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Swing vote lifts Steele into county president’s chair

Thursday, July 20, 2006
Daily Herald
by Rob Olmstead

In a board room packed with county employees — allegedly off the clock — Cook County Commissioner Earlean Collins provided the crucial swing vote Wednesday to put Commissioner Bobbie Steele over the top and into the president’s chair for the next four months.
Steele, who takes office Aug. 1 to finish out the term of ailing President John H. Stroger, now faces the daunting task of cobbling together a balanced budget, and she said she couldn’t rule out a tax increase to make that happen.
In fact, Steele has her hands full with not only next year’s spending plan, but a growing shortfall on this year’s budget. She said the county comptroller told her Tuesday the hole is now at $56 million and growing.
“We’re going to look at all the possibilities,” she said when asked about a possible tax increase.
But she emphasized that she’d look to cut costs first.
And Republican Peter Silvestri pointed out that she’ll have an even harder time raising taxes than Stroger did, because Stroger’s pro-tax vote is now gone.
But with uncertainty comes possibilities, Silvestri said.
He noted it was the absence of a sitting president and entrenched interests that allowed the board to unanimously decide to stop putting the president’s name on forest preserve signs, and hoped that the flux of the current situation will allow for new innovations.
“It’s the right time to do it,” said Silvestri.
Steele’s selection came down to the wire — or, according to Collins, at least shortly before the meeting — after weeks of Collins and a few other commissioners playing coy about whom they would support.
It’s a familiar role for Collins, who has played her cards close to the vest on budget votes for the past few years, providing the swing vote against new taxes and frustrating Stroger.
Collins said she made the decision for Steele to stave off an embarrassing floor fight among commissioners. She said she sensed that many commissioners weren’t going to honor their word — a topic on which she did not share specifics.
She told reporters that she let other commissioners know her intentions before the meeting.
“I let everybody know this morning, because I don’t double-cross anyone, that that’s the way it was going to be,” she said.
But other commissioners said privately it was Collins who was double dealing — at one point in recent weeks swearing she wouldn’t vote for Steele.
Commissioners Larry Suffredin, Forrest Claypool and Mike Quigley said publicly that Collins in no way let them know before the meeting what she intended to do.
That seems borne out by the vote, because commissioners typically withdraw nominations or bills that are destined for defeat rather than end up with an embarrassing loss.
Without naming any names, Quigley said, “Many commissioners participated in a complex program of misinformation, that in the end didn’t work to suit their attempts.”
Because there are now 16 commissioners with Stroger’s absence, a candidate needed nine votes to be elected president. For weeks, both Steele and Claypool seemed stuck at anywhere from six to eight votes. Republican Carl Hansen was assured of the five Republican votes, but couldn’t seem to get past that point.
Joseph Mario Moreno, another Democrat, had also tossed his hat into the ring, and Collins had been soliciting votes also, many commissioners said.
Collins denied that, saying she simply acquiesced when some commissioners asked her if she would be a consensus candidate on subsequent ballots if no one could be elected in the first few rounds of voting.
When the board assembled Wednesday, Finance Committee Chairman John Daley nominated Steele, Quigley nominated Claypool, and Republican Tony Peraica nominated Hansen.
Going in, Steele had the support of herself, Daley, Jerry Butler, Roberto Maldonado, Joan Murphy and Suffredin, with Democrat Deborah Sims a possible and Collins a question mark.
When Collins, the third to vote in alphabetical order, placed her vote, the die was cast.
“Once that vote (Collins’) was cast, Bobbie had won,” Claypool said.
Quigley joined the Steele bandwagon, he said, after conferring with Claypool, whom he sits next to on the floor. Claypool followed suit.
“With leave of the board, I’d like to abandon the sinking ship of my candidacy and board the ship of S.S. Steele,” said Claypool to the laughter of the gallery.
With all the Democrats on board for Steele, Hansen asked his four fellow Republicans to change their votes to Steele as a sign of unity, which they did.
Collins’ vote may have been, at least in part, due to the unpalatable option among her constituents of her voting for a white candidate. She admitted race played a role.
She realized the need in “talking with her [Steele] all the time, to make sure that we did in fact have an African-American — as a call from the community, who wanted to keep that seat for President Stroger.”
Wednesday’s board room was packed with dozens of county employees who were not needed for the meeting. When Tony Peraica, the Republican candidate for president on the November ballot questioned that, Moreno, who chaired the meeting, said he assumed they had all taken the day off and were not on taxpayer time.
Steele said later she assumed the same thing and would not be investigating to make sure the employees did not charge taxpayers for the time spent in the boardroom.

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