“Cook County is a whorehouse,” says Cook County commissioner Maria Pappas. “But I’m one of the most disgustingly tenacious people you’ll ever meet.” Pappas drives the traditional politicians absolutely nuts, and it’s easy to see why. For one thing, she’s a psychologist (as well as a lawyer), and she talks like one, in great looping swirls of rhetoric that meander into lanes and alleys that may not always seem relevant to the topic at hand. Cook County pols are not noted for an abiding interest in early-childhood memories, for speaking of “staying sane” as “the global task for the year 2000,” or for invoking the golden rule and the brotherhood of man with a straight face. And it’s hard to think of another officeholder (outside California, anyway) likely to send a reporter a copy of a turn-of-the-century allegorical poem with the explanation, “‘Ithaca’ is my philosophy of county government. This is the best. This says it all.”
Her fellow commissioners and their allies might write her off as a harmless flake, but that’s hard to do. Pappas, who has a definite knack for a sound bite, doesn’t go along to get along. She won’t shut up about waste, about assorted varieties of patronage, about her ideas for improved services, or about the need for reform. She’s made the public aware of the Cook County Board of Commissioners for the first time since ex-president George Dunne made headlines with his sex-for-jobs bimbos. She doesn’t seem interested in doling out jobs or contracts to shut up malcontents and reward the faithful. The pols and the press speculate about what she really wants, and conclude that she must be ambitious for higher office, that she’s setting her sights on a run for state’s attorney or county board president or even U.S. senator.
Pappas asserts that she’s not even sure she’ll run for office again. She says her agenda is public service, and she’s interested in doing what it takes to advance that. “Whatever the forum is that works–whatever you think can help the change or move the process forward–you use it. If it’s psychology, if it’s lawyering, if it’s being a county commissioner, whatever it is. But it could be a hundred other things.”
Pappas has taken a good number of knocks in the press. She has clashed, loudly and repeatedly, with board president Richard Phelan since the 1990 term began. At a meeting a year ago she discovered that her microphone had been ripped out–and accused Phelan of doing it. Once he patronized her with a snide version of “Maria.” She struck back at a party where she was playing the piano: “Gee, Dick, I’d play ‘Hail to the Chief,’ but I don’t know how.” (Pappas claims this was just a good-natured joke on her part; she’d just played “The Little Drummer Boy” for commissioner John Stroger, “the loyal soldier.” But Phelan took offense.) Pappas claims “the enemy is not inside the boardroom” and says she usually votes with Phelan. But as she talks his name comes up constantly, usually spoken with the fervor a Baptist minister reserves for Lucifer and his colleagues.
Yet Pappas is also eager to talk about what afflicts society and government, and how to cure those problems. “I’ve isolated things into three themes,” she says. “I come out of a kind of psych/attorney background, so my perspective of government probably is slightly different than many officials who sit in office. I have spent years in community-based work, both here and abroad, and I have a scheme of how I see things transpiring in society.
“What’s going on in government is not much different than what’s transpired in society. This used to be a kind of autocratic world, in which everyone knew exactly where they belonged and what the rules were. People knew who their superiors were: whites above blacks, males above females, teachers above students, parents above children, management above labor. Well in the 1960s everyone who had felt inferior rose up and said, ‘I’ve had enough!’ So we went through this tremendous revolution.” Pappas mentions the recent case of the 11-year-old Florida boy who demanded a “divorce” from his parents. “Twenty-five years ago no one would have ever even considered this. All of our institutions are in a great state of flux. We’re all trying to figure out how we can live together in a new way. How can we combine freedom and order, how can we have socially equal relationships, how can men and women get along better? But there aren’t any rules.
“All our institutions are going through this change. I sit as an elected official. I look around and I say to myself, ‘Government is just beginning to undergo this change.’ Which is why it seems that everything’s up for grabs.
“That’s my theme, number one. The bottom line of it is, how do you take this situation and make government relevant?
“Theme two. At the county level we’re basically charged with hospitals and jails. Tangentially, we are in charge of forest preserves, the Brookfield Zoo, the botanical gardens. Because we are charged with the duty of overseeing jails and a publicly funded hospital, we always are faced with crisis management. What can you do during a four-year term in office? Every time there’s a crisis you put on a Band-Aid.
“If we intend to become more cost-effective in the 90s, both in regard to hospitals and to jails, it’s less feasible to keep pouring money into addressing crisis management and more feasible to look at underlying causes–i.e., prevention.
“Third premise: Government in the 90s must recognize, or we as elected officials must recognize, that we can’t afford to have governments try to solve these problems. We must tap into the great reserve of volunteerism: people and institutions within our reach–the University of Chicago, Northwestern, the established business community, community leaders, churches–and pull them in, give them a stake in what’s happening.
“I can give you an example of the effect of volunteerism. I set up a citizens’ subcommittee of volunteers who conducted hearings on “the technology-computerization problem’ in Cook County. I think if you had hired a consultant to do this, it would have cost you a fortune. The volunteers are all either in the field of, or tangentially related to, juvenile justice, criminal justice. They have an active interest in seeing government work because they’ve seen it not working at some level. That’s the kind of volunteerism I’m talking about. I’m talking about being able to set up blue-ribbon committees–MBAs, department heads, faculty from Loyola, Northwestern, U. of C.,–all the universities in the area. I’m basing some of this on my own experience when I was getting my degrees. There are students who are dying to research. There are departments in business institutions that would readily welcome being able to come in and volunteer on a blue-ribbon budget committee, because their businesses will leave the county if we don’t control the budget. We need people from the banking industry to come and sit in on the budget hearings when things are being negotiated between the executive branch and the actual elected officials, prior to the deal coming before the board and getting rubber-stamped.
“No matter what anyone would love to believe to the contrary, it’s a new age. There’s a sense of excitement about what can possibly happen, there’s a sense of vision. And we as elected officials have to tap into and respond to that.”
The term “type A personality” could have been coined to describe Maria Anastasia Pappas. Tall, thin, dark, and intense at 42, she chain-chews Clorets gum and spends as much time playing with her cigarettes, rolling them between red-nailed fingers, as she does puffing on them. Her small office, with windows overlooking the lobby and the street, was designed to be fashionably stark, but mounds of papers clutter it. She shares the space with two red-cheeked cockatiels: shy Plato, who stays in the cage, and outspoken Crete, who cocks a beady eye at me while perched on her mistress’s shoulder.
Pappas is quite open. Asked what she makes as a Cook County commissioner, she digs out a pay stub and hands it over. (Gross pay: $1,875; year to date: $28,125, for the period ending July 11.) She’s intense and a trifle flamboyant. She’s a hands-on person, a people person, pressing the flesh in a Greek restaurant, startling me with a good-bye peck on the cheek as our first interview was ending. She’s extremely helpful, providing me with clips–even uncomplimentary ones–and papers. When she called and offered to have her assistant take my small child to a museum while we talked, so that I didn’t have to pay for a baby-sitter, I was surprised–and suspicious that it was a payoff. But after spending more than five hours together and many more hours on the telephone, I decided it was merely a spontaneous expression of goodwill.
