Cook County clerk David Orr's reform proposals have been irritating mayors for 35 years.
Cook County clerk David Orr's reform proposals have been irritating mayors for 35 years. Credit: Rich Hein/Sun-Times Media

In honor of his 35th year as an elected official, Cook County clerk David Orr did what he does best: he irritated the hell out of a powerful mayor.

In this case, the mayor was Rahm Emanuel, though in the past it’s been Jane Byrne or Richard M. Daley.

Orr irked the mayor and his aides by daring to propose a reform to tax increment financing—that nearly $500 million-a-year slush fund that mayors love even more than I love the Bulls.

Speaking of which, is it too much to ask that some Bull, any Bull, guard the Wizards’ Nene once in awhile? Please?

To understand the context of Orr’s latest TIF proposal, you have to go back to 1979, when the clerk began his political career.

That was during the administration of Mayor Michael Bilandic, who had been ushered into office by City Council powerhouses Ed Burke and Ed Vrdolyak. The white aldermen were determined to keep an African-American, Wilson Frost, from being selected to fill the vacancy created when Mayor Richard J. Daley died in office.

Just another example of the way our city often embraces racial harmony.

At the time, Orr was a 35-year-old history professor at Mundelein College who decided to lead the independent charge against the 49th Ward Democratic Organization, headed by Neil Hartigan, the former lieutenant governor.

The incumbent alderman was stepping down, so Hartigan decided to slate a Loyola University psychology professor named Homer Johnson to run against Orr.

Apparently, Hartigan wanted to prove that the machine had eggheads too.

“That campaign was very tough,” Orr says. “They made the argument that if we elected an independent we wouldn’t get any services.”

Which was a particularly ironic argument to make at that time, given the utter failure of the Bilandic administration to remove the snow from Chicago’s streets.

Right before the election, four precinct captains were indicted, Orr recalls. “They had threatened to break the legs of some of our volunteers.”

Thus Rogers Park voters were left with a choice: thugs or slow garbage collection.

Orr won by 700 votes. Take a bow, Rogers Park.

At the same time, Byrne upset Bilandic to take control of city government. Or so it seemed.

Orr says he remembers walking through City Hall a short time later with Marty Oberman, another independent north-side alderman. “We walked by Vrdolyak, who looked at us and smiled. It was like he read our minds. He said, ‘Forget about it.'”

In other words, Burke and Vrdolyak, a step ahead of the game as always, had already cut their deal with Byrne—much as Burke would cut his deal with Mayor Emanuel in 2011, thus holding on to his coveted chairmanship of the council finance committee.

As they always say about Chicago, the more things change—well, you know what they say.

There was brief moment of democracy in 1983 when—hallelujah!—voters got it together and elected Harold Washington as their mayor.

Washington’s election ushered in four years of council wars, when we had something of a race-based system of checks and balances, with the majority bloc of white aldermen keeping close tabs on how Washington divvied up the pie.

If only they were so vigilant with white mayors.

Washington selected Orr to serve as vice mayor, a largely symbolic City Council position except in the tragic event of the mayor dying in office.

And that’s unfortunately what happened on November 25, 1987, when Washington succumbed to a massive heart attack and Orr abruptly became the acting mayor for seven days.

Cook County clerk David Orr is essentially asking that the mayor open the books.

“I don’t think I’ll ever forget the day Mayor Washington died,” says Orr. “I was inspecting this problematic bar that had been giving the neighborhood trouble. Those were the days before cell phones, of course. So I didn’t know that Mayor Washington had died until I got to my office and they said, ‘Change your clothes and get downtown.'”

Burke and the other white aldermen were already working to take advantage of divisions in the black community by installing alderman Eugene Sawyer as Washington’s replacement.

Sawyer held office for two years, until the powers settled on a reliable white guy.

And that’s more or less how Richard M. Daley ended up as our mayor for more than two decades.

In 1989, when Daley defeated Sawyer, “the writing was on the wall,” Orr says. “I decided it was time to leave the council.”

He was elected county clerk in 1990 and has been there ever since.

That brings us back to the TIFs, the program that diverts property tax funds into special accounts controlled almost exclusively by the mayor. In the often illogical netherworld of the Cook County property tax system, it’s up to the clerk to provide an accurate account of which TIF district is getting how much.

We’re certainly not going to get this kind of information from the mayor’s office.

Technically, the county clerk is the official who directs the county treasurer to divert about half a billion dollars in property tax money into the TIF slush funds.

It’s not like Orr has a choice. The law won’t allow him—or any clerk—to send the money back to the schools, which obviously need it more than, say, Marriott. To mention just one of the mayor’s recent plans to spend TIF money.

But Orr can use his office as a bully pulpit to point out that the diversion is going on. And over the years, he’s become increasingly outspoken about the issue.

In 2008, for instance, he started holding an annual press conference to announce how much money TIF districts have collected. In doing so, he helped shine a light on one of the program’s more objectionable inequities: the program is ostensibly set up to help the poorest of the poor, but most TIF money goes to the wealthier communities in Chicago.

Mick Dumke and I may have mentioned this once or twice.

Orr introduced his latest TIF proposal on April 15, after Mayor Emanuel announced a plan to jack up property taxes to pay off the city’s pension obligations.

Orr responded by proposing that TIF districts be reduced by at least 10 percent so that more funds end up with the schools and other taxing bodies.

Basically it would mean that the TIF slush fund would give up about $38 million in property taxes a year, more than half of which would go to the schools.

The Emanuel administration immediately dismissed that idea on the grounds that almost every nickel of the TIF money is needed to fund projects that have already been approved.

But as Orr points out, the mayor hasn’t substantiated those claims with a specific list of projects. So Orr’s essentially asking that the mayor open the books.

“I think this is a relatively modest proposal,” Orr says. “Give people real information they need to make informed decisions.”

Wow—open budgets and informed decisions. That’s almost as radical today as it was back in 1979.