Joe Berrios was the first Latino elected to the Illinois General Assembly, at the age of 30 in 1982, and his political career has slid downhill ever since. Think of his legacy as something along the lines of a trail left by a snail.
At the time he first won elected office, Berrios already held a position in the Cook County agency that oversees property tax appeals; it’s an inherently corrupt system that has been at the nexus of Democratic Party power for decades, especially since patronage was undercut by the Shakman decrees. Keep in mind, the assessor sets property values across the county, values that can then be contested before the Cook County Board of Review, often by high-profile law firms headed by statewide Democratic powers like house speaker Mike Madigan and senate president John Cullerton, as well as alderman Ed Burke (whose firm does Donald Trump’s local property tax business). It’s basically a license to print money—most recently criticized as a “racket” by none other than Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Kennedy—and Berrios presides over it.
While double-dipping in government positions and as a General Assembly lobbyist over the years, Berrios has made Cook County property taxes his bread and butter, rising first to a commissioner position on the Board of Review (a much more lucrative and powerful post than any chump state-rep gig), then to assessor in 2010. He’s now the one who sets the assessed values that are then contested, and he’s openly encouraged everyone across the county to appeal their property values to win a reduction (preferably through a certified Democratic Party law firm). All along, he’s unapologetically hired family members and political cronies like election lawyer Tom Jaconetty, a master of derailing candidates by challenging signature petitions to get on the ballot, a favorite Berrios political tactic.
Oh yeah, he also accepts political contributions from those lawyers arguing tax appeals, and he has been resistant to any and all attempts to rein in those contributions or declare them illegal entirely, just as he’s openly refused to alter nepotistic hiring.
Ever a toady to Democratic Party powers that be, he sided with the Vrdolyak 29 during the so-called Council Wars, which briefly cost him the 31st Ward committeeman seat he’d won in the 80s, though he reclaimed it in the 90s after Harold Washington ally Ray Figueroa lost interest. He rose to chairman of the Cook County Democrats in 2007 in what could be perceived as a bone thrown to Hispanics.
Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle has defended Berrios as someone who has opened the slating process to women and minorities over his ten-year tenure. That’s true enough. But otherwise Berrios operates amid a dynamic not unlike the early seasons of The Sopranos: think of Uncle Junior attracting all the unwanted attention, including the scrutiny of government investigators, while the real powers are left to operate in the shadows. v