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Rivals jockey for Stroger's seat
Hopefuls weigh race with or without him

Thursday, March 24, 2005
Chicago Tribune
by Mickey Ciokajlo

Tony Peraica has an analogy for why so many local politicians are angling for Cook County Board President John Stroger's job.

"It's like sharks in a pool," said Peraica, a Republican commissioner who plans to formally announce his candidacy for board president April 2. "They smell blood in the water and everybody's jumping in."

At 75, Stroger has battled some health problems and, perhaps more significant, he has lost the firm grip he once held over his board. Over the last two years, insurgents on the board have forced him to alter his budget plans and back off from a controversial proposal to tear down the old Cook County Hospital building.

The biggest guessing game in county politics right now is whether Stroger will seek a fourth term next year.

If he steps aside, the floodgates will likely open with a deluge of Democrats striving for a rare open shot at one of Chicago's top political prizes.

Should Stroger run, he could still face a challenge in the March 2006 Democratic primary, a departure from the last election cycle when he went unchallenged in his own party.

Stroger has said he'll seek another four years if he feels healthy and if he gets the blessing of his wife, Yonnie.

That decision is still months off, though, which leaves those interested in succeeding him jockeying for position while looking for clues as to which way he'll go.

Some question whether Stroger's recent purchase of a Florida condominium indicates an interest in retirement, while others caution that a man who has held elected office for 37 years doesn't easily walk away.

For his part, Stroger said it's too early to address the question.

"Right now I'm the president of the County Board. I've just completed two years of a four-year term. There are two more years to go," Stroger said. "I'm running now because I'm running the government. All I want to do is get along with these guys and make government work so whomever is the president will be the president of a constructive government."

Open-ended statements such as that one coupled with two consecutive years in which the board has handed him budget defeats have only fueled speculation about Stroger's future.

John Daley, the mayor's brother and the closest thing Stroger has to a right-hand man on the County Board, said it's premature to count Stroger out. "I believe the president would be a strong candidate," Daley said.

However, when pressed, Daley said he would consider running for the position should Stroger step aside.

He is by no means alone. If Stroger were to retire, the list of potential Democratic candidates includes Assessor James Houlihan, Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown, Sheriff Michael Sheahan and Treasurer Maria Pappas.

Along with Daley, board members Roberto Maldonado and Bobbie Steele also have expressed interest in running if Stroger steps down, as has Chicago Ald. Ed Smith (28th).

And then there are those Democrats on the County Board who have frequently clashed with Stroger and might relish a one-on-one shot in the primary.

Commissioner Mike Quigley said he's "strongly considering" running for president, and his final decision won't hinge on what Stroger does.

While cautioning that it's still too early, Commissioner Larry Suffredin said that the county needs a new Democrat at the helm and that he would have an interest in the position.

Many eyes are on first-term Commissioner Forrest Claypool, a former chief of staff to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and former Chicago Park District superintendent who showed impressive fundraising abilities in his 2002 board victory.

"I have not made any plans to run for that office, but I also have not ruled it out," Claypool said. "Sometime this spring I'll sit down with my advisers and supporters and see what I'm going to do."

Working with public health experts, Claypool on Thursday will release a detailed report calling for an ambitious change to how the county provides health care for the uninsured. The report follows one he issued in November calling for better use of technology to streamline the government.

Republican Peraica, also a first-term commissioner, is not waiting to see what Stroger will do. An orphaned immigrant from Croatia, Peraica, 47, spent his teenage years living with an aunt and uncle in Bridgeport, where he got a taste of Chicago politics by aiding precinct captains and seeing Mayor Richard J. Daley at gatherings.

After moving to west suburban Riverside, Peraica ran unsuccessfully for the County Board as a Democrat in 1994. Soon after, he crossed over to the GOP, following what he viewed as a betrayal by local Democratic leaders in that election.

In the 2002 Republican primary, Peraica defeated Commissioner Allan Carr, then held off a vigorous challenge from Democrat Ronald Serpico, the mayor of Melrose Park, in the general election.

Peraica said the time is right for him to make a run at the board presidency.

"Politics is all about timing. ... I feel strongly and passionately that this is the time," Peraica said. "We're going to engage the Democratic Party like it's never been engaged in the last 40 years."

Peraica may face a challenge from within his own party. Elizabeth Gorman, also a first-term Republican commissioner, said she is "definitely considering" a run, although she may not make her decision until fall.

Peraica said he would welcome primary competition, saying it would raise the GOP's profile in Cook County. Democrats, he contended, think their primary winner will breeze to victory in the general election.

"Democrats are going to be looking at this [primary] as the Super Bowl," Peraica said. "We're going to be waiting for them in November, fully loaded and ready to go."

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