Pappas says she doesn’t pay much attention to politicians and political consultants. “I find out about things by talking to real people–waitresses, the woman who does my nails, the doorman at my building, black ministers on the west side, taxi drivers, and the businessmen who work out at the East Bank Club at six o’clock in the morning. I know that they’re concerned about jobs and taxes and waste. Try not to think ‘elected official’ when you’re talking to me, OK? Try to think ‘regular human being.'” She laughs.
While not hobbled by false modesty or low self-esteem, she doesn’t seem to have any delusions of grandeur either. She quotes Golda Meir: “I’m not important enough to be humble.”
Pappas, who lives in the Hancock building with a view of the west side, speaks in a low, husky voice that owes a lot to cigarettes. Her accent seems to owe little or nothing to her native West Virginia. She was born and raised in Warwood, a conservative town of about 2,000 near Wheeling. She was known as Mary Ann, played clarinet in the all-state band, and twirled a baton. She speaks nostalgically of the “sense of community” that’s still there but somehow missing here.
Her parents, both children of Cretan immigrants, were born in this country, but Greek was spoken in the home. “I can express some things better in Greek than in English,” Pappas says. She played organ in her Greek Orthodox church, directed the children’s choir, and claims Byzantine music as one of her specialties. Her parents were extremely careful with their money; she grew up in a house that didn’t have a shower. The Pappases owned a plant store, a toy store, and a restaurant that was adjacent to the only hospital in town. “Interns from all over the world came in and out of this hospital. And I had the privilege of being with them. I knew early on that I wanted to do something in the area of human services. I knew that I would do something with people.”
In 1970 Pappas, a scholarship student, earned a BA in sociology from West Liberty State College, in West Liberty, West Virginia. She got it in three years by taking extra courses while holding down three part-time jobs simultaneously, two as a waitress and one selling clothes. That degree was followed in 1972 by an MA in guidance and counseling from West Virginia University, and four years later by a PhD in counseling and psychology from Loyola. An Adlerian psychologist, she has had a private counseling practice since 1972, though that has since been blended into her law practice. She has also been employed by the Adlerian Psychology Center in Holland, the justice ministry in Greece, and the Dreikurs Institute in Tel Aviv. She has trained people around the world in parenting techniques. From 1975 to 1982 she taught psychology and counseling at Governors State University in Park Forest.
In 1973 she got a state grant to train mothers in parenting at Chicago’s Altgeld Gardens development. “That lasted one year. When the money ran out, I brought students in to train them. I had as many as 30 students at once in there. It was a great deal for everyone. The mothers got the training, the students got three hours of graduate credit–and it didn’t cost the government a penny. That’s what I mean when I talk about volunteerism. If I could, I’d have every graduate student in the county doing things like that.
“I ended up doing a lot of alternate-sentencing work with the courts. I came to be of the opinion that community service–heavy community service–and rehabilitation should be substituted for incarceration whenever possible.
“I came into my office at Governors State one day, and I found my secretary at her typewriter crying. So I asked her, ‘What’s the problem?’ She wept and said, ‘My son is at 26th and California–he’s been locked up. They have him for dealing heavy quantities of cocaine, on video. He called me this morning. He told me he was homosexually assaulted last night. I’ve got to get him bonded out.’ So I said, ‘Let’s go.’
“I knew that at 19 someone had not gotten into this type of trouble unless there was a reason. Well, I found out that years before, while the mother was working, the 12-year-old boy had been left alone with his 9-year-old mentally retarded brother. The mother told him to feed his brother lunch and mow the lawn. So he fed his brother a peanut-butter sandwich and went to mow the lawn–and when he came back his brother had choked to death. That discouragement led to drug use, which led to drug dealing, which led to 26th and California.
“I went to court for him; the judge had seen me testifying in various cases. I had my heart in this case. I believed we shouldn’t be spending $18,000-plus a year to incarcerate someone like this. I told the judge, ‘He’s absolutely guilty. There’s no question. But I want five minutes of uninterrupted time. Please don’t ask me any questions until I’ve finished. I’m gonna ask you to please shut the courtroom door and ask everyone to be quiet, because I think that what I have to say will have a tremendous impact.’ And I gave the most heartfelt Clarence Darrow-type argument that anyone had ever heard. And when I finished, the clerk was crying, the sheriff was crying, the other mothers in the room, who were in similar situations, were crying. And the judge said, ‘I release this man to your custody.’ Then he said, ‘Pappas, I want to see you in my chamber. Case closed. Recess.’ I went back into his chamber, and he said, ‘I want to know why you’re not practicing law.’ I said, ‘I really like what I’m doing.’ And he felt that I should get formally trained in law so I could combine these two fields, because I had such a good understanding of the justice system. So I quietly got a law degree.”
While Pappas was working on her degree (“I was terribly bored in law school”), she happened to read an article about picking jurors through handwriting analysis. Fascinated, she got certified as a graphoanalyst. “That work was consistent with my dissertation, which was on early-childhood memories. You listen to early-childhood memories to get an index into someone’s current frame of reference, which is one of the techniques I was using with these incarcerees. When you get someone who’s a prisoner or awaiting trial, they’re very guarded, and it’s hard to get anything from them. So it’s much easier to extract an early-childhood memory. And of course the early-childhood memory is a blueprint of the present.”
She spent some time assisting attorneys in picking juries through graphology, and in 1982 got her law degree. She says she never completely stopped her psychological counseling: “How can you do a divorce case without counseling? How can you represent someone in a worker’s comp case without understanding the pain of losing a foot?”
She did a lot of pro bono work, much of it in the black community, and built up a network of friends. But Pappas says she was completely apolitical until quite recently–she didn’t even know who Mike Madigan and George Dunne were. Then Alderman Rickey Hendon suggested she run for county board. “He said, ‘This is perfect for you. This involves public-policy-making, jails, and hospitals. It’s just right up your alley.’ I thought about it, and I said, ‘I’m game.’ And I literally threw my name in the hat. I called everyone I knew–all the people I had worked with. I called Altgeld Gardens, I called people from Governors, I called Koreans, Mexicans, Greeks–anybody that I had worked with over the last 20 years. I called them and said, ‘Don’t forget to vote!’ They all said, ‘What are you running for?’ ‘I’m running for county commissioner.’ ‘Well, what’s that?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m not really sure, but it sounds like fun.'”
And has it been fun? “Yeah. It has been an insightful experience. I think that I shall come out of this more knowledgeable about my own stupidity. I am probably in many ways still just the average citizen who believes, in some way or another, that government is for the people. And I came to find out that in some ways that’s not true. In some ways it has become a tremendous infrastructure that serves those who are elected rather than those who are paying. I think the public is beginning to catch on.”
