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The Cook County Wars

By Dick Simpson

When it comes down to voting patterns, Chicago aldermen are easily dominated by Mayor Richard Daley, who has ensured the city council serves as a rubber stamp of his policies.

The reverse happens when the president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, Todd Stroger, gavels a meeting into session. Members of the county board are in full-scale rebellion with Stroger at the helm, sharpening their rhetorical weapons and casting, more often than not, nay votes on his priorities.

As he wades into a re-election campaign that could make or break his political career, Stroger must contend with the realities of his diminished executive power. He can't wield the bully pulpit like other politicians and he can't browbeat commissioners into sticking with him.

Take a look at the numbers my colleagues at the University of Illinois-Chicago and I recently compiled.

Since 2007, 23 of Chicago's 50 aldermen agreed 100 percent of the time with Daley's take on controversial issues that divided the council and required a roll call vote. Another seven aldermen cast their ballots with the mayor more than 90 percent of the time on such votes.

In other words, for the past two years, the mayor has been able to count on two-thirds of aldermen agreeing with his positions on the most contentious issues that come before city council the vast majority of the time.

Stroger's hard-core supporters on the 17-member county board are few, however. Just four commissioners supported Stroger on divided roll call votes more that 75 percent of the time: William Beavers (100 percent), Jerry Butler (93 percent), Deborah Sims (92 percent) and Joseph Moreno (93 percent).

The trend is particularly evident in the battles to pass and then repeal an increase in the county share of retail sales taxes.

On March 1, 2008, Stroger was able to get his budget passed 10-7. The same day, the board voted 9-8 to pass Stroger's increase in the county share of the sales tax from .75 percent to 1.75 percent.

Stroger won that vote only after agreeing to Commissioner Larry Suffredin's demand that he cede control of the jobs-rich county health bureau to an independent review board.

In July 2008, an attempt to repeal the entire sales tax increase failed by a vote of 10-7. The following May, a second attempt to repeal part of the sales tax increase passed 12-3, but it was vetoed by Stroger. Although 11 commissioners then voted to override the veto, the effort failed because Illinois law then required an unusually large majority of 14 votes to override.

Stroger lost all of these votes but managed to keep the sales tax increase only because the board couldn't override his veto.

Then in October 2009, the Illinois General Assembly passed and the governor signed into law a bill reducing the override majority to 11. This paved the way for commissioners to partially roll back the sales tax increase to 1.25 percent. Although Stroger again vetoed the rollback, the commissioners successfully overrode it 12-5.

Unlike Daley, opposition to Stroger on the county board is rooted in at least two distinct voting blocs.

The five Republican commissioners on the county board, all representing suburban districts, comprise a solid opposition group to Stroger. None from this group voted with Stroger on key votes more than 29 percent of the time.

The most consistent opponent to Stroger's positions was former Commissioner Mike Quigley, who opposed Stroger's position on six out of every seven key votes between February 2007 and February 2009.

Quigley, a Chicago Democrat, resigned his county board seat after winning election to Congress this past April. He was replaced by Bridget Gainer, who has maintained his pattern of opposition by voting with Stroger on none of the key budget and sales tax votes.

Quigley was a member of the board's "independent" or "progressive" bloc, which includes outgoing Commissioner Forest Claypool and the Evanston-based Suffredin. Given her voting patterns since she took office, it's more than fair to include Gainer with this group.

(Commissioner John Daley, the mayor's brother and chairman of the board's powerful finance committee, voted to support Stroger only 50 percent of the time during these divided votes over the past two years.)

Now that his veto power has been sapped by state law, Stroger seems to be following the path of former Chicago Mayor Eugene Sawyer.

Both were elevated to replace stricken leaders - Sawyer following the death of Mayor Harold Washington and Stroger following the stroke, resignation and subsequent death of his father, John H. Stroger.

Like Sawyer, Todd Stroger has been a weak chief executive.

And also like Sawyer, he faces an election he very likely cannot win.


Dick Simpson teaches political science at the University of Illinois-Chicago. He served as alderman of the 44th Ward from 1971-1979. This column was first published in the Chicago Journal.


Posted on December 28, 2009

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