From the moment he launched his campaign for Cook County Board president a year ago, Green Party candidate Tom Tresser knew what he needed to win: he needed Todd Stroger for an opponent.
Tresser was going to capitalize on the dislike of Stroger, bordering on contempt, among many voters.
His proposals were aimed directly at what he saw as the central flaws in Stroger’s four-year reign. The county payroll was bloated; Tresser would cut it across the board. And he promised to rescind the half percent that remained of Stroger’s sales tax hike.
“I felt I had a great chance against Stroger,” says Tresser, a former actor and one of the leaders of No Games Chicago, an ad hoc group of several hundred that organized the opposition to the city’s pursuit of the 2016 Olympics. “This was right after we’d helped defeat the Olympics. There was a lot of enthusiasm—people were saying let’s keep the movement going. I figured if Stroger was the Democratic nominee, people would be running to whoever was in the election against him.”
Unfortunately for Tresser, Stroger got hammered in February’s Democratic primary, finishing last in a field of four. The Democratic nominee, and overwhelming favorite in the November 2 election, is Fourth Ward alderman Toni Preckwinkle, who carries little of Stroger’s baggage. During her four terms representing a ward straddling Hyde Park and Kenwood, Preckwinkle’s emerged as what passes for a good-government alderman, unafraid to vote against Mayor Daley, as she did last year on the parking meter leasing deal.
Now Tresser and the Republican candidate—former suburban state senator Roger Keats—are trying to find their way in the post-Stroger era of county politics. To paraphrase Nixon, they don’t have Stroger to kick around anymore.
Stroger got off to a bad start with a lot of voters back in 2006, when Democratic committeemen named him to replace his father, John—who’d suffered a stroke but nonetheless won the primary—as the party’s candidate for county board president. This was seen as a brazen display of nepotism.
Stroger made things worse for himself with a series of boneheaded hiring decisions. He promoted his cousin, Donna Dunnings, to chief financial officer for the county, then asked for her resignation after she posted bail for another of his hires, a human resources assistant who was jailed in a domestic violence case. In February he named Carla Oglesby his deputy chief of staff; earlier this month she was charged with felony theft of government property, money laundering, and official misconduct for allegedly awarding no-bid contracts to her own public relations company.
Still, Stroger might have survived all that had he not fought so hard to hike the sales tax.
But in 2008 he rounded up ten of the 17 commissioners to vote to raise the tax by 1 percent. He said the county desperately needed the money, but his board opponents argued that he should cut the fat from the budget before raising taxes. Over the next year commissioners tried three times to rescind the tax increase, but they could never summon the 14 votes needed to overturn Stroger’s veto.
In late 2009 the state legislature got involved by passing a law that lowered the proportion needed for the county board to override a veto from four-fifths to three-fifths. On December 1 the board voted 12-5 to override Stroger’s veto and cut the tax hike in half.
After all the high-profile feuding and fussing, Stroger had managed to make himself the name and face of higher taxes. In the last few elections, he’s been vilified as though all the ills of local politics began and ended with him—and had nothing to do with that fellow on the fifth floor of City Hall. Without Stroger standing to play everyone’s favorite piñata, Mayor Daley might have absorbed a few more blows in recent years.
The reality is that Cook County Board presidents don’t have nearly as much power as the mayor—a lesson Stroger’s successor will soon learn.
“On the city side the mayor says jump and the aldermen say how high,” says Mike Quigley, who spent ten years on the county board before he was elected to Congress last year. “At the county board, it’s a different story.”
As Quigley points out, part of the reason voters knew so much about Stroger’s tax hike was the noisy opposition of board members like himself. (Some actually noticed when they had to pay it, but plenty probably didn’t, as suggested by an August Reader story about all the restaurants continuing to charge the full percent after it was halved.) In contrast, Mayor Daley has slipped his property tax hikes through the City Council by getting the aldermen to quietly and routinely create tax increment financing districts—over 160 of ’em.
In addition, any county board president must deal with what Quigley calls the “separately elected officials”—the state’s attorney, the sheriff, the county clerk, the circuit court clerk, the assessor, and so on.
“The separately elected officials think they’re running their own fiefdoms,” says Quigley. “It’s much more difficult to rein them in for fiscal responsibility. It’s not like the mayor ordering some department head to immediately cut his department.” (There are two “separately elected officials” at the city level: the clerk and the treasurer. But the current clerk, Miguel Del Valle, and treasurer, Stephanie Neely, were both appointed by the mayor before they were elected.)
The county board has to approve a budget, currently more than $3 billion (roughly half of the city’s), that encompasses all of these agencies. But the other elected officials—particularly the sheriff and the state’s attorney—have a prominence and a power base they can use to undercut the president’s authority at budget time.
It’s not unusual for the sheriff or the state’s attorney, for instance, to publicly complain about threats to public safety if they have to cut their staff. “The elected officials never have to vote for a tax increase,” says Quigley. “But they sure can put a lot of pressure on commissioners to raise them.”
Quigley adds, “All the elected officials try to go around the president. Some of them will make deals with the commissioners: ‘Leave my budget alone and I’ll give you some jobs,'” meaning jobs the commissioners can fill with people of their choice. “That happens all the time.”
There’ll be a lot of deal making in the weeks after the election, as the county faces a deficit of between $300 million and $500 million (a more precise amount won’t be known until the budget debate begins in late November).
Tresser and Keats are calling for an immediate across the board 10 percent budget cut. “I will conduct a desk audit of every employee—starting with the president’s direct hires—to see if the job’s needed,” says Tresser. “I’m going after the fat and the waste.”
Preckwinkle agrees that there’s waste in the county. But she says the president has to be “more strategic” in what he or she cuts: “You can’t just say I’m going to cut 10 percent. You have to look closely to see that you’re not cutting valuable services in health care or security.”
Of course all three candidates have pledged to cut the remaining half percent of Stroger’s sales tax hike—a move that could increase the deficit by some $200 million.
Don’t be surprised if the winner, once comfortably in office, backtracks and retains some of the sales tax, figuring that he or she’s got another four years before facing the voters again.
At the moment, all three candidates are critical of Stroger’s tenure. “I’ve said all along that he’s a decent person in the wrong job,” says Preckwinkle. “But he’s not going to be in office much longer. We have to move forward.”
As Stroger rides off into the sunset we should keep in mind the legacy of the last Illinois politician who was so vilified for raising taxes. That would be Governor Richard Ogilvie—who, coincidentally, once served as president of the Cook County Board. In 1970 Ogilvie put his political career on the line to push through the state’s first income tax. He said he had no choice; the state desperately needed money. He was swept out of office in the next election, in 1972.
When he died in 1988, his obituary writers agreed that he had been a courageous public servant who’d paid the political price for doing the right thing.
Maybe down the road folks will be saying the same thing about Todd Stroger.
On second thought—nah, maybe they won’t.