Until his phone started ringing, Jeff Smith planned on spending a quiet Christmas at his Rogers Park home with his wife and kids. But then, within one week in late November, Harold Washington and Cook County Board of Tax Appeals commissioner Harry Semrow both died. A few days later, the regular Democratic organization slated Joe Berrios, committeeman of the 31st Ward, to run in a special election for Semrow’s job. And that’s when the phones on Smith’s desk started ringing.

“There were all sorts of people who were just outraged,” says Smith, a lawyer for the city and a maverick northside politician. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It was like there was this tremendous outpouring of frustration and anger over the death of the mayor and what happened in the City Council. There was this big chunk of energy that had to be channeled somewhere. And to a person, everyone told me, ‘We can’t let the regulars win this race.'”

Within a matter of hours, Smith’s plans for a quiet Yuletide retreat were on the shelf. Instead, he began a series of feverish back-room maneuvers that would lead to a week-long blitz by scores of volunteers who spent countless hours canvassing in the cold. They worked bus stops, prayer meetings, downtown shopping centers, even suburban bars. And when it was over, they had collected more than 10,000 signatures–almost twice the number they needed–to land Smith on the ballot as a candidate for the Cook County Board of Tax Appeals.

“Politics is strange, that’s for sure,” Smith says. “A month ago, or even two weeks ago, I would never have predicted I would run for Tax Appeals. If you had asked, I probably would not have wanted the job.”

Indeed, Smith might not have known much about the two-member tax appeals board at all–most people don’t. And that’s a shame. It may be one of the most important bodies in county government, controlling, as it does, who pays what in property taxes.

“Your tax bill is figured by multiplying the tax rate against the assessed property value as determined by the Cook County assessor,” Smith explains. “If you think the assessor overassessed your property, you can appeal to the board. The tax appeals board hears and decides on about 40,000 cases a year. It’s the last chance for small home owners to get some relief, and to protect against unwarranted rebates to big property owners.”

In the past the board was rife with corruption and abuse, as a battery of legal operators won hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks for their wealthy and politically well-connected clients. The board enjoyed four short years of reform when Pat Quinn was elected in 1982. In his first year alone, Quinn saw to it that the amount of rebates dropped from $444 million to $75 million, freeing up tax dollars for essential services, such as the schools. Then in 1986, Quinn stepped down to run for state treasurer. Semrow, already on the board, was reelected, and Wilson Frost, a veteran south-side Democratic committeeman, won the election for Quinn’s seat.

Now Smith is running, with Quinn’s endorsement, to replace Semrow at a most significant time. In 1988, the assessor’s office will reassess the value of all property from the Chicago River to the city’s southern boundaries. Most observers figure that the tax appeals board will be swamped with appeals by downtown developers and property owners. (The two Republican candidates running in the March primary are Jerome Zurla and David Wiltse.)

“The fact that it is a two-person board is a plus for reformers,” says Quinn. “If there’s a one-one tie, then the appeal loses. If you have two machine guys they could ram stuff through.”

For his part, Smith pledges to play the role of the tough reformer, scrutinizing appeals and opening the process by holding meetings at other locations besides the downtown county building–a move Semrow vigorously opposes. (Berrios’s position on these issues is unknown, as he declined to respond to repeated requests for an interview.)

“The board of tax appeals should be key to reformers,” says Quinn. “It’s the biggest tax appeal case court in the country. And when I arrived, it was not only corrupt, it was incompetent. You should have seen it–they didn’t even have computers. I’m not kidding. We’re talking 40,000 cases, and they tracked them all by hand. It was like Charles Dickens and Bob Cratchit.

“And corrupt? I got there on the heels of a scandal in which 25 people–both court employees and outside lawyers–were convicted of giving bribes or fixing cases. It was like a bazaar, that’s the only way to describe it. There was this one incident where some of the deputies sat in the hearing room with tin cans, and, to the tune of “Jingle Bells,” sang a ditty about taking bribes. I mean, it was raw corruption, out in the open, for everyone to see.

“We can laugh about it, but it means that with a wink and a nod the big property owners get big tax breaks, which means less money for the schools and a greater burden on the little guy who can least afford it. It’s a shame that reformers don’t pay more attention to that office.”

Indeed, more attention has been focused on the race for Clerk of the Circuit Courts, a patronage-rich position, which features Aurelia Pucinski, Tom Fuller, and Jane Byrne squaring off in the Democratic primary for the right to face Edward Vrdolyak (running uncontested in the Republican primary) in next November’s general election.