Why did she run as a Democrat, since her views on such basic items as honesty, patronage, and living within a reasonable budget seem at odds with those of the standard-issue Cook County party member? Pappas pauses, apparently stumped. “I don’t know. No one’s ever asked me that question. I didn’t grow up in Chicago politics–I was long oblivious to them. I was never a precinct captain, I didn’t work my way up. I was simply an accident, a total accident–at least in the eyes of those in power. I was probably not an accident in the eyes of anyone who knew me very well or knew of my community work.”
Pappas didn’t win the endorsement of the regular Democratic organization until after the 1990 primary, but through a combination of networking and luck–her name came up first on the ballot–she won a seat on the board.
Her much-publicized problems with Richard Phelan began early in the term. Pappas had pledged to support commissioner John Stroger for finance chair. “And for me there was no backing off of that. When the reorg came down there was some attempt to overthrow Stroger, and I probably was seen as the swing vote in the matter.”
Pappas maintains that the feud with Phelan has been overhyped. “If you look at the record, approximately 93 percent of the time I vote with him and the other board members. There are issues on which we differ, and on those issues I speak my mind. And I think if you were to examine closely what those issues are, I prefer the candidate Dick Phelan to the officeholder Dick Phelan.”
Has she ever analyzed his handwriting? Pappas chuckles. “That’s a very interesting question. The very first thing that happened when we got to the County Building was that we got a resolution honoring George Dunne, and everyone signed it. It finally came around to me–I was the 17th to sign. My secretary was sitting there, and I said, ‘Oh, my God! Look at these signatures!’ She said, ‘What are you talking about?’ ‘Look at how interesting the people on this board are going to be!’ And I did my rough-shot analysis. I found that there was a lot of showmanship there–not to be specific about who, but there was some real grandiosity there–and some real question on my part about whether people would be functioning on the board for themselves or for the sake of the common good. I sized them up right away. I looked at Stroger’s signature–I saw the loyalty in his writing, and I was convinced he was right for finance chairman.” What did she get out of Phelan’s signature? She pauses for a long moment, looking me in the eye, then responds: “Calvin Coolidge always said, ‘I never got in trouble for anything I didn’t say.'” She laughs.
Maria Pappas has definite opinions on most county issues. She opposed the sales-tax increase and wrote letters and op-ed pieces warning that it promised economic disaster–that more businesses would depart and that shoppers would decide to shop elsewhere. Rather than raise the sales tax–a move seemingly devised by the Du Page County Chamber of Commerce–she urged that county hiring and other spending practices be examined and that some of the waste be cut. She thought the deficit could have been eliminated with a cut of far less than the 10 percent Phelan promised during his campaign to pare it by. But the board voted to soak consumers.
She proposed an ordinance mandating fixed-sum building contracts. “This would eliminate change orders caused by errors or omissions on the part of the contractor or architect,” she argues. “There has been a practice of firms who low-bid to obtain the contract, then subsequently issue change orders to pad the original amount. Instead the county hired ‘program/project managers,’ to the tune of $4 million, to oversee these projects as “representatives’ of the county. . . . To date there is no evidence that these managers have or will save the county a dime.”
As an example, Pappas cites the mess at Division X, a 750-bed maximum-security jail that was supposed to open last April but may have to be torn down before the decade is out. Early in 1991 concrete floor slabs throughout the building began to crack. A project-managing firm called DPR started monitoring the site that November and was on the job when the contractor attempted to repair the cracks by injecting an epoxy solution into them. The epoxy seeped into the electrical conduit in the slabs, ruining the wiring. It also ran down walls, and the contractor’s efforts to sand it off created a dust storm that ruined electronic security devices.
Pappas, who quotes Phelan as saying “Division X is the worst nightmare I inherited upon taking office,” says that the jail could end up costing taxpayers “millions and millions of dollars more” because of liability problems that occurred on Phelan’s watch. The county’s program managers failed to stop the “repairs,” yet the county indemnified the managing company and then paid large sums for outside counsel.
Pappas also points out that more than 300 new jailers were hired ten months before the new Division IX section of County Jail opened, though “national standards for training corrections officials only call for a ten-week training period.” She says the money spent on them has cost taxpayers millions, and charges that since it was hard to get a list of the new county employees “one could reason, by virtue of suspicion, that these new hires just may be political-patronage employees of Mike Madigan, Illinois Speaker of the House and Phelan’s most staunch political ally.”
Pappas’s academic background shows clearly in what even her detractors on the board call one of her greatest strengths, her research papers. She is, for example, coauthor (with Donna Farrell Siegel) of “Preventing Modern Day Pandoras: Vaccinating Young Women Against Pregnancy and Abortion,” which examines the connections between early pregnancies among lower-income (usually unwed) women and lack of education, crime, and health problems.
“The cumulative effect on today’s society of women having children before reaching adulthood has become so deleterious and far-reaching that these young women have become Modern Day Pandoras. That is, like the Pandora of Greek Mythology, they are either unaware or unable to heed the warnings and bring untold misery and suffering upon themselves, their children and society.” Pappas and Siegel note that federal assistance programs address the consequences of early pregnancies, not the causes or the ways to prevent them. “Since research has confirmed the problems associated with Modern Day Pandoras, and other studies have calculated significant decreases in the amount of public expenditures for each year that childbirth is delayed, logic would dictate that the most effective solution for eradicating this interwoven net of problems would be to develop programs that would provide support, encouragement and incentives for young women to delay pregnancy until adulthood.”
Though written in jargon and rife with footnotes and statistics, the report makes a number of points that have generally been overlooked outside of a few free-market and conservative think tanks, including the cost of hospital deliveries for teenagers on medicaid ($200 million per year) and the many health and learning problems teenage mothers and their offspring have. “By the time all of the 385,000 children born to teenage mothers in 1985 reach the age of 20, the government will have spent $6.04 billion to support them. If those teenage mothers had delayed pregnancy until they reached adulthood, society could have realized a savings of $2.4 billion.”
Pappas and Siegel recommend education and incentives: tax rebates for women who graduate from high school and college without becoming pregnant, welfare payments that go down as families increase in size, tuition vouchers, free birth-control implants, mentor and support programs. They also call on groups such as the Girl Scouts and the National Organization for Women to help.
Pappas is avidly prochoice, and she’s in total agreement with Phelan that abortions should be provided at Cook County Hospital. Yet the emphasis in her Pandoras paper is on the prevention of pregnancy. The tone is completely reasonable; only a rabid antiabortionist like Joe Scheidler would find anything with which to disagree.
Another pet project is the report of the county board’s Citizens’ Sub-Committee on Law Enforcement and Corrections, which found that “each of the local, county and state agencies is moving to develop their own information systems. What is missing is the development of a network integrating system to make all this information available on a timely basis.”
