In a rage over Todd Stroger’s crowning in place of his ailing father as the Democratic candidate for Cook County president, pundits and ordinary citizens alike have been thumping their fists on the table and declaring, “I’m voting for the other guy!” So it’s a good time to take a deep breath and learn a little about the political unknown who, if the protest vote continues to gain momentum, just might win the November general election.

His name is Tony Peraica, and he’s a hardheaded, quick-tempered, far-right-wing Republican maverick who’s not afraid to pick fights with Cook County’s most powerful politicians–including erstwhile allies in his own party.

Peraica, who’s 47, was born in Croatia. After his parents died he moved to Chicago at the age of 12 to live with his uncle and aunt in Bridgeport. “I didn’t speak English,” he says. “I learned it all here.”

He was a young man in a big hurry. He worked several part-time jobs while attending Holy Name Cathedral High School and as a teenager secured an internship with powerful 11th Ward alderman Patrick Huels. (Huels resigned in disgrace in 1997 and continues to be dogged by his role in the Hired Truck Program.) “I didn’t know anybody,” Peraica says. “I just walked into the ward office and asked for a job.” He graduated with a degree in political science from the University of Illinois at Chicago in three years, went to John Marshall Law School at night while working days at First National Bank, then set up a neighborhood law practice, got married, had two kids, moved to the southwest side, and saved up enough money to buy several pieces of property all over town. Along the way he joined the organization of 23rd Ward alderman William Lipinski, who became a U.S. congressman, now retired. He was a Democrat in those days–not so much out of conviction as ambition. “Everyone in was a Democrat,” he says. “If you wanted to get ahead you were a Democrat, and I wanted to get ahead.”

According to Lipinski, Peraica was a good precinct captain–hardworking, intelligent, driven. Despite this, Lipinski never slated Peraica for office. Then again, Peraica didn’t give him much time to do so. Ever eager to get ahead, in 1992, after about four years in Lipinski’s organization, Peraica decided to run in the primary against Republican state senator Bob Raica. “I wanted to take advantage of the name confusion–you know, Peraica, Raica,” he says.

Peraica had already filed petitions to run against Raica when the state supreme court, ruling in a gerrymandering case, changed the legislative boundaries. He was shifted into a district represented by senator Gary LaPaille, at the time chairman of the state Democratic Party, house speaker Michael Madigan’s chief of staff, and all-around major player in southwest-side politics. “When Lipinski found out I was running against LaPaille he was angry because I was going against Madigan’s guy,” says Peraica. “He said, ‘Are you ruining my political future?’ I said, ‘I can’t withdraw–I’m staying on the ballot.'”

After that, Peraica says, he decided to leave Lipinski’s organization and run on his own. “Lipinski didn’t like anyone intelligent around,” he says. “He wanted people who were obedient and not ambitious.”

In a tactical move predictable in Cook County, LaPaille’s camp challenged Peraica’s petitions. “They took a picture of me and went around asking people whether I was the guy who took their signatures,” Peraica says. “They got affidavits from five people saying I fraudulently circulated petitions. They got really nasty with me. But I didn’t back down.” Eventually, Peraica says, Madigan called him in for a meeting. “He said, ‘You’re going to get 20 percent; you don’t want to do this. Let’s work something out. What are you looking for?’ He didn’t make any promises, and I didn’t ask for anything specific. But I decided to withdraw because he was so civilized.”

Madigan’s longtime spokesman, Steve Brown, says he never heard of any meeting between the speaker and Peraica. “It’s a great little story,” Brown says. “But I don’t know anything to suggest that there’s any reality to it, and I was around at the time. Why would we do that? There’s no reason to even have a meeting with him–he wasn’t going to win anyway.”

In 1993 Peraica moved to west-suburban Riverside. In 1994 he won the Democratic nomination to run against incumbent Cook County commissioner Allen Carr, a Republican from Cicero. Peraica says he lost because the local Democrats betrayed him: “They hugged me and kissed me and took my donations, and then they supported Carr.”

So he switched parties. “I thought, ‘I’m a social conservative, a fiscal conservative, a foreign policy hawk–what the hell am I doing with Democrats who aren’t even loyal?'”

In 1998 Peraica ran his first race as a Republican, taking on Maria Pappas for Cook County treasurer. He got clobbered, winning only 34 percent of the vote. In 2002, running against Carr in the Republican primary for county commissioner, he had better luck–thanks to the support he received from Edward Vrdolyak, the former Chicago alderman who’d moved his political operation to Cicero, and Betty Loren-Maltese, Cicero’s former mayor, now in prison following convictions on federal corruption and racketeering charges. Backed by Vrdolyak and Loren-Maltese, who were settling an old score with Carr, Peraica won on the strength of a 2,486-vote margin in Cicero.

