Todd Stroger

[Plus: Mick Dumke on the Illinois Senate Democratic primary.]

Every day I get calls and e-mails from friends, neighbors, and readers looking for guidance on how to vote in the Democratic primary for Cook County Board president.

Interestingly, absolutely no one’s asked me about the two guys running in the Republican primary, former state senator Roger Keats and former Chicago cop John Garrido, because, well, I don’t know anyone in Chicago who’s thinking of voting Republican—maybe I should get out more. Green Party candidate Tom Tresser is an interesting guy, but he’s running unopposed this time around.

So that brings me back to the Democrats. Frankly, until recently I’ve hesitated to weigh in on these folks. None of the four candidates—incumbent Todd Stroger, water reclamation district board president Terrence O’Brien, circuit court clerk Dorothy Brown, and alderman Toni Preckwinkle—really grabs my heart.

But with the February 2 election only days away, the time has come to make up my mind.

Before I reveal my choice, let me say this: my standards might be a little different from those of the average voter, who seems content electing and reelecting the same old crowd.

I love the fighters in Chicago politics—I want someone who will stick it to the Man. And by the Man I don’t mean Todd Stroger. I mean the big guy himself, Mayor Richard Daley. And that other big guy, state house speaker Michael Madigan.

For county board president, I want a candidate who will cut the fat—including the patronage workers larding the payroll—and rework the budget so taxpayer money is spent on the people who need it the most. And I’d also like someone who’s willing to rage against Daley’s tax increment financing machine.

Yes, I’ve been known to rail against the abuses of the TIF program a time or two before. But there’s a real connection to this office. The program collects about $500 million in taxpayer money each year, and roughly 10 percent of that would otherwise have gone to Cook County. Proposed TIF districts must be approved by the Joint Board of Review, which consists of representatives of the schools, parks, county, and other taxing bodies affected by TIFs. The board president could easily show up and raise a stink about the program’s abuses. But none ever has.

But my hopes aren’t terribly high for any of the board president candidates. I’ll start with O’Brien. He’s been campaigning as the guy who helped bring good government to the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, which is responsible for wastewater treatment. O’Brien has been on the water rec board since 1988 and its president since 1997. But he can hardly be called an independent or a reformer.

Terrence O’Brien

For starters, he’s part owner of a couple of engineering firms that have received about $3 million in contracts from the state, city, and other local governments over the last few years, according to an investigation by the Chicago Sun-Times. The paper also found that in 2004 the district gave a $200,000 sewage inspection contract to a company owned in part by the mayor’s son, Patrick Daley, and nephew Robert Vanecko. When Tim Novak of the Sun-Times wrote about this contract in 2008, O’Brien said he didn’t know Daley and Vanecko had stakes in the company. Of course, that’s also what Mayor Daley said when Novak wrote that the firm had received a city contract as well.

On the stump O’Brien has been talking about cuts made in the water rec district’s payroll since he came aboard, saying he’d bring the same fiscal discipline to the county. Maybe so. But he’s also been endorsed by such reform resisters as aldermen Richard Mell, Patrick O’Connor, and Patrick Levar, who can be expected to fight any attempts to cut the county jobs held by their guys.

O’Brien got his start as a precinct captain for 50th Ward alderman Berny Stone, one of the last remaining masters of old-time patronage politics. “I met Terry back in the 70s—he lived at Rockwell and Albion,” Stone says. “He was my legislative aide. He prepared papers for me. During council meetings he sat behind me and if I needed stuff he handed it to me. I’ll tell you a funny story. He looked so much like Richie Daley that Jane Byrne, who was mayor then, would see him sitting there and do a double take.

“Terry’s a steady guy who keeps things working until he gets it done. He’s not going to light up the sky, but he gets the work done.”

Hmmm. As much as I love Alderman Stone—he’s one of my favorite characters in Chicago politics—I’m not sure I’m ready to vote for a guy backed by what’s left of the north-and-northwest-side Democratic machine.

