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Board set to replace Stroger -- for now

Tuesday, June 06, 2006
Chicago Sun-Times
by STEVE PATTERSON Staff Reporter

The Cook County Board will begin taking steps today to temporarily replace the ailing John Stroger as board president.

The move to name Bobbie Steele as interim president comes as a new report questions just how mentally aware Stroger is as he undergoes physical and mental rehabilitation from a March stroke.

The Daily Southtown reports that as recently as three weeks ago, Stroger was unable to move any of his limbs and couldn't remember his name or the day of the week.

But Stroger's chief of staff, James Whigham, vehemently denies reports that his boss is profoundly disabled, saying "this is not a man sitting there blubbering," and Stroger is "not sitting there with drool coming down his mouth."

Whigham said as recently as Friday, he did small hand and leg exercises with Stroger as part of his ongoing therapy.

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

Sources say Stroger, 77, is carrying on conversations and is aware of his surroundings -- though they hesitate when asked if he can run a $3 billion government.

Through a spokeswoman, Ald. Todd Stroger (8th) said his father is on a feeding tube and needs around-the-clock medical care.

Because John Stroger has not been seen publicly or heard from since the stroke, a majority of the 17-member board is set to select Steele to finish the six months left in Stroger's term.

Though nothing is on today's board agenda, commissioners said they expect extra meetings this month to make it happen.

"This will be done by July 1," Commissioner Larry Suffredin 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."

Doing it before July 1 would take some pressure off the Stroger family, who earlier said an announcement will come in July on the president's political future.

Still, there is a November election, where John Stroger remains the Democratic nominee to face Republican Tony Peraica.

Peraica is set to introduce a resolution today that establishes procedures for replacing a board member -- including president -- who is too ill to serve. Peraica's plan involves public hearings and subpoenas to doctors, with the board voting on the official's ability to serve.

Most commissioners find Peraica's resolution too abrasive, but will use its introduction as a launching point for Steele, a 20-year board member. If she gets the interim post, she would take over Stroger's governmental responsibilities, with the power to make personnel, spending and policy decisions.

"This needs to happen in a very dignified way because we're dealing with the end of someone's political career," said Suffredin, who has been helping gather board support for Steele.

Steele said she's humbled by the support she's seen on the board and was happy to get a supportive phone call Monday from Rep. Danny Davis -- a potential Stroger replacement in November, if he resigns before the election.

"I understand there may be some movement [today] and the board may select someone from the board," Davis said, adding he's supporting Steele in that move.

'Who's running the government?'

Also Monday, a longtime John Stroger ally, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, joined calls from Mayor Daley and Sen. Richard Durbin that the Stroger family be more forthcoming about John Stroger's health.

Sources close to John Stroger said his wife, Yonnie, recently rebuffed Jackson's request to visit Stroger.

"The longer it takes to get a response from [John Stroger] or his doctor, the more evidence it is of the state of his health," said Jackson, whose son, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., has a strained relationship with John Stroger.

While "the family's right to privacy must be respected," Jackson said the county "is not on hold; who's running the government?"

Contributing: Fran Spielman

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