Chicago is forever stuck being the Second City, which is annoying. But at least New York is far away, and sometimes we can forget it. Cook County is worse off. The county has always played the Second City role to Chicago, and the county can never get away from the city.

How can the county be second fiddle? By definition the county has more people–five million versus the city’s three million. Ah, but Chicago government has about 10,000 more employees and a budget about $1 billion greater. Chicago and the City Council get all the attention. Bottom line, we’re usually just a hell of a lot more interesting.

But the potential for government waste, corruption, and shenanigans is just as daunting at the county level. For instance, everyone knows the county’s employees work even less than the city’s, if that’s possible. Last October, Cook County Board president John Stroger made a rare appearance in the City Council chambers during the council’s annual budget hearings. Alderman Dorothy Tillman was speaking when she noticed Stroger chatting with some other aldermen. “They’re tryin’ to get some of those good ol’ county jobs!” she declared.

And lately the clashes between Stroger and some Cook County Board commissioners over issues such as the county’s pathetic forest preserves and its 2004 budget are making the City Council look tame. Once county commissioners, like most aldermen, made nary a peep. That began changing in 1998 with the election of Mike Quigley, and it accelerated in December 2002 when five new commissioners joined the 17-member board. Four of them had campaigned as reformers.

Still, people at the county clearly feel their Second Legislative Body status deeply. In December a frustrated Stroger compared his struggles with his opponents to–of course–Council Wars, though he carefully claimed that only some of his constituents believe the comparison’s fair. The city, it seems, is seldom far from the county’s thoughts.

More examples abounded at last week’s Cook County Board meeting. Before board meetings start, County Clerk David Orr (a former alderman) tapes an introduction for a cable broadcast that tells viewers what the County Board is. (He’s probably wise to assume they don’t know.) Last week Orr noted that the board meets in the County Building. Where’s that? Orr helpfully explained it’s in the same building as City Hall.

The flash point of last week’s meeting was Cook County Hospital. The board made an agreement in 1998 with the city and the Illinois Medical District to raze the building once its replacement, Stroger Hospital, was up and running nearby. Preservationists, led by Preservation Chicago and the Landmarks Preservation Council of Illinois (LPCI), have been fighting to rehab the old hospital instead. Facing opposition and loads of bad publicity, Stroger finally agreed in July to accept redevelopment proposals, though the county went ahead with plans to solicit bids for demolition.

Stroger had hoped to accept one of those demolition bids last week. He wants the old place gone yesterday, but some commissioners disagree and others are unsure. The commissioners most vocally advocating preservation are Democrats Quigley and freshman Larry Suffredin, and Republicans Carl Hansen, a board veteran, and freshman Anthony Peraica.

Commissioner Jerry “Iceman” Butler, a staunch Stroger ally, said, “If I had my way, I’d tear this building down. Hahahaha! Oh, I’d get a bulldozer, and at 11:30 at night”–he paused for laughter from everyone else–“I’d go in there and knock it down. Hahahaha!” His allusion to Mayor Daley’s late-night attack on Meigs Field probably doesn’t need explanation.

Stroger’s director of capital planning and policy, Michael LaMont, told commissioners that only two developers submitted rehab proposals and neither included financing information. Hospital supporters insisted that LaMont’s office had made it impossible for them to work out financing because it never issued a formal request for proposals with detailed specifications, which is standard practice. LaMont said he never received a proposal from LPCI, and rehab supporters pointed out that LPCI made a personal presentation to Stroger, who’s LaMont’s boss. Stroger lost his temper several times during the meeting, particularly when Suffredin calmly told him, “We can’t just let you make pronouncements. This is a legislative body.”

“You don’t say that to Governor Blagojevich!” Stroger yelled. “You don’t say that to Mayor Richard J. [sic] Daley!”

Commissioner Earlean Collins, a past Stroger ally who’s become a wild card, interrupted their shouting match. “I have a headache today and my pressure’s gone up and I’m tired,” she snapped. “This [legislative] body is dangerous to our health. My health. And it’s about time you all–you boys–stopped playin’ this game.”

Stroger chuckled, but couldn’t help adding before he moved on, “I’ve never seen anybody up tellin’ the mayor that you modify things.”

Actually, aldermen do occasionally suggest modifications to Daley’s policies during council meetings, and Daley can get pretty nasty about it. Even counting Stroger’s several shouting matches during last week’s meeting, he handles his opponents in public much better. He amiably refers to “Brother Suffredin” and “Brother Quigley.”

When Stroger called on Hansen last week, knowing full well Hansen was going to give him an earful, he jovially deadpanned, “The honorable Carl Hansen, who’s gonna come up with a couple of hundred million dollars [for renovating the hospital].” Hansen, now in his eighth term, is tall and lanky with a mop of silver hair. He uses pauses as masterfully as Jack Benny did. His slow, deliberate voice often sounds like Benny’s too–until he starts screaming in the middle of a sentence.

Hansen began with a long pause as the commissioners and audience laughed at Stroger’s introduction. “Well, Mr. President,” he began. Second big pause. He should’ve brought a violin for a prop. “Now it surprises me that Mr. LaMont hasn’t seen anything from the landmarks council. The presentation was made to the president [Stroger]. All [Stroger] had to do was turn around and give a copy to Mr. LaMont.” Imagine the rest in bold capital letters: “And I think it’s high time that Mr. LaMont react to this and pick up the phone and call the Landmarks Preservation Council! And discuss the costs! And not just sit back and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know anything about this, I didn’t get any of this!'”

Then Hansen and Stroger got into a shouting match. It was so nuts I couldn’t tell what they were saying, even when I replayed my tape several times. But one thing was clear–Stroger was laughing during most of it.

After an hour and a half, Stroger figured he didn’t have the votes to accept a demolition bid. So he deferred the issue and let opponents arrange a February 4 hearing for developers to publicly present proposals.

As the meeting moved on to other business, Quigley raised a hand to be recognized. “I just want the secretary to note,” he said, “that today we officially preempted the City Council as the big show in town.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.