That brings me to Brown, who will eagerly let you know she’s a lawyer and a CPA and has an MBA. She doesn’t usually mention that she also has absolutely no political guts.

Dorothy Brown

I had high hopes for her when she ran against Mayor Daley in 2007. I followed her for the better part of a month in that campaign and she never seemed to say anything critical of the incumbent. It was like she figured she could beat a political giant by showing off her resumé. I remember standing in the cold outside the Belmont el station watching her shake hands with voters. Even then she could barely bring herself to rip Daley for the deterioration of the Red Line. Nice person, but she’s no fighter.

Then there’s Stroger. Yeah, I know the whole bill of goods—how the party bigwigs, including the mayor, ushered him into office in 2006 to take the place of his ailing father on the ticket. How he raised the sales tax and failed to do anything about the payroll except add some of his cousins and friends, including a guy he met when he was busing Stroger’s table at a restaurant. How he’s a lifelong machine operative whose allies have turned to race baiting in the final weeks in a desperate effort to win over black voters.

I know all that and I’m still tempted to vote for him simply because I can’t stand the hypocrisy of north-side liberals who bash him but won’t lift a finger to fight patronage and mismanagement under Mayor Daley.

But every time the impulse rises, I think about the 2007 county budget battle, when Stroger closed clinics and laid off hundreds of nurses, doctors, and other health-care workers. And then how he looked the other way in 2008, when Mayor Daley raided the Central West TIF district fund to give $75 million in property tax dollars to Rush University Medical Center, a private hospital and medical school with a $300 million endowment and a solid base of privately insured patients, so they could rebuild their near-west-side medical campus. Part of the project included building a new parking garage. Tax dollars for parking garages over health care for the indigent? What a system.

That leaves me with Alderman Preckwinkle. I’ve known her since 1982, when she was gearing up to run against incumbent alderman Tim Evans (now the chief judge of Cook County Circuit Court). I don’t think she’s changed much in those 27 years. She’s still terse, humorless—though I do think I heard a story about her cracking a joke once—and supersmart.

Preckwinkle’s got more spine than any of the other candidates in this race. She was voting against Daley’s budgets long before it was fashionable. She also voted against last year’s parking meter deal. Neither Brown, Stroger, nor O’Brien had a word to say about that—as county officials they generally get to avoid taking stands on any issues involving the mayor. It’s a lot easier to claim boldness and independence when you never actually have to demonstrate either.

Toni Preckwinkle

Preckwinkle’s only drawback is that in the last year or so she’s started sucking up to Daley, supporting his Olympic dream and even voting for his 2010 budget—you know, the one where the mayor raided the parking meter legacy fund that was set up to last for at least 75 years.

As she’s said herself, she was hoping for the mayor’s endorsement, which of course she didn’t get. Though he did attend one of her fund-raisers, Daley is staying out of the race, as he usually does except in those rare instances when he endorses someone in an act of horse-trading but then does nothing to help them bring in votes. When are politicians around here ever going to learn that Mayor Daley demands everyone else’s unwavering loyalty but sticks his neck out for no one?

Still, did I mention that back in 2006 Preckwinkle voted against the creation of the LaSalle Central TIF district? Well, she did—and was one of only three aldermen to do so (the others were Rick Munoz and Joe Moore). That’s the TIF that declared much of the downtown business district a blighted area. Before it expires in 2030, it will have collected more than $1 billion in property taxes that otherwise would have gone to fund county government (making Stroger’s sales-tax hike even less necessary), the schools, the parks, and other cash-strapped public bodies. Instead, if recent history is any indication, much of it is likely to be showered on well-connected downtown developers.

O’Brien could have opposed it at the Joint Review Board but he didn’t. Stroger could have voted against it in the City Council—he was still Eighth Ward alderman back then—but he didn’t. Brown could have come out against it too, since she claims to be eminently qualified to look out for taxpayer interests. But she didn’t.

In this bunch, Preckwinkle looks like Patrick Henry.   

Ben Joravsky discusses his reporting weekly with journalist Dave Glowacz at mrradio.org/theworks.