That lack has consequences on several levels, Pappas points out. Taxes are being raised to provide millions for jails she says the county doesn’t need. “We don’t have an overcrowding problem–we’ve got a trafficking problem.” She brandishes a sheaf of documented “information failures in criminal-justice administration.” Under the headline “Robs Donut Shop, Rapes Hostage” is “Here’s what happened: A man arrested by Chicago Police on a weapons charge checked out ‘clean’ on a routine background check to see if he was wanted for outstanding crimes. He was released on an I-Bond. A short time later, he went into a donut shop, robbed the shop-owner and abducted a female employee. He drove the hostage to the Rogers Park area where he repeatedly raped her. Here’s what should have happened: The Interstate Identification Index would have shown that this man had a prior record and he would not have been released on I-Bond.”
Pappas says, “Someone can rape and rob in Oak Park, be released on bond, go to Park Ridge, rape and rob and be released, go to Evanston and rape and rob and be released–and it never gets picked up in a computer! So what happens? Finally the son of a bitch is picked up, he goes to jail, he’s awaiting trial. By the time the public defender, the state’s attorney, the judge, the court personnel, the City of Chicago get all their police reports together–do you realize how much delay is involved?
“According to a technical-assistance report by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, ‘If all cases involving pretrial detainees in Cook County were concluded within 140 days, this would save more than 300,000 bed days per year–enough to house 3,284 additional prisoners.’ These are detainees–they’re not convicted criminals. They’re just awaiting trial. How do you get them through the court system more quickly?” Pappas, and the Citizens’ Sub-Committee, maintain that the answer is relatively simple and cheap: install a common standard for computers and software in all county law-enforcement agencies.
“Assume that right now I’m arrested,” she suggests. “There’s no computer that the police report goes into. It’s manually written on three copies; it then goes through a routing process; it eventually ends up at 11th and State. There’s no excuse that it’s not computerized! Because that person who’s arrested and gets out on an I-bond could be on a spree within 24 hours. How are you gonna track a Jeffrey Dahmer in Cook County? How are you gonna find him? You can’t track him. You can’t find him. And they should quit lying to the public. They’ve been working on this for 20 years, trying to figure out how to computerize this thing. The answer is, take charge. The answer is to have an executive in charge of the county board who sits down with the mayor, who sits down with Edgar, and says ‘This is our central problem: public safety.’ And it’s a minimal cost. The software for this is about a million and a half dollars. That is minuscule. They pay $4 million for project managers to oversee construction sites.”
There is, of course, opposition to Pappas’s plan, even though career criminals out on I-bond threaten people in neighborhoods all over the metropolitan area, and even though property taxes and sales taxes to pay for housing them while they await trial hurt everyone. “There is opposition to this plan because it would cost jobs,” says Pappas flatly. “If you put these computers in, it means that the people who run around on election day with their brown bags of campaign literature–county employees, members of the patronage army–may go by the wayside.”
But Pappas says she’s not interested in eliminating a single job by axing employees. “I’ve never suggested firing anyone. But in county government approximately 10 percent leave every year by attrition. That’s 3,000 people. You wouldn’t have to fire anyone.”
Yet the county payroll, which Phelan promised to freeze, continues to expand. According to county budget figures, at least 14 individuals making between $37,752 and $96,000 a year–most of them in the $50,000 to $70,000 range–have been added to his office alone since he was sworn in. In 1991 the Sun-Times reported that 468 people were added to positions controlled by Phelan; another 224 were hired at county hospitals. In 1992, according to Forest Preserve District figures, $1,026,144 was added to the forest-preserve payroll.
One of Pappas’s successes is electronic home monitoring, which allows convicted criminals wearing special bracelets to stay home instead of clogging the jails and costing the taxpayers, as Pappas likes to point out, an average of $18,000 a year to feed, house, and guard. “I made myself the foremost authority in the county” on monitoring, she boasts, adding that she drafted a bill authorizing a user fee of up to $5 a day to pay for the monitoring; many braceleted cons work and can well afford the fee. The bill was sponsored in Springfield by the bipartisan team of senators Adeline Geo-Karis and Bill Marovitz, and Governor Jim Edgar signed it. But at the county level, Pappas says, her ordinance to make it the rule for county offenders has been “stalled in committee.”
“You have to understand that county government has traditionally been a patronage army,” says Pappas. “All you have to do is go to the County Building on election day. You couldn’t find a county employee anywhere–they’re all working a precinct. You have patronage, and then you’ve got pinstripe patronage, which is all these bond counselors and contractors and construction persons who contribute heavily to campaigns. Regular patronage is: work as precinct captain equals a job in the forest preserve. Pinstripe patronage is: contribute to me, and I’ll throw you a no-bid contract. Pinstripe patronage is all the change orders in contracts, all the bond counseling–and $13 million of consultants this year. Come on. How much can a consultant tell you that you don’t already know?
“We are looking at a situation where being elected means having the money to buy television time. George Dunne used to raise maybe $80,000. Now we have people raising $3 million, $4 million to win a county-wide office because they’re buying television time. Who ends up paying for that television time? The taxpayer. Because the construction projects continue, the consulting contracts continue, the building continues, the change orders continue, the patronage continues–and it just gets bigger and bigger. And the same people make the donations that pay for the candidate to be on TV.”
Pappas finds patronage both offensive and expensive. “There’s all this talk that we have to build a new county hospital. Our mandate is to serve the poor, serve the indigent. How can you best serve the indigent? Within 15 minutes of Cook County Hospital there are 1,000 vacant beds in various hospitals. There are 90 hospitals in Cook County. We’ve got nurses that won’t go to County Hospital–we pay an extra $6.9 million a year for nurses at County Hospital. Doesn’t it make more sense to lease out space from various hospitals, so we can better service all these communities? Allow the burden of updated equipment to fall on the hospital that we’re leasing from?
“Let’s say we build a new county hospital, and it costs us $600,000 a bed. We’re talking about a $300-to-500-million project! When this administration came into office, the county debt was $650 million. As it stands now, by the time this administration is out of office it will have tripled! Do you know what your children will be paying in taxes?
“When I came in, I learned a lot. This is probably the most shocking statistic I ever read: Cook County taxpayers pay for a total of 850 different taxing districts. Each levies its own property tax, and apart from their municipalities and school districts, most taxpayers also pay for townships, park districts, fire-protection districts, sanitary districts, public-library districts, and even four Cook County mosquito-abatement districts! Depending upon where they live, county taxpayers also pay for over 40 special services, like sidewalks, traffic improvements. Townships also levy separate taxes for general assistance, road and bridge repair, mental-health programs, public health, and special police. With over 800 local governments to support, it’s no surprise that Cook County taxpayers are confused and angry. For many years all these governing boards and commissions and councils have provided a convenient shield for lazy, incompetent, or disorganized county officials and their patronage.
