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Secrecy in Stroger case has lasted long enough

Sunday, June 04, 2006
Chicago Sun-Times

The shoeshine stand off the lobby of the County Building had an open chair Friday afternoon, and just as soon as I could get the shoeshine man to put down the Sun-Times' sports section, I eased up into it. If this were the movies, I could have slipped the shoeshine man a few extra bucks to get the lowdown on John Stroger's health and on who has the inside track to replace him as Cook County Board president.

But, as I well knew, this wasn't the movies, and so I satisfied myself with the self-indulgent pleasure of walking away in shoes that looked like new for my $4 expenditure.

Still, there's nothing quite like a trip to the county shoeshine stand to put a person in the right frame of mind to write about the anachronism that is Cook County government.

I needed the boost because I've been in a pickle ever since Stroger went down with a stroke on March 14. I favored his opponent, Commissioner Forrest Claypool, but had neglected to say so. By then it was too late. I've been caught off stride ever since.

After Democratic voters decided a week later to renominate Stroger for a fourth term, it seemed reasonable that he should be granted a sufficient grace period to recover before the political buzzards started circling.

The voters -- duly warned that the stroke was serious -- had spoken. They wanted to stick with Stroger, or whoever the party bosses would pick to replace him.

I hoped Stroger's health would bounce back. Even if his governing style drives me batty, I like him on a personal level. He's evolved into a grandfatherly sort in his old age and has always been nicer to me in person than I have to him in print.

Plus, I didn't see any more reason for concern about the conduct of county government in the short term than had existed previously.

African-American alternatives

As a veteran of the county beat, I can tell you that the question of "Who's in charge here?" had been raised long before Stroger went down with the stroke. It was never uncommon for Stroger to put off major decisions for months. That's been a frustration of both his friends and critics.

Now, though, even his friend Mayor Daley is nudging the Stroger family toward announcing a decision on his future, and there can be no question that the secrecy surrounding his health status has gone on long enough.

It must be very difficult for his family to have to deal with the public under such painful circumstances, but I'm afraid it comes with the territory. If he's going to retire, that's another matter.

With regular reports from his doctors, the public would have been inclined to give Stroger considerable leeway, even if the news was bad. They've given him considerable leeway without it.

The situation got trickier when Stroger's son, Todd, started talking about the possibility of replacing his father on the ticket. Todd Stroger, the 8th Ward alderman, has never been regarded as a political heavyweight. Democratic party leaders who are not allies of John Stroger took Todd's overtures as their cue to start shopping for alternatives.

You may have noted that all the individuals under serious consideration are African-American. The thinking is that African-American voters would regard it as a betrayal if Democrats looked elsewhere to replace Stroger, who was kept on the ticket in March for purposes of protecting the party's base in the African-American community, as well as protecting Daley in a possible mayoral re-election bid next year. The thinking is correct. It would be a betrayal.

Lining up support for son?

Among the county officials with whom I spoke Friday, there is a belief that the main holdup in announcing John Stroger's intentions is the desire to first line up enough support from party leaders to ensure his son's selection as his replacement.

If Stroger intends to step down -- as many now think likely -- it would be better if Democrats conducted at least a semblance of a public process to replace him.

Although there's no getting around the fact that the decision about a replacement will be made behind closed doors (before it's voted upon in public), we don't need another of these unseemly situations in which the resignation and successor are magically accomplished in one fell swoop. Even a one-week delay would allow the public to make itself heard.

If they botch this, Democrats are just going to give ammunition to Commissioner Tony Peraica, the Republican nominee, who is already managing to call more attention to himself than the norm, although not all of it as favorable as he seems to think. Peraica would fare better in the long run if he could occasionally restrain himself, instead of always going for the throat -- such as calling a press conference in front of a sick man's house or setting a Tuesday deadline for Stroger that he doesn't have the support to enforce.

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