Four years ago Maria Pappas was an unknown Gold Coast lawyer waging an uphill campaign for Cook County commissioner.

She won and went on to become one of county government’s sharpest critics and most recognizable names. Now she’s a front-runner in the race for County Board president.

Lost amid the hype and headlines of that battle is her run for reelection. That’s right. Because of a loophole in election law that supposedly was reformed, politicians like Pappas can run for and–should they win–serve in two offices at once.

So while Pappas battles John Stroger and Aurelia Pucinski in the expensive March 15 Democratic primary for board president, she also has to face a young lawyer named Bill O’Donaghue for commissioner of District Ten, a north lakefront seat. Making do on a tiny budget, most of which pays for his single campaign aide, O’Donaghue is quietly but methodically piecing together a campaign, persistently hammering at Pappas’s weak spots, appearing at coffees, bus stops, and ward organizations, and winning the backing of almost every organization along the lake. Few people other than political junkies know his name, yet it’s becoming increasingly clear that Pappas may not win reelection.

For her part, Pappas professes indifference. “There are two other candidates in that race,” says Pappas, referring to a pair of candidates so obscure they rarely attend local endorsement sessions. “I’m not worried about what’s-his-name.”

As for O’Donaghue, or what’s-his-name, he delights in being the underdog. “Running for commissioner while running for County Board president is like trying to steal second with your foot on first base,” says O’Donaghue. “At least when the voters vote for me they’ll know that this is what I want to do most of all.”

This is the first time commissioners are being elected from single-member districts–a change long urged by reformers who felt the old system hindered accountability. As reformers constantly note, the County Board is a powerful entity that oversees a billion-dollar empire, funding the jail, hospital, and state’s attorney’s office. It’s one of the last great pools of patronage, something County Board president Richard Phelan happily discovered when, after running as an independent, he got to win over Democratic ward committeemen by doling out do-nothing jobs.

Nonetheless, board members remain faceless factotums. The board has become something of a burial ground for old pols who want to draw $43,000 for doing almost nothing. The job is not nearly as taxing as, say, that of an alderman, who must answer constituents each time the garbage goes uncollected.

Once elected, commissioners have been nearly impossible to unseat; ballot position and party backing (Democratic in the city, Republican in the suburbs) being tantamount to victory. Issues have meant little, for the board draws almost no coverage. The only time the commissioners made news in recent years was when they objected to Phelan for reinstating abortions at Cook County Hospital. Many voters were aghast to learn that for years they had been voting for antichoice candidates.

In a 1990 referendum, voters overwhelmingly approved a measure calling for commissioners to be elected from single-member districts. Last summer a new county map was drawn dividing the county into 17 districts. The tenth runs between the lake and Ashland Avenue, from Kinzie Avenue on the south to Pratt on the north, and shoots west to take in Lincolnwood.

There should be no shortage of ambitious contenders anxious to represent this area. And yet from the start the only two serious candidates were O’Donaghue and Pappas.

“I don’t know why others didn’t run. Maybe they never thought the county would actually get around to drawing districts,” says O’Donaghue. “But I was watching the map-drawing proceedings carefully. I feel that the County Board will be at the forefront of all the important issues of the future, including health care, crime, and property-tax reform.”

O’Donaghue, born and raised in New Jersey, came to Chicago to work on President Jimmy Carter’s 1980 reelection campaign. He graduated from Kent College of Law in 1985, started a private practice, and dabbled in local politics.

In 1990 two friends with City Hall connections passed his name on to Mayor Daley, A few weeks later O’Donaghue found himself being ushered into the mayor’s inner office to be interviewed for the position of chairman of the Liquor License Appeal Commission. The interview lasted all of five minutes, enough time for Daley and O’Donaghue to exchange a few polite words about the Jersey shore. And O’Donaghue got the job.

Which he’s performed admirably, most observers will attest, overseeing the tendentious and often tedious appeals of orders to revoke or suspend liquor licenses. For his efforts, he makes about $36,000 a year and has heard nearly 400 cases. After four years he wants to move on.

“I’m not cynical yet–I still believe there’s a greater calling to government,” says O’Donaghue. “My hero is Jimmy Carter. I feel the man was grossly unappreciated. And I’m proud to have worked for him. He was honest, hardworking, and he had vision.”

Pappas, in contrast, came to politics relatively late in her career. She was a 40-year-old lawyer and psychologist when in 1989 she ran for the County Board. She promised to fight against tax hikes and patronage and for the most part she has done just that, winning reams of press clips and infuriating Phelan in the process.

“I took a stand against every county tax and sales tax proposal,” Pappas says. “I exposed corruption. I’m prochoice. I’m not a machine hack.”

She’s also one of those politicians, like Phelan, who always seem to have an eye on the next office to run for. No one was particularly surprised last summer when she announced her candidacy for the presidency, which Phelan–surprise, surprise–was vacating to run for governor.

From the start Pappas–like Stroger, who is running in a south-side district–has been vulnerable to a series of embarrassing questions, the chief among them being: why is she running for two different offices at once?

“Historically, for the last 100 years, the president has also occupied a commissioner’s seat,” Pappas says.

But the whole point of single-member districts was to encourage accountability and accessibility. Aren’t you cheating Tenth District voters by taking on the larger job too?

“The interest of the district in terms of accountability will be compatible with what’s going on countywide,” Pappas says. “There’s tremendous overlap here. I would think that voters would be happy that the presiddent is from their district.”

O’Donaghue says it would be a waste of money to have the president represent a district. “The president of the board cannot possibly be as accessible to local voters as a regular commissioner can,” says O’Donaghue. “Either myself or my secretary answers my phone. Just try getting through to the president.”

Indeed, Phelan and his top aides are notoriously difficult to reach for reporters and average citizens. And the constraints of running two campaigns have made Pappas tough to reach as well. To arrange a brief phone interview, for instance, I called the campaign office, where an aide directed me to a publicist at another number, who sent me to a schedule coordinator at yet another number, who said that Pappas was too busy to talk to me for at least four days.

Accessibility, several lakefront activists say, is why they have endorsed O’Donaghue over Pappas.

“People have a big concern with the concept of someone being president and commissioner,” says Sue Purrington, executive director of the Chicago chapter of the National Organization of Women, which backs O’Donaghue. “You wonder, who’s going to represent me?”

The Independent Voters of Illinois-Independent Precinct Organization endorsed O’Donaghue in part because Pappas had once represented Lou Wolf, a notorious landlord recently convicted of not paying property taxes.

Pappas says Wolf is not relevant to the campaign. “I haven’t represented him in years,” says Pappas. “I represent all kinds of people. I don’t deny people representation. You have to look at it this way. Pappas has three things that are consistent: prochoice, not a machine hack, and fiscally responsible. So what is it that they talk about? Lou Wolf. The old boys want me out. You have Stroger backed by Daley, Pucinski backed by [house speaker Mike] Madigan and O’Donaghue backed by Mell. All insiders feeding at the public trough.”

You mean Richard Mell, the machine alderman, supports O’Donaghue?

“Yes, O’Donaghue is Mell’s puppet. Mell put him up to run. Don’t be naive. I’ve heard that from many people who I don’t want to name.”

O’Donaghue denies any ties to Mell. “I don’t know Mell, I’ve never socialized with him, never been to one of his fund-raisers, never worked for him, never supported him, haven’t asked for his endorsement, don’t want it if he’s offering it because he doesn’t even live in my district,” says O’Donaghue. “My gosh, I must be doing better than expected if she’s attacking me like that.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.