“There’s a lot of duplication of services, and I can give you a whole study on how it could be eliminated. But it cannot be eliminated, because to eliminate it means that the township patronage army’s gone, that the city patronage army’s gone, that the state patronage army’s gone. There’s such a duplication of services it’s ridiculous! It’s an absolute waste of resources. And while we’re doing this, putting all these things out, what we are not doing is addressing the problems that need to be addressed.”
“Pinstripe patronage” is one of Pappas’s more memorable phrases, and she alleges that there are plenty of instances of it in the Phelan administration. According to her, “bond counsels and underwriters, highway-department consultants, personnel consultants, auditing contracts, construction-project managers, labor negotiators, outside counsel for workers’ comp cases” and more have been the beneficiaries of no-bid contracts. She charges that too many of these contracts go to contributors to Phelan’s campaign fund. In the highway department alone, she claims, “five out of nine consultants hired during the Phelan administration have been Phelan contributors.”
Pappas screamed “patronage” when Harvey Adelstein, a Phelan contributor who is also the father of Phelan aide Eric Adelstein, got more than $300,000 in labor-negotiation contracts, and when it turned out that two of four project-managing firms hired by the county had contributed to Phelan’s campaign (more than $40,000 in one instance). Some of her charges seem petty, but together they give the impression that Phelan’s reforms consist largely of giving the county pork to a new set of grafters in expensive suits.
Pappas also believes that patronage–and the need to pay off campaign debts–is behind many of the new bond issues that are plunging the county further into debt. She’s pushing an ordinance to require at least two public hearings before bonds can be issued. Phelan opposes it.
Alderman Rickey Hendon has known Maria Pappas for seven years: he persuaded her to run for commissioner and then served as her campaign manager. He’s an outspoken fellow and has sometimes been accused of grandstanding, but he doesn’t see Pappas as a publicity hound. And he doesn’t think she’s been portrayed fairly in the media.
“She’s very intelligent, very opinionated, and very true to her beliefs. If she believes in a cause or an issue, it’s hard to change her mind. She’s very strong willed. But she’s a very loyal friend, and that’s rare in 1992. She’s not a typical politician–I don’t think she really fits into the mold of a politician. That’s why I talked her into running. We need different types of people in government. She’s nobody’s coward, and she never took a backseat in her life–and I don’t believe she’s going to start now.”
Hendon had known Pappas for a couple of years before hiring her as his attorney. “She’s a good attorney–she took good care of me. I sent some people to her who could not afford an attorney, and she took care of them. She’s helped a lot of blacks and a lot of Hispanic people.
“I served as her campaign manager, and, believe me, she wasn’t easy to manage. Maria was very difficult, because she did not understand politics and the things she had to do to get elected. And if you don’t get elected, you can’t bring about the reforms you have in mind. She had to come to terms with campaigning and the compromises you have to make. You have to be nice to ward committeemen, and she was uncomfortable with that. She finally did what she was told, but she always questioned it. Maria never had confidence that she was going to win. She did not believe that people would vote for an outsider, for a novice.”
Pappas’s greatest strengths, says Hendon, are “her attention to detail, her honesty, her unquenching energy. Anybody in politics who is not a crook is crazy, because it’s a thankless, unending job. I’m a little crazy–I think Maria probably is a little bit crazy too. It’s frustrating to see the corrupt deals, the inflated contracts, the taxes going up–and the people doing ’em keep getting reelected. You have to wonder, Don’t people care? Maria is honest, and I don’t think that politics is an honest profession.”
Yet he also says, “Some people might find her too tough, too direct–she doesn’t beat around the bush. Some people are irritated by that, because she doesn’t smooth over things. I don’t think using diplomacy is a bad thing. She should be a little more tactful sometimes; it doesn’t compromise how you feel or how you vote. She’s just gotta learn that in politics you have to watch what you say. You have to be very sensitive as to what you say and how you say it.
“Maria is a stand-up person. She’s a beautiful person. She’s a courageous person.” Anything else? “She plays wonderful piano and sings off-key, and everybody has a wonderful time at her parties.”
“She’s a very knowledgeable, very committed, very dedicated public servant–and I don’t make nice comments about people unless they’re doing their jobs,” says Tom Fuller of the Water Reclamation District. Fuller and Pappas campaigned together in black neighborhoods, and he says he got to know her pretty well. “She doesn’t go along with the crowd. Maria will speak out.”
What are her weaknesses as a politician? “I don’t think Maria has any weaknesses. I do tell her I don’t want people to think she’s a nitpicker, but there is no question in my mind that Maria is right on target on most of the things she brings up. The politicians in Cook County have a good-old-boy network, and if you’re not one of them they don’t accept you. Maria doesn’t sit in a corner and take that.”
It can be hard to find members of the Cook County Board of Commissioners in their offices. They tend not to be there first thing in the morning, after 4 PM, or for several hours in the middle of the day. A few have other offices; the rest do not. Tracking them down requires patience.
Richard Phelan failed to return multiple telephone calls requesting an interview on the subject of Pappas; his press secretary, Pam Smith, said he was very busy. Commissioners Allan Carr, Robert Gooley, Frank Damato, and Herbert Schumann also did not return calls. Republican commissioner Carl Hansen did return my call, but flatly refused to comment.
Several of the commissioners who agreed to be interviewed were very carefully noncommittal, including Danny Davis. “Maria is energetic, intelligent, and does her homework. She’s aggressive, knows what she wants to do, and generally has the courage to do it. I think that pretty much sums her up.” Has she been a good commissioner? “I wouldn’t want to make a value judgment relative to her service on the board.” Would he support her in the next race? “It’s difficult to know if a person’s going to be running. I really couldn’t say.” What about the feud with Phelan? “Different individuals have different ideas about process, about issues, about the way in which things ought to happen. I think Mr. Phelan has his ideas, and Ms. Pappas has hers.” Any other comments? “I think she’s interesting. She’s refreshing. She knows the business end, she has a good head on her shoulders, and she has a way of creating excitement on the board. She’s not a wallflower.”
“I think she’s a very hardworking commissioner,” says John Daley. “I believe she tries to present another point of view on some different agendas in a very sincere way. I think she’s effective in some ways–you don’t always have to win an issue to have an effect. I have enjoyed our relationship, and I look forward to working with her in the future.”
“She’s a very interesting person,” says commissioner Irene Hernandez, who’s been in office since 1974. She repeats this sentiment three times. “She’s very well academically educated. She knows her business. Sometimes I don’t agree with her–the commission is a little bit different than what she’s used to. We have different ways of thinking. We usually vote together, but I never find anything to go against President Phelan. He’s very intelligent. He’s a very academically educated person, and I think we should follow him. I have never voted against him.”
