde Park, said he follows up on Dispensa's work the night before by getting up in the morning and turning it into the daily email before he fixes breakfast for the kids and gets them off to school. Ramsin Canon also helps out on some days writing the newsletter.

Much of it's free online and in the email, which also serves as an aggregator, drawing on other city news sources; there was even a free webinar they ran last week on the process of challenging election petitions. But not all of it's pro bono.

"There are groups of people who are willing to pay a lot of money for expertise," Fourcher said. "What we have been able to do thus far is create a product that a lot of people are able to use."

They do sell the more involved analysis, such as a study of city election lawyers, including who handles the most cases of challenging petitions and how those challenges have fared.

Somewhat surprisingly, they found that even though there were 244 candidates who originally registered for aldermanic races in 2007, and 337 in the transitional 2011 campaign, the percentage of those knocked off the ballot held steady at about 28 percent or 29 percent.

Now they're tracking how the challenges go with the 252 candidates who registered to run in February.

Those little nuggets they passed out free on this week's webinar, but the complete "Petitions Objections Analysis" report will set you back $99.

"Information is power," reads a quote from former Ald. Tom Keane on the cover of the campaign tout sheet. "And you're not getting any."

They're out to change that, but would they ever be interested in selling that information by working on an actual campaign?

"We'd be interested," Dispensa said.

"I'd be interested," Fourcher added, as he's previously worked on city campaigns. "But there's a lot of people who do this sort of analysis."

So for now they track the data and compile the reports and put it out, pretty much, for the Chicago electorate. They're tracking the Election Board challenges now, but figure to dig into campaign financing and expenditures in the weeks ahead leading up to the Feb. 24 election.

"There's more and more data available all the time," Fourcher said, and they're using it to follow, for instance, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel puts the estimated $9 million he has on hand for his own re-election race and in the Chicago Forward Super PAC he's put together to back agreeable aldermanic candidates.

Fourcher emphasized how Aldertrack remains a work in progress eager to give the voters the information they want, adding, "If people have ideas, tell us."

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