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GOP county board member finds himself suddenly relevant
In the minority for 30 years, Carl Hansen is now a key vote on the Cook County Board and helped it challenge John Stroger. Could it entice him to run again?

Friday, June 03, 2005
Daily Herald
by Rob Olmstead

As a Republican on the mostly Democratic Cook County Board, Carl Hansen isn’t used to people listening to him.

Usually they run away with their arms raised up in horror, laughs Hansen, 78, of Mount Prospect.

As a result, he often finds himself isolated in the 17-member board room.

For instance, he was the only no vote last summer limiting the property tax assessment increase to 7 percent a year for homeowners. Hansen said it would hurt businesses.

Hansen also set off a half-hour discussion most of it to rebuke him when he suggested on April 19 the county do away with its minority contractor incentives. Hansen says there should be incentives based on income, not race.

Sometimes, he’s even on the other side of Republican ideology.

As the county’s budget grows by leaps and bounds each year, he’s come out against forcing non-union county employees to raise their health care contributions and limit their pay increases  a decidedly Republican concept.

Hansen says it would hurt morale to cut non-union employees while union employees continue benefits unabated.

The budget battle

So how did Hansen whose frequent and lengthy interjections at meetings are often patronizingly tolerated by other commissioners with a tired roll of the eyes — manage to go from cranky outsider to the sponsor of the successful $22 million cut of President John Stroger’s budget, thereby avoiding a tax hike?

Perhaps his colleague, Democrat Deborah Sims of Chicago, summed it up best from the floor of the board chamber.

I guess an old dog really can learn new tricks, Sims said in February at the board’s marathon budget session.

To be sure, Hansen’s success was not all of his own making. For two years now, a segment of the board has been in revolt against Stroger, a Chicago Democrat. Suburban Republicans and renegade Democrats took many new seats in the last election and have been giving him a hard time ever since.

Last year, for the first time in his 11-year presidency, Stroger, 76, lost a budget battle. Board members, including Hansen, voted down a new lease tax, made cuts and enacted a more palatable cigarette tax. But the newcomers failed to garner support for across-the-board 2 percent cuts.

This year, the newcomers made the 2 percent cuts a mantra, asking elected officials to cut their own budgets. Many of them did, making the call harder to resist.

By the time it came time to vote on the budget Feb. 23, the deficit was $73 million, and Stroger and his allies were still resisting cuts, calling instead for a hotel and restaurant tax to bolster the $3 billion budget.

At a session that started at 9 a.m., commissioners argued over amendment after amendment, sometimes agreeing on a crumb-like cut here or there, but not really making significant progress.

Then, late in the evening, Hansen’s amendment, No. 60, was called for a vote. He pointed out that while elected officials like the treasurer and assessor had cut their budgets 2 percent, departments that reported to Stroger hadn’t. If all his departments were cut, $21 million could be saved, he said.

The amendment passed 9-8. More than that, a psychological dam of sorts broke, with further budget-cutting amendments passing that night and the next day. Stroger threatened a veto, but in the end acquiesced.

Hansen’s changes

But just as Hansen could not have passed his amendment without the newcomers, they could not have achieved their goals without him.

Their successful coalition depended on several key compromises Hansen made in his approach this year, which in turn put him in a position to sponsor the key budget amendment.

For the first time in years, he didn’t put forth an amendment calling for the closure of Provident Hospital on Chicago’s West Side.

Hansen has long railed against the hospital, calling it a waste of money when the larger Stroger Hospital is so close. The move consistently angered others on the board.

Less than a change of heart, it was pragmatism.

I didn’t put it forward because I wanted to get the other (amendment), Hansen said later.

It worked.

Commissioner Earlean Collins, a Chicago Democrat and somewhat of an independent herself, said later Hansen’s gesture played a role in getting her to vote for the amendment.

Commissioner Bobbie Steele, who did not vote with Hansen, also acknowledged the move and noted the different tack Hansen took this time around.

I think he got a little ambitious in this last budget and was out of character (from past years), Steele said.

Second, Hansen also swallowed the concept of across-the-board cuts, something he had opposed last year. It’s something he’s still not completely comfortable with, he says, but across-the-board cuts are simpler than targeted cuts and easier to sell.

