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Stroger still ailing
Board expected to push to put Bobbie Steele in charge

Tuesday, June 06, 2006
Daily Southtown
by Jonathan Lipman

Cook County Board President John Stroger, as recently as three weeks ago, could not give his own name, the date or the day of the week when asked, according to a source who observed Stroger's treatment.
Stroger, who suffered a serious stroke March 14 and has not been seen publicly since, was still unable to move his limbs or turn himself in bed and frequently fell asleep in his wheelchair, the source said.

A stroke expert said these observations about Stroger's mental and physical abilities say little about how disabled he is or how well he will recover given enough time. But the observations come as the debate intensifies over Stroger's ability to run the $3 billion county government.

Meanwhile, the county board is expected today to begin an effort to temporarily replace Stroger as board president with Commissioner Bobbie Steele (D-Chicago), who would serve as interim president until Stroger recovers or until the winner of the Nov. 7 election takes office.

"This will be done by July 1," Commissioner Larry Suffredin (D-Evanston) said of the first-of-its-kind move. "But even if the vote was (today), I'm very optimistic she'd have nine votes and maybe more."

County officials have insisted Stroger is still running county government, even as pressure has mounted for the ailing 77-year-old to give some proof that he's in charge.

Stroger's son, Chicago Ald. Todd Stroger (8th), while not denying the source's observations, dismissed them as unimportant. He has said his father will make a decision in July about whether he plans to run in November.

"Last time I spoke with him, he was coherent ... and talking up a storm; he's fine," Ald. Stroger said. "When he wants to say something, he'll say something."

Stroger's chief of staff, James Whigham, vehemently denied that his boss is profoundly disabled, saying "this is not a man sitting there blubbering." Whigham said as recently as Friday, he did small hand and leg exercises with Stroger as part of his therapy.

"He's not sunken; he's not drawn," Whigham said. "When I left him Friday, he gave me a handshake as strong as any he's ever given me."

If Steele gets the interim post, she would take over Stroger's governmental responsibilities, with the power to make personnel, spending and policy decisions.

Whatever happens today regarding Steele, a hot debate is expected over the issue of Stroger's competency. Two commissioners — Gregg Goslin (R-Riverside) and Mike Quigley (D-Chicago) — have requested details from county attorneys about how the board would deal with an incapacitated president.

"It is inconceivable that a government of this size doesn't have a succession plan in place," Quigley said.

Stroger's electoral rival in the Nov. 7 election, Commissioner Anthony Peraica (R-Riverside), plans to introduce a resolution that calls for a special hearing with witnesses testifying about Stroger's condition. A draft of the resolution circulating Monday says Stroger has "apparently been unable to discharge the powers and duties" of his office.

"This wall of silence that everyone is facing here should be taken down," Peraica said. "No one's pushing for a vote (today). No one's looking to unseat, replace, depose, none of that. ... I'm pushing for a process to establish facts."

But Peraica's plan appears to have little support among colleagues, with Goslin calling it "outrageous."

Doctors gave their last medical update on Stroger's condition on March 17. Since then, all updates have come from his son and from Whigham.

In early April, Stroger was transferred from Rush University Medical Center to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, where he remained until May 18. When discharged he was taken to a secure high-rise condominium downtown, where he and his wife are now living.

Stroger's longtime home in Chicago's Pill Hill neighborhood on the South Side is listed as sold in local real estate listings.

Recent reports have described Stroger as physically "fragile" but "mentally aware." The source who spoke with the Southtown said her experience with Stroger was different.

The source, who agreed to speak to the Daily Southtown on condition of anonymity, was able to observe Stroger's treatment personally 10 times, during physical and speech therapy sessions, over the last half of Stroger's six-week stay at the institute.

Stroger stayed in a double room on the eighth floor that was converted to a single and was guarded at all times by a man in plain clothes, the source said. The name on the door and all of Stroger's records was a fake: James Perry.

"He could hold up his head, but he had trouble staying awake, and he would fall asleep in his wheelchair, and his head would droop forward off to an angle," the source said. "I saw him fall asleep during speech therapy, and he had to be awakened."

Stroger was not able to communicate his name when asked on three separate occasions.

"They asked him his name, and twice he didn't respond," the source said. "The third time he couldn't remember whether his name was Mr. Perry or Mr. Stroger."

Stroger gave no answer or an incorrect answer when asked the date or the day of the week.

Dr. Jeffrey Frank, director of stroke services at the University of Chicago Hospitals, said none of the source's observations allow for a definite medical opinion.

"Those are very lay observations; they're not medical," Frank said. "It doesn't say much about recoverability and his condition."

Stroke patients can take far more than the two months Stroger has had to regain all of their abilities, Frank said. Frequent sleeping also is common and can pass once the tiring rehab stint is complete.

"The fact that he's even aware of an assumed name, this James Perry name, is not a bad sign but a good sign," Frank said. "It's a new memory."

Pressure for some sort of disclosure on Stroger's condition has mounted in the past weeks, with Stroger supporters such as Chicago Mayor Richard Daley suggesting the family should release more information soon.

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