Mary McDonald, a suburban Republican, has been a member of the Cook County Board of Commissioners for nearly 18 years. By her own estimate, she has worked more closely with Pappas than any of her fellow commissioners. Pappas calls her a “mentor.”
“She’s probably the brightest person on the board,” says McDonald. “When she’s focused, nobody does better than she does. But she’s a person who is very green in the political world. She makes mistakes because she doesn’t have a political background.”
McDonald says she and Pappas share a “global approach,” which helps her to understand Pappas better than anyone else on the board. “It’s so insular here–many of the commissioners can only see as far as the ends of their noses. Maria is a breath of fresh air.”
McDonald recalls a time early in the term when someone mentioned state senate president Phil Rock and Maria asked who he was. “I thought she was a nut. Now I realize she’s truly a grass-roots politician. She didn’t get to the board through traditional politics. She was a diamond in the rough when she came to the board; now she’s been polished up. She was very trusting in the beginning–she thought people in government were straightforward and didn’t lie. But now she’s learned how they can pull the rug out from under you. She used to be the world’s biggest sucker, ready to help everybody, but she’s a lot more selective now.
“Maria’s a survivor. Say you were lost in the woods. Most people would die of starvation. Maria would start a lumber business.”
In McDonald’s view, Phelan’s problems with Pappas are of his own making. “Phelan really doesn’t understand how to deal with smart women. He’s a macho, steamroller kind of guy. Maria and I are not controlled by anybody, so we give him a harder time than the others. He made a big mistake in dealing with her. Instead of trying to box her in he could have said, ‘Do your projects,’ and she would have been off in a corner working on her agenda. But fight her and it gets her dander up. He cut her off when he could have worked with her. Maria doesn’t care who gets the credit–she just cares that her ideas get accepted.”
McDonald thinks Pappas is different from county-government politicians in other ways too. “She has a deep religious conviction, which makes her honest. She doesn’t talk out of both sides of her mouth–‘My religious convictions tell me one thing, but for public aggrandizement I do things the other way.’ She has a deep respect for her parents, she has a deep respect for God, and she is absolutely without prejudice. She has a great following in the black community. And she will take on anybody–no matter what their color or background–if they need help. Maria is straight. She is a person of integrity. She may be the only one who votes against something, or one of two, but she doesn’t worry about being outvoted. She’s not a follower, she’s a leader. And she’s a leader with a lot of followers who admire her and trust her.”
Is Pappas ambitious for higher office? McDonald thinks not. “Phelan’s office put out that Maria was running for state’s attorney just to show that she’s ambitious, but she’s not. She wants to see how much she can accomplish where she is. She has a platform she can use right now.”
McDonald and Pappas have disagreed on some issues, such as public funding of abortions at Cook County Hospital. Pappas is vigorously in favor of funding them. McDonald says she’s “not prolife or prochoice. I’m just against public funding. Pregnant women in Cook County have other options, and I don’t think the taxpayers should have to pay for elective abortions.”
Yet McDonald does admire Pappas’s teenage-pregnancy paper. “Calling for abstinence is a very conservative thing, very prolife. Many of her ideas appeal to prolifers–she wants to teach responsibility and taking control of your own life. Maria believes in education.”
Is Pappas just after headlines? “There are two schools of thought. Some think she’s a publicity hound. But Maria wants things in the newspapers because that’s how she can expose things at the county board. She does her homework, she helps the press–and they slap her.”
McDonald thinks Pappas is the greatest thing to come along at the county board in years. “Sometimes she doesn’t see the forest for the trees, but she always gets back on track. When she makes a mistake, she says she’s sorry. She’s not afraid to fail. From adversity, you learn–and Maria is in the process of learning. And she’s a fast learner. When she keeps herself focused, she’s an absolute star.”
“I suppose the first thing I have to say about Maria is that she’s outspoken. She’s not afraid to speak her mind,” says Dick Siebel, a three-term commissioner from Northbrook. “She seems to have good access to–I don’t want to say moles–to an extensive grapevine. She has been able to uncover quite a bit of the happenings at county government. She’s been a productive member of the board. She’s certainly a refreshing change from what we have seen from city commissioners.
“Her greatest strength is her independence. Her greatest weakness is her independence. The quality of independence adds credibility to the positions she has taken. The negative aspect of independence is that on occasion it isolates her from everyone on the board, both allies and foes, by taking positions that might be calculated more for personal exposure than governmental good. I wouldn’t call her a publicity hound, but she enjoys the spotlight.”
Siebel feels that personality differences between Phelan and Pappas have added fuel to their feud, which he thinks “detracts from the strength of their positions. Phelan has very little understanding of government, and I think he views his seat as a stepping-stone for higher office. I question his sincerity in terms of programs for the county.
Pappas, he says, “has, perhaps, brought a measure of notoriety to the board, not all in a good sense. But she has helped to shine some light on the actions of the board. I think ultimately the taxpayers will benefit from Maria’s presence on the board.”
“Pappas is a very intelligent person,” says 22-year commissioner John Stroger. “She brings not only a degree of independence, but she brings some wit to the county board. I think she has the potential to be an outstanding public official, but she needs to start shifting to the mainstream of politics, as opposed to being confrontational.”
Stroger, who is not beholden to Phelan and can speak his mind with impunity, thinks the fight with the board president could have been avoided. “That’s not to say that all fights could or should be avoided, but you should not be an automatic “no’ on anything. But her independence is definitely a strength. So is her intelligence, and how she makes her analysis of the issues. She has the ability to articulate her issues, particularly through the media. She’s getting us more attention. When Pappas and Phelan debate the issues, it enhances the visibility of the county board. It’s not a weakness to fight the president, but she shouldn’t fight him arbitrarily. I think she has overdone the issue of campaign contributions to Mr. Phelan. Obviously, Mr. Phelan is a politician. But everything he’s doing, he’s doing within the confines of the law.”
To Stroger, Pappas is just as much a politician as he is. “She’s playing the politics of independence, as opposed to being very closely allied to tradition.” Is she ambitious? “Yes. I think anybody who’s as active as she is would like to have another office, but I don’t know what that might be. I think Pappas is learning. And I would support her again if she ran for the county board.”
Commissioner Jerry Butler says he likes Pappas, “but I disagree with her on a whole lot of things. It’s a matter of philosophies. Maria’s philosophy is that the taxpayers are tired of paying taxes, and she’s trying to find ways to reduce that impact. I disagree. I’d like to keep taxes from going too high, but I don’t think that her solutions are proper solutions.” He cites her campaign to privatize Cook County Jail; in his view, the companies with experience running jails don’t have the know-how to run a big operation like county.
“She has raised some excellent questions about the administration, [but] some seemed political and not aimed at finding solutions. I’m not sure how much is aimed at Phelan personally and how much is legitimate. I hear people on the street saying, ‘What’s the problem between Phelan and Pappas?’ And to my mind, that is not a good situation.