It was the ease of marketing the thing, that made it succeed, he said. It was the understandability of the thing.

Part of Hansen’s change, said one of the newcomers, Democrat Larry Suffredin, was no coincidence.

When talking about the changes this year,I think we’ve got to start first with the lobbying we did of him, said Suffredin, an Evanston Democrat.  “He began participating by giving us ideas.

At one point, he said, ‘The numbers you’re talking about are very doable,’ Suffredin recalled.

And Hansen did his own lobbying, notes Commissioner Tony Peraica, a Riverside Republican.

Hansen took the Republicans while Suffredin and others lobbied Democrats.

Hansen may have had one more advantage going for him. With the upcoming president’s election in 2006, several newcomers are vying to take Stroger’s seat. Sponsoring the amendment that broke Stroger’s tax hikes would be a major feather in a challenger’s hat during campaign time, giving one of them an edge.

At 78 years old, no one is worried Hansen will be one of the challengers.

It was easy to vote for me because I’m not going to run for it, Hansen acknowledged.

But Suffredin disagreed.

I don’t think that came into play at all, he said.

Hansen’s solidifying of the Republican vote had more influence, he said.

Having Carl introduce it, I think, made it easier for (Republican Commissioner Gregg) Goslin to follow his lead, Suffredin said.

Pluses and minuses

Although Hansen went after Stroger’s departments specifically with his budget amendment, many in the gallery noticed that when a tired Stroger walked by Hansen’s desk later that budget session, Hansen stopped what he was doing, stood up and extended his hand, which Stroger shook. Later, Hansen said it was to show he didn’t have any personal animosity for Stroger.

Stroger, in an interview, returned the favor, saying that although he believes Hansen is often on the wrong side of an issue, he respects him and values him as the board’s representative to a national board of county officials.

Not everyone’s a fan, of course.

Republican Michael Olszewski, who has run against Hansen in the past, still has a suit pending against him alleging that in 1998, Hansen signed off on a sleazy, untrue attack advertisement titled Liar, liar, alleging Olszewski, then of Streamwood, owned strip clubs. The ad was released shortly before the 1998 election, which Olszewski then lost.

Olszewski wouldn’t comment for this story, but his suit alleges that it would have been impossible for Hansen not to know what his political campaigners, Victor Santana and Gloria Chevere, were doing on his behalf.

Hansen, without addressing the substance of the suit, brushes it aside.

It’s just one of those things that the lawyers have to take care of, he said. When you’re in public office, you can get sued six ways from breakfast.”

Even those who profess a level of admiration for Hansen acknowledge weaknesses on his part.

Steele, who said Hansen is one of the commissioners she trusts the most, said his long-winded diatribes can take the board off course sometimes.

He could listen more, she said.

And she said, the dramatic budget cutting, while politically popular, is causing problems, particularly at Oak Forest Hospital in the South suburbs where the emergency room is backing up because of overload.

Suffredin echoed that Hansen can be abrasive at times. And perhaps a little too partisan, he said.

Carl sometimes in the public debate gets off point, Suffredin said. I think he still thinks like a guy in the minority. … It makes it more difficult for the next time to try and be with him.

Steele doubts that Hansen will suddenly change his stripes very drastically.

I don’t think that (experience of compromise) swayed his position of being an independent thinker, she said. I think he will always vote his conscience.”

Commissioner Mike Quigley has butted heads with Hansen, particularly on giving gay county workers’ partners benefits. While Quigley said he respects Hansen’s fiscal conservatism, he not wild about what he sees as social conservatism.

Another go-round?

The question now is whether Hansen will run again for office in 2006. Hansen is non-committal.

Much depends, he said, on his health.

No one can escape the actuary, he noted.

And getting an accurate gauge of the political waters is a concern as well.

Nobody comes up to you and tells you (you) shouldn’t run, he laughs. I don’t own the spot. If I were to be re-elected again, I wouldn’t be re-elected forever, that’s for sure.”

Peraica says he hopes Hansen will run again. Both he and Suffredin think the changes on the board make it more attractive to stay with it.

Everybody wants to be in a challenging job, Suffredin said. It wouldn’t be surprising for him to say, ‘This is more fun than it’s been, so why not stay here?’”

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