Initially Peraica was unapologetic about Vrdolyak and Loren-Maltese’s support. “I graciously accept endorsements from where I can get them,” he told the Sun-Times. But in the November general election Vrdolyak and Loren-Maltese turned against him, instead backing his Democratic opponent, Melrose Park mayor Ron Serpico. It was a brutal campaign, and Peraica ran hard as a reformer, vowing to fight Vrdolyak and Loren-Maltese’s hold over near-west-suburban politics. Peraica wound up winning with 57 percent of the vote, overcoming Serpico, who’d taken 52 percent of the Cicero vote.

Vrdolyak wouldn’t comment on Peraica (“I don’t do interviews,” he says). But in a way, Peraica owes his political fortunes to the alderman infamous for his role in Council Wars. He wouldn’t have defeated Carr in the primary without Vrdolyak’s support, and it’s unlikely he’d have defeated Serpico if he hadn’t had Vrdolyak and Loren-Maltese to rail against. Of course, Peraica doesn’t see it that way. “I have nothing good to say about Vrdolyak,” he says. “He never really supported me. Vrdolyak and Betty found me a convenient tool to punish Carr. As soon as I won the primary they supported Serpico.”

Once on the county board, Peraica teamed up with reform-minded Democratic commissioners Mike Quigley, Forrest Claypool, and Larry Suffredin to demand that then president John Stroger cut the budget by consolidating services and firing patronage workers. Despite several sharp debates with Stroger, however, Peraica had a low political profile coming into this campaign season. Most attention was focused on Claypool, who was challenging Stroger in the Democratic primary. Peraica was hardly a favorite even within his own party. He barely won the March election for Republican committeeman of Lyons Township, edging out a 125-vote victory over a 28-year-old neophyte named Michael LaPidus, who was backed by several prominent Republicans–including Vrdolyak.

Without unified support from Republicans, even Peraica realized he was a long shot to beat Stroger or Claypool. And then, well, everyone knows the rest of the story. On the eve of last March’s primary John Stroger suffered a stroke, then narrowly defeated Claypool. After refusing to disclose medical details for more than three months (long enough for the deadline for filing independent petitions to pass), Todd Stroger, alderman of the Eighth Ward, announced that his father was unfit to run. In the meantime Seventh Ward alderman William Beavers had positioned himself as the Stroger family’s spokesman and guardian. On July 18 he and other Democratic powerhouses slated the younger Stroger–who has no experience in county government–to run in his father’s place. Beavers himself will run for a county board seat, leaving his aldermanic post open for his daughter and current chief of staff, Darcel. Now Peraica claims he’s ahead in the polls.

Can Peraica actually win? It’s still a long shot. Cook County is liberal, and Peraica is a vocal opponent of abortion and gun control. He’s so opposed to gay rights he had his name removed from a benign county board proclamation welcoming the Gay Games to Chicago. “I must have been out of the room when it passed. I never would have voted for it,” Peraica says. But “I’m a live-and-let-live person. I’m not a homophobe.”

So why the opposition to the Gay Games?

“I thought it was morally hypocritical and political pandering to have the Gay Games,” Peraica explains. “I don’t think we should have Gay Games any more than we should have African-American Games or Croatian Games. I know this is a hot-button issue, a wedge issue. But as you look at the long-term picture, decay comes from within. It’s problems from within that cause the decline of all the great empires. I feel a special burden to strengthen from within, and the family is the basic building block.”

Peraica says he intends to focus his campaign on fiscal issues, pledging to cut the county budget and lower taxes. His first big test will be in the coming weeks, thanks to Mike Quigley’s efforts to force the county board to confront the issue of tax increment financing districts, which funnel hundreds of millions of badly needed property tax dollars away from our schools and parks. Under Quigley’s proposed ordinance (which commissioner John Daley currently has buried in the finance committee), the county would require the city to hold public hearings on any proposed TIF, explaining why it’s needed and how much it would cost taxpayers. It will be interesting to see how forcefully Peraica supports Quigley’s resolution. It’s one thing to take on targets like an embattled, aging John Stroger or his unpopular, untested son. It’s another to defy Mayor Daley and his brother.

So far Peraica’s been slow to recognize the significance of TIFs, though they divert close to $50 million a year from the county’s budget alone. But he says he’s catching on to the issue.

“Yes, I support Quigley’s ordinance. I think it’s a good idea,” he says. “I’m standing up for the taxpayers. I’m not backing down from anyone.”

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