Stroger faces big financial headacheFixing health care at top of to-do list
Thursday, November 09, 2006
by Mickey Ciokajlo and Robert Becker
Tribune staff reporters Gary Washburn and Dan Mihalopoulos contributed to this report
Democrat Todd Stroger claimed victory Wednesday in the race for Cook County Board president, the position long held by his father, and immediately began focusing on the problems and financial woes facing the $3 billion government.
After a stormy campaign in which he was attacked for lack of experience, Stroger made a solid showing among his African-American base. He did better than expected on Chicago's North Side and in the suburbs, helped in part by a Democratic wave that swept the nation in Tuesday's elections.
His opponent, Republican Tony Peraica, conceded defeat but appeared to be hanging on to his County Board commissioner's seat representing the western suburbs. He vowed to keep an eye on Stroger.
Among the challenges Stroger will inherit is a County Board full of skeptical commissioners, some of whom helped him win the election but say they'll hold him to his campaign promises of reforming the government.
Stroger takes office at a time when the federal government is conducting a widespread investigation of the hiring practices under his father's administration. He has promised to run a transparent government and to fight corruption.
Stroger will be sworn in Dec. 4. He said his first task will be to meet with interim President Bobbie Steele and start to get a handle on the county's financial problems. Revenue projections show the county's massive health bureau is running more than $80 million in the red this year.
Stroger, who will step down from his seat on the Chicago City Council, vowed to honor his campaign pledge not to raise taxes next year.
But in dealing with the county's fiscal problems, he said he would also keep in mind his guiding principle "to uplift one another and help those less fortunate than ourselves."
In declaring victory, Stroger acknowledged the voter sentiment that gave a big boost to him and his party on Tuesday.
"It's a great day to be a Democrat," Stroger, 43, told a packed room of supporters at the Hotel Allegro in the Loop. "I am humbled by the election. I must tell you, though, it feels good to win."
A short time later, Peraica conceded defeat. "I congratulate Ald. Todd Stroger," Peraica said. "He has talked about reform in the last couple of months, and I am going to make sure that rhetoric is lived up to."
With 95 percent of the precincts counted, Stroger had 54 percent of the vote, according to unofficial returns.
Stroger will fill the seat held by his father, John Stroger, from 1994 through last summer, when he retired. The elder Stroger, 77, had suffered a stroke a week before the March primary election, but he went on to beat challenger Forrest Claypool following a vigorous campaign.
Flanked by his wife, mother and sister at the announcement, Todd Stroger acknowledged his father, who he said was "working to get as strong as he can."
"Without John Stroger, I wouldn't be here today," Stroger said.
John Stroger did not vote in the election, but Todd Stroger said that was because he forgot to register his father after he moved into a downtown condominium, not because he was unable to cast a ballot.
In a quiet moment after Todd Stroger's jubilant speech, Rev. Al Sampson led the supporters in a prayer for John Stroger, whom he called "one of the greatest men who walked through our lives."
Todd Stroger was carried to victory by the same solid Democratic Party organization that rallied around his ill father in March.
Ald. William Beavers (7th), whom Todd Stroger called "my godfather," said he played an instrumental role in rallying the party behind Stroger.
Beavers said he "had a lot to do with bringing people together to show them that if we don't do this, the party might as well disband."
Ald. Richard Mell (33rd) said Stroger partially owed his victory to the Democratic wave that swept the nation. Mell said that in his North Side ward, Stroger ran better than expected.
"You had people going in there and saying, `Let's vote Democratic,'" Mell said.
Mayor Richard Daley, who strongly supported both Strogers, called Todd Stroger a "very good public servant" who has a low-key personality.
"He campaigned hard," Daley said. "A lot of people underestimated Todd Stroger, I think."
Stroger said the county government faces serious problems, ranging from an estimated $400 million deficit going into 2007 to management problems in the health-care system and at the juvenile detention center.
Commissioner Mike Quigley, who often sparred with John Stroger but aided Todd Stroger's campaign, said he and other board members will work with Stroger as long as he honors his pledge to reform the government.
"If he shows the political will to change things, he will have the votes," Quigley said. "If he wavers at all, one way or the other, then he's got a real collapse here."
Aiding Stroger will be Beavers, who was elected Tuesday to John Stroger's former commissioner's seat on the County Board. Beavers intends to retire from the City Council and hopes Daley will appoint his daughter, Darcel, to his seat.
Michelle Harris, an aide to the late Ald. Lorraine Dixon (8th), is expected to get Todd Stroger's City Council seat.
In his bid for re-election to his County Board seat, Peraica had 50.6 percent of the vote with 94 percent of the precincts counted late Wednesday, according to unofficial totals. He is opposed by Democrat William Gomolinski.