“Maria is well-versed on her issues. Sometimes she is not astute about the political process, but everybody runs into that problem, including yours truly.”
“Great girl, great girl!” says Marco Domico, a second-term commissioner. “I admire her for her spunk. She has the courage of her convictions. I’ve always told her, ‘If you believe it, stick with it. If you think it’s right, go for it.’ I hope to see her go places in the future. She’s a bright woman.”
Domico says he’d like to see Pappas run for higher office and calls her “a dynamic woman. I don’t agree with her half the time, but she’s still intelligent. She still knows her stuff.”
What are her weaknesses? Domico roars, “There’s nothing weak about Maria Pappas, dear! That’s why I love her. She has the courage of her convictions. She’s as strong as they make ’em. She don’t take a backseat to no one.”
Ted Lechowicz has been in the General Assembly for more than 20 years; this is his first term on the county board. He was endorsed by the Democratic Party as a candidate for president of the board, but says he “couldn’t raise two and a half million dollars” to run a campaign. Lechowicz does not kowtow to Phelan, and he and Pappas are frequent allies.
“I find her very intelligent, very bright, a person who’s dedicated. She is very strong in her beliefs, and very cost conscious for the taxpayers of Cook County. I don’t think anyone can say she’s not dedicated. She’s an asset to the county board.
“Her greatest strength is her ability and willingness to look at the entire subject matter and come up with a good judgment. I have not found a weak point in her as a board member.”
Lechowicz says he does not consider Pappas’s relationship with Phelan to be a feud. “It’s a matter of looking at government from different viewpoints. It’s a question of whether we should bond and endebt future generations for today’s costs. There are going to be a lot of angry taxpayers when they see the next tax bill.”
“I think she’s an obviously ambitious person who has staked out a kind of role for herself on the county board and garnered maximum publicity from it,” says political consultant David Axelrod, the man who reinvented Dick Phelan and got him elected. “I don’t know how one who holds herself out as a political reformer makes Ted Lechowicz her number-one ally. The achievements of public life lie in the tangible benefits you accomplish, not the column inches you can generate. And ultimately Maria Pappas, like all officeholders, will be judged by her achievements.”
Bill Quinlan is chairman of the county’s Judicial Advisory Council and parliamentarian and pro bono counsel for the county board. He also advises various board committees and is often referred to as one of Phelan’s men.
“I think [Pappas] is very much involved, very active, and has a lot of ideas and imagination,” he says. “Some of her ideas are not totally orthodox, but I’m not so sure orthodox solutions are what are needed in this day and age. Just because they’re different doesn’t mean they’re bad ideas.
“Her style is Maria’s style. She doesn’t necessarily work for anybody else. She feels strongly about her program.” What about the feud with Phelan? “I think it’s unfortunate. Both of them came on the board as newcomers, both came with ideas. The clash is somewhat ironic, because they have a great deal in common. I think their personalities have clashed–and sometimes disagreements become more important than the issues.”
Does he think she has been effective, or has she made mistakes in her approach? “It’s not for me to say if a given individual is right or wrong.”
“I think she had an expectation of what being a county commissioner would be that was not grounded in reality,” says Eric Adelstein, a Phelan staffer now on loan to the Clinton campaign. “I think she thought she could set policy for the county, and it doesn’t work that way. She needs to get a sense of what her purpose is. She needs a better sense of what she’s trying to accomplish and what she stands for.”
Adelstein took heat from Pappas when his father was awarded one of Phelan’s no-bid contracts. He declines to discuss that, but he does observe, “She gets too personal. She does herself harm by personalizing things that should not be personalized. When you’re negative all the time, you end up destroying yourself.”
“I consider Maria very uncertain about her functions as a county commissioner,” says Bobbie Steele, a blunt and articulate commissioner on the nonfan side of Pappas’s ledger. “I guess the inexperience she has accounts for some of the blunders that she makes. I consider her a bright, intelligent, upcoming public servant, but she goes to extremes too often on issues that have a long history. Sometimes she doesn’t make the connection between history and the future.
“I’m not sure where she’s going. At first I thought she had a strong drive to make sure the presence of women was felt on the board. I felt at one time that she was committed to seeing that minorities get county contracts. I don’t get a clear picture there now. I’m uncertain about what she really wants. I also feel she has dramatized campaign contributions to the extent that it’s getting to be monotonous now, especially the contributions to Phelan’s campaign. There’s no law against making contributions to anyone on the board. [The repeated charge is] not in good taste, and it leads the public to have less trust in us. It sends the wrong message to the public. Every action of the president of the board is being scrutinized in terms of ulterior motives–and that incriminates me and everybody else on this board.”
Steele, characterized by one board watcher as “Phelan’s designated hitter–a black woman can attack Pappas in ways that he can’t,” says that Pappas is “outspoken. She speaks her mind. But I’m not sure if she’s sincere or if she’s grandstanding.” Though Steele supports abortions at Cook County Hospital, she’s openly contemptuous of Pappas for expressing worries about the consequences of Phelan’s issuing an executive order permitting abortion there instead of pressing for the votes needed. “She should take a firm position on it and not be fearful of opponents–‘They’re gonna get us, they’re gonna sue us, they’re gonna nail us,'” she mocks. “You have to find grounds to support it. You have to have understanding and be positive. She’s too negative.” (A few days after this interview Phelan was hit with two lawsuits based on his using an executive order instead of calling for a vote on the abortion issue.)
Does Steele think Pappas intends to run again? “She’s hard to pinpoint. I don’t know if she’s inclined to seek office. Who knows? Maria is unpredictable.”
Ray Hanania first met Pappas during her campaign, when he was a reporter for the Sun-Times. Thanks to a nasty bit of politics involving his relationship with Miriam Santos, he lost his job. He’s now working as a political consultant, with Pappas as a client, and running for the state legislature. “My first reaction when I met her was, ‘Who the hell would want to run for the county board?'” Hanania was a reporter for 15 years, and in that time, he says, “The only reporters assigned to cover the county board were either new or in trouble. The media does not cover the board the way it should. I used to go over to the county as a break from City Hall and laugh. They’d argue over things like an employee who injured her wrist by hitting a stapler too hard. The county board is a retirement home where politicians go to graze.
“The Sun-Times assigned one guy to cover the county board for being a union organizer. Lynn Sweet was put there when she was out of favor. I was assigned there after the problems with Miriam. The editors have a real attitude about it, and it’s really shameful. Patronage may be dead in the rest of the city, but in Cook County it’s still alive. That’s where the politicians go to get jobs. Cronyism and patronage are still alive there–it’s the last place where the machine bosses still have clout.” Pappas, he says, is making editors take notice.
He says that when he was covering the county board, Pappas was one of the few commissioners he respected. “She was always asking questions, and she gave straight answers. Now that I’m a consultant, I only work with people I like. And Maria is a good person.”
