Pappas photographed prior to this year's Democratic primary election. She won her sixth term as Cook County treasurer with 82 percent of the vote. Credit: Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Reader‘s archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every day in Archive Dive, we’ll dig through and bring up some finds.

In 1992 Reader contributor [Sarah] Bryan Miller asked a simple question: “What does Maria Pappas want?” In her search for the answer Miller discovered that the then-Cook County commissioner and present-day Cook County treasurer really just seemed to want to solve problems.

“Cook County is a whorehouse,” Pappas tells Miller in the opening line of the piece. “But I’m one of the most disgustingly tenacious people you’ll ever meet.” The anti-sex-worker sentiment aside, Pappas’s story is one that’s worth revisiting as a movement to put more women into elected office sweeps the nation.

Pappas ran for a seat on the board at a time when Cook County government was still synonymous with patronage, corruption, and inefficiency. In other words, a time not so different from now. She’d grown up in a Greek family in West Virginia, earned a PhD in psychology from Loyola, and got her JD at IIT’s Chicago-Kent College of Law. She was charismatic and fun and always worked with people in one capacity or another. She had a counseling practice and a law practice and was a certified graphoanalyst—she helped attorneys pick juries based on people’s handwriting. At various times she’d worked in Holland, Greece, and Israel, and she taught psychology and counseling at Governors State University for nearly a decade. Though Pappas was a policy wonk, and interested in public service, Miller writes that her foray into politics at 40 was unplanned:

She did a lot of pro bono work, much of it in the black community, and built up a network of friends. But Pappas says she was completely apolitical until quite recently—she didn’t even know who Mike Madigan and George Dunne were. Then Alderman Rickey Hendon suggested she run for county board. “He said, ‘This is perfect for you. This involves public-policy-making, jails, and hospitals. It’s just right up your alley.’ I thought about it, and I said, ‘I’m game.’ And I literally threw my name in the hat. I called everyone I knew—all the people I had worked with. I called Altgeld Gardens, I called people from Governors, I called Koreans, Mexicans, Greeks—anybody that I had worked with over the last 20 years. I called them and said, ‘Don’t forget to vote!’ They all said, ‘What are you running for?’ ‘I’m running for county commissioner.’ ‘Well, what’s that?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m not really sure, but it sounds like fun.'”

Once she was elected, Pappas put her people skills—and her skills in handwriting analysis—to work, quickly earning a reputation for clashing with then-Cook County Board president Richard J. Phelan. The first time she saw all the commissioners’ signatures she made some conclusions:

” . . . I did my rough-shot analysis. I found that there was a lot of showmanship there—not to be specific about who, but there was some real grandiosity there—and some real question on my part about whether people would be functioning on the board for themselves or for the sake of the common good. I sized them up right away. I looked at Stroger’s signature—I saw the loyalty in his writing, and I was convinced he was right for finance chairman.” What did she get out of Phelan’s signature? She pauses for a long moment, looking me in the eye, then responds: “Calvin Coolidge always said, ‘I never got in trouble for anything I didn’t say.'” She laughs.

Much of Miller’s profile is composed of extensive and wacky quotes from Pappas herself and from her friends, enemies, and allies in local government and politics. Even among those who didn’t hide their distaste for her brash, confrontational style she had a reputation as an intelligent person committed to her beliefs. One of Pappas’s chief concerns as she took office was to wage war on what she called “pinstripe patronage”—a mutation of the old ways of Chicago’s political machine. 

“All you have to do is go to the County Building on election day. You couldn’t find a county employee anywhere—they’re all working a precinct. You have patronage, and then you’ve got pinstripe patronage, which is all these bond counselors and contractors and construction persons who contribute heavily to campaigns. Regular patronage is: work as precinct captain equals a job in the forest preserve. Pinstripe patronage is: contribute to me, and I’ll throw you a no-bid contract. Pinstripe patronage is all the change orders in contracts, all the bond counseling—and $13 million of consultants this year. Come on. How much can a consultant tell you that you don’t already know?

“We are looking at a situation where being elected means having the money to buy television time. George Dunne used to raise maybe $80,000. Now we have people raising $3 million, $4 million to win a county-wide office because they’re buying television time. Who ends up paying for that television time? The taxpayer. Because the construction projects continue, the consulting contracts continue, the building continues, the change orders continue, the patronage continues—and it just gets bigger and bigger. And the same people make the donations that pay for the candidate to be on TV.”

In her two terms as a county commissioner Pappas was an anti-tax warrior, dedicated to bringing more media attention to the workings of this local government unit operating in the shadow of City Hall. She crusaded against inefficiency even to the extent of supporting privatizing county health services and the jail. Ultimately, she set her sights on the Cook County Treasurer’s Office in 1998, then a place of secret payrolls and vast archives or disorganized paperwork. She’s only been the source of a little bit of scandal, by Cook County’s standards anyway. Perhaps the key to her staying power has been the deft manipulation of the obscure nature of county government and a reliable donor network. Or, as this profile might suggest, perhaps she’s just good at what she does.

Then two years into her first term as an elected official, Pappas told Miller, proudly:

“I have stopped some of the stealing. I’ve stopped a lot of cost overruns and no-bid contracts. I’ve made enough fuss about them that they don’t even consider doing it anymore. When they call me a bitch or a nut, I know the hand grenade has hit the enemy. They wouldn’t be going to all this trouble about me, beating up on me, getting paranoid about me, if I were not having some effect. I don’t have to win the vote to win the battle. As long as I get my ideas out, I’ve won.”

But this observation, from another commissioner, somehow rings more true: “Maria’s a survivor. Say you were lost in the woods. Most people would die of starvation. Maria would start a lumber business.”

Pappas was a majorette as a schoolgirl in small-town West Virginia. She continued to put her baton-twirling skills on display as an elected official making appearances at Chicago's various civic functions. Here she is at the 2001 Columbus Day Parade.
Pappas was a majorette as a schoolgirl in small-town West Virginia. She continued to put her baton-twirling skills on display as an elected official making appearances at Chicago’s various civic functions. Here she is at the 2001 Columbus Day Parade.Credit: Al Podgorski/Sun-Times