Last Wednesday was a typical day in the campaign to fill Rahm Emanuel’s vacant Fifth Congressional seat: I got mailings from three candidates blasting Cook County Board president Todd Stroger.

Mike Quigley’s flyer bragged that he’s “slammed the door on Todd Stroger’s old-style politics.” The one from state rep John Fritchey said Quigley, a county commissioner, “claims to be a reformer but sides with Todd Stroger time and time again.” And then there was the one from physician Victor Forys, which called Quigley a “phony” opponent of Stroger. “The minister of propaganda for Germany in World War II said, ‘If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.’ Commissioner Mike Quigley is telling a big lie, and he is repeating it over and over and over.”

Stroger’s not a candidate in the race. He doesn’t live in the Fifth District. He’s made no endorsement. But bashing Stroger has become an established practice of politicians on the north side and out into the suburbs. It started in last year’s primaries, when candidates for everything from state rep to county Board of Review tried to win political points by proclaiming they weren’t Stroger, and it will undoubtedly pick up in the coming months as challengers line up to take him on in next year’s primary. From the amount of bile spewed against him, you’d think Stroger was the most powerful and incorrigible figure in local politics.

He’s not even close. Offhand I can think of more than 30 other local politicians with more clout than Stroger, including three mere aldermen—Ed Burke, Richard Mell, and Fritchey’s uncle-in-law Bill Banks. Stroger’s not even the big man on the county board—that role falls to commissioner John Daley. In fact, while he controls more jobs, I’m not even sure he has more influence than his nemesis, commissioner Forrest Claypool, who’s cultivated a cultlike following in the press.

Stroger’s problems start with how he got his gig, in a particularly transparent display of nepotism. His father, long-serving county board president John, suffered a stroke a few days before the Democratic primary in March 2006 but won anyway. City and suburban Democratic committeemen then met in a room at the Hotel Allegro and picked Todd, an inconspicuous south-side alderman, to replace his dad on the November ballot. White folks have been howling ever since.

I’m not defending Stroger or his policies, or saying he doesn’t deserve some of the flak he takes. But there are others who deserve it and don’t get any. It’s like all these outraged populists just found out that it takes connections to get ahead in this town—they’re acting like Stroger is the first son of a ward boss moved to the head of the line. Hardly. Congressman Dan Lipinski benefited from a similar power play. State House speaker and Democratic Party chairman Michael Madigan compelled more than a few underlings to help get his daughter Lisa elected Illinois attorney general. But you don’t see Fritchey and Quigley accusing each other of being too close to the Lipinskis or Madigans.

Surely no one has forgotten that our Mayor Daley is the son of the last Mayor Daley. I’ll also remind everybody that his aforementioned brother John is the most powerful member of the county board, that another brother, Michael, is a major political donor who runs one of the top zoning law practices in town, and that their youngest brother, William, was a Clinton cabinet member and adviser to the Obama transition team.

Stroger has put friends and relatives on the county payroll. But is there any connected person in this town who doesn’t have relatives working for the city, county, state, CTA, Park District, Water Reclamation District, or school system?

You want to talk about patronage hiring? The mayor’s former patronage chief, Robert Sorich, is now in prison for fraud. He was previously John Daley’s driver, and his father was a photographer for the first Boss Daley. I could go on and on. So why aren’t outraged north-side politicians accusing one another of being too close to the Daleys?

Yes, I remember that Stroger doubled the county’s share of the sales tax last year—how could I forget? The Tribune‘s editorial page has been reminding me ever since. But let’s put it in perspective. The county budget is about $3.2 billion—a fraction of the money Mayor Daley controls. Stroger’s sales tax hike was estimated to bring in about $426 million in annual revenue; in 2007 Daley raked in about $550 million with his off-the-books tax increment financing program. How come politicians and editorial boards aren’t beating their chests over that?

The answer, I suspect, is that they pull their punches when it comes to Daley because they don’t want to take on the real power in this town. Plus, there’s something about black patronage, as opposed to white patronage, that irritates the hell out of a lot of white people. So the north siders pound away at Stroger, an easy target without the political capital to pound back.

Last week I had a chance to ask Stroger what he thinks of all this. I didn’t even have to reach out to him—his people called me. As he gears up for reelection, Stroger’s looking for folks beyond the south side who, as one of his aides put, “might be fair.” I view it as the political equivalent of a Hail Mary pass: if you’re a machine politician and you’re asking me for help, you must be desperate.

We met in his office—a large, dimly lit room on the fifth floor of the county building. An aide sat to his side. “I believe there’s a target on my back,” Stroger said.

He declined to blame racism, instead framing the issue as a geographic divide: “There’s this general bias on the north side about south-side neighborhoods,” he said. “Unlike the other children of past politicians I don’t live where the rest of them live. Lisa Madigan, Dan Hynes—they all live on the north side. They have a different base than their fathers had. And it’s that base—the north-side base—that the newspapers editorials are talking to.”

He claimed it didn’t bother him that his name was being trashed to win white votes, though it’s ironic, since his father was always a bridge between the black and white factions of the Democratic organization. In the 1983 mayoral race John Stroger, unlike almost every other African-American politician in town, endorsed Richard M. Daley over Harold Washington, at great risk to his career. “Before Harold got into the race, Mayor Daley’s mother called my father and asked him to endorse Rich,” Todd Stroger said. “He told her he would, and once he gave his word he kept it.”

As Stroger sees it, he’s following the long tradition of strong black politicians—going back to Congressman William Dawson—who used their clout within the regular Democratic Party to win jobs and contracts for their people. He said one of his proudest achievements as president has been ensuring that minority contractors get 35 percent of county business. By contrast, the city has struggled to bring its minority contracting share up to 10 percent.

“Change like that does not happen unless you have your foot on someone’s neck,” he said.

For the most part, he was soft-spoken, almost shy, though he managed to crack a joke about how he’s been having trouble sleeping through the night: “I go to sleep at 11. I wake up and it’s one and I think: it’s not four! My mind is racing. I try to think of sheep, and eventually sheep become hospital workers.”

After about an hour, Stroger got a call from his secretary telling him he was late for his next appointment. He headed for the outer lobby of his office, where a crowd of people, most of them black, were waiting to see him. One man told him how much he owed John Stroger: “Your father helped turn me around when I was heading the wrong way.” In the elevator another guy told him that John Stroger had helped him get a job. Down on the first floor a different guy came up and reminded him that they’d met years ago, at one of his father’s functions.

I was struck by how stark the contrast was between what I was seeing and what I’d read in the campaign mailings: here in the county building people were tripping over themselves to express gratitude to Stroger and his family’s longtime patronage system; on the north side congressional candidates were bitterly arguing over which of them was most tainted by association with it. And I realized once again how racially divided the city remains, even in the afterglow of Barack Obama’s victory.v

Ben Joravsky discusses his weekly column with journalist Dave Glowacz at And for even more Joravsky, see our blog Clout City.