Not that Pappas is a particularly compliant client. “We talk every day, and she uses me as a barometer. Maria wants to do what’s right. I tell her what she should do to be politically correct, and she usually ignores me. And it always ends up that she’s right.
“I really believe that Maria goes to the county board every morning believing that these guys are going to wake up and say, ‘We apologize for our stupidity.’ And every day Maria leaves there surprised that they didn’t do it. If Maria were really in it for herself, she’d have cut a deal with Phelan a year ago. She’d have a patronage army, she’d be on easy street. But she fights over every issue that comes across her desk that she thinks is wrong or has to be corrected.”
Does her political consultant think she’s ambitious for higher office? “I have all these great ideas about how she should position herself to run for something, and she says, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, we’ll worry about that if we get to it.’ Most politicians constantly worry about positioning.”
Jim Tobin of Taxpayers United for Fairness says Maria Pappas has “one of the best, if not the best record of voting against tax increases” on the county board. “She may be the taxpayer’s best friend, and there are very few friends of the taxpayer on the Cook County Board. She’s tirelessly fighting on behalf of the taxpayers, and it’s very rare that you can say that about a Chicago Democrat. Most of them are tax thieves–Daley, Phelan, Madigan–who support every tax increase in Cook County, Chicago, Illinois, and Washington. Maria Pappas is a breath of fresh air. She’s doing as good a job as possible, given the odds against her.”
Susan Rohrig Sarkis grew up with Pappas and sometimes still calls her Mary Ann. She describes her friend, whose career she has followed from West Virginia, as “one of the most fantastic people I know–honest and hardworking. She paid her own way through everything.”
She tells a story from their youth: “One Saturday night a whole gang of us–seven, or maybe eight–were messing around, trying to decide what we could do to get into trouble. Not a lot of trouble, just a little bit of trouble. And Mary Ann suggested we go down to the red-light district. It was all her idea. We wanted to find out what it was like, and why guys we knew would want to go down there. So we drove down and knocked on a door–everybody knew where the houses were–and found this couple. I think they were married, actually. Anyway, the woman was the madame. So Maria told them we were college students doing a report on prostitution and that we needed help on it. And they talked to us. I don’t know why, but they talked, and talked, and talked. They told us the price–the basic cost and the cost for extras–and a lot of other things about the business. Of course Maria handled the whole thing and asked all the questions. But we were all feeling a little nervous about it, and when the madame asked if any of us wanted jobs with her, we just scattered.”
Sarkis says, “Our fathers grew up together in the Depression, and they worked hard. I think we got our work ethic from them. Some girls we knew said, ‘I’m just going to find a rich husband,’ but it never occurred to us to wait around. You haven’t met her parents, but if you did you’d understand Maria. They’re kind, down-to-earth people.
“She’s very honest and very trustworthy, and she will do anything for anybody. She’s never complained about anything. She’s always been an organizer. She’s absolutely dynamic–like Superwoman. And she has not changed in all these years. She came from our little town of Warwood, where for recreation we used to walk around and watch the grass grow, to being a commissioner in Chicago, and she’s still the same, kind person.”
Lalo Sanchez was a precinct captain for the first Mayor Daley. “I quit politics after the old man died,” he says. “Then someone sent Maria to me, and I worked for her. I helped her get Spanish votes. I showed her the ropes. She said, ‘How much will it cost me?’ and I said, ‘It will cost you a penny.’ When I saw she was all right, I said I’d work for her.”
Sanchez says Pappas has an advantage with most Hispanic voters: because of her name, which means “potatoes” in Spanish, and her dark, Mediterranean looks, they think she’s Mexican. “They were yelling ‘Viva Pappas!’ at the Mexican parade. Course, at the Puerto Rican parade they wouldn’t take her literature because they don’t like Mexicans.”
Sanchez defines his role as “feeding her political gossip and giving her advice. She takes my advice too. I told her what campaigning is about–it’s meeting people in a restaurant, sitting down with them, having a cup of coffee with them, standing up and shaking their hands, and then going across the street to meet more people. That’s how she won, the old way.
“The way she talks is the way she is. The precinct captains all like her, the police all like her. She’ll make a good president of the county board.”
Asked about Pappas’s weaknesses as a politician, Sanchez responds, “She has too many hugs for the men, which I think her husband don’t like. He’s Greek, you know. And I keep telling her, you should avoid those who don’t like you.”
The telephone rings, and Pappas is, as usual, bubbling over with intensity and excitement. She’s had another great idea: Becky Bisoulis, a designer friend, is going to come up with a T-shirt that Pappas and her friends will sell to make money to print a newsletter. “This is gonna be the best. Look. The daily newspapers have so much to report that the details and the intrigues are only of interest to a columnist. So I want to print a newsletter with all the facts and send it to the editors. Hopefully, they’ll get interested in what it has to say, and they might pass it on to reporters and say, ‘Check this out.'”
Getting the media to pay attention to the doings at the county board, she says, is “guerrilla warfare. Sometimes it’s almost a Joan of Arc effort to speak out. The problem is that newspapers want controversies, not issues, because they think that controversies sell papers. But when all you have are controversies, the electorate looks at them and says, ‘Ah, they’re just fighting.’ The answer to the problem is an independent newsletter.”
Pappas is sitting in the 9 Muses, a tiny corner bar and grill on South Halsted. The place is ambience-free, but the food is good. The owners of the more glossy Greek restaurants come here to relax and talk shop. She tells me about Greek men and about the man who co-owns the restaurant–she seems conversant with the histories of most of the people in the room. She laughs when she tells me why she didn’t go to the Democratic National Convention: “I’d have been like a whore at the Methodist picnic.”
Finally the conversation turns to the county board. I suggest that she’s running for president. She stares at me for a long moment before replying.
“The debt the county is going into–from $650 million to two billion by the time Phelan leaves office–is just incredible. Whoever’s there next is going to get left holding the bag–and an anchor.
“I have always worked against the odds. I used to take on all the tough psychological cases. And I’m treating the county government as if it were a patient. I think that’s my neurotic attachment to it. I’m trying to fix it, I’m trying to make it well.”
But is she running for president of the county board? “No. I’m supposed to say, ‘I don’t know.’ They tell me, ‘If you say no, people won’t take you seriously.’ But when Phelan leaves office, the mess will be too big, and anyone who takes it over will be tainted.
“But I have had an effect. I have stopped some of the stealing. I’ve stopped a lot of cost overruns and no-bid contracts. I’ve made enough fuss about them that they don’t even consider doing it anymore. When they call me a bitch or a nut, I know the hand grenade has hit the enemy. They wouldn’t be going to all this trouble about me, beating up on me, getting paranoid about me, if I were not having some effect. I don’t have to win the vote to win the battle. As long as I get my ideas out, I’ve won.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.