But the machinations in that race are simple compared to the complex wheeling and dealing arising from Semrow’s death. First of all, there was not even supposed to be an election to the tax board in 1988. Semrow’s four-year term, like Frost’s, expires in 1990. Because he died before half his term was up, state law requires a special election as soon as possible, which left party activists scrambling to round up the number of signatures needed to make the March 15 ballot by the December 14 deadline.

“We had three weeks from the time Semrow died to get over 5,000 signatures from registered voters,” says Smith. “The minimum needed is 5,026. But we figured we needed at least 7,000 because the regulars would challenge our petitions and get some signatures knocked off on various technicalities.”

Indeed, the regular Democrats–headed by Cook County Board president George Dunne–had the upper hand, since they still command a legion of payrollers and devoted precinct captains ready to conduct a massive get-out-the-signatures effort.

Dunne reacted quickly. While the independents vainly tried to elect Tim Evans mayor, party regulars haggled over who would fill Semrow’s seat.

“The conventional wisdom was that it should go to a Jew, because Semrow was Jewish,” says one party insider, who asked for anonymity. “On top of that, the party looked bad. The Democrats didn’t have any Jews on the ticket. And Vrdolyak was able to get a Jewish official [Alderman Bernard Stone] on his party’s ticket as a candidate for recorder of deeds. So you gotta figure Vrdolyak was gonna go running around telling everyone in Rogers Park, ‘See, I told you, all they [the Democrats] care about is Jesse Jackson.'”

Two prominent Jewish politicians reportedly were offered the slot, and both refused. So party leaders hit on a second strategy. Why not slate a Hispanic? That would be perfect. It would expose a weakness of the Republican ticket (the only Hispanic they had slated was some old buddy of Vrdolyak who was running for the Board of the Metropolitan Sanitary District). And it would give the Democrats an opportunity to promote a party loyalist from the ranks.

The obvious choice was Joe Berrios. A state representative from Humboldt Park, he is the epitome of party loyalty. He had stayed with the 31st Ward regular organization of state senator Edward Nedza long after many Puerto Rican volunteers (including mayoral aide Ben Reyes) had rebelled. Starting as a precinct captain in the early 1970s, he became committeeman this year after Nedza was indicted on charges of shaking down a local businessman.

“Slating Berrios was genius on a bunch of different levels,” explains the party strategist. “First of all, it stifles the Hispanic activists in the City Council, like that loudmouth [Alderman Luis] Gutierrez. Let’s hear Gutierrez get in the way of a Puerto Rican guy–I mean, a real salt-of-the-earth community fellow–who has the chance to win countywide office.

“Secondly, it’ll scare off the lakefront set. There’s no way they’ll challenge Berrios. They’ll be too afraid of being called a bigot.”

Berrios is qualified for the position, his backers contend. He is, after all, an accountant who once served as chief clerk to the tax appeals board. His service to the board continued even after he was elected state representative, when Semrow retained him as an adviser. True, Berrios’s tenure as clerk came during the height of the board’s scandal. But Berrios was never charged or even implicated in any wrongdoing. And though he’s already a state representative, double dipping–that is, taking two paychecks from the public coffers–is not illegal.

On one level, the Democratic organization’s strategy may have worked. Though Gutierrez offers kind words for Smith, and his words drip with sarcastic venom when asked about Berrios, the man who some believe is the city’s most powerful Hispanic politician has so far withheld an endorsement. Gutierrez does offer, “Isn’t it funny how a Puerto Rican, like Berrios, gets slated? He goes to Chairman Dunne’s office, hangs out in the closet, and then, voila, he’s a candidate.”

“I never figured the independents would run anyone,” says the party stalwart, again speaking not for attribution. “If they tried, I didn’t think they could make the ballot.”

Smith ran anyway, in part because like Quinn he has a strong independent streak. A graduate of Harvard Law School, he went to work in 1983 for Jenner & Block, a powerful downtown law firm with close ties to the national Republican party. Smith quit that job one year later to become state manager of George McGovern’s quixotic presidential campaign. After that, Smith went to work for the Loyola law clinic, a not-for-profit law center for the poor, and then, in 1986, he challenged Calvin Sutker for Democratic committeeman of the Ninth Congressional District.

It’s a largely symbolic post, but Smith won the race by rounding up a coalition of lakefront activists from the peace, environmental, and Washington-for-mayor campaigns. Earlier this year, Smith went to work for the city, prompting some critics to maintain that he is as much a patronage worker and benefactor of party spoils as Berrios.

“There’s a great difference in the way we became ‘party’ people,” says Smith. “I ran an independent campaign to unseat an incumbent. He’s the new generation who had the torch passed to him by former committeemen [Thomas] Keane and Nedza. My campaign theme is: ‘Fair taxes, no deals.’ What’s his going to be: ‘Trust me, I’m from Nedza’s organization’?”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.