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First black county president built hospital
JOHN H. STROGER JR. | 1929-2008: From Arkansas shack to dean of black politics in Chicago

Saturday, January 19, 2008
The Northwest Herald
by SCOTT FORNEK

John Stroger didn't have a booming voice or gift for poetic speech. He didn't have a camera-ready face or trim physique. He didn't have much patience with those who disagreed with him.

But he had a mind steeped in the intricacies of local government and politics, a heart that never forgot where he came from, and a core of loyalty to family, supporters and the Democratic Party.

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Stroger's legacy praised

It was enough to take him from a three-room shack with no electricity or indoor plumbing in rural Arkansas to the highest levels of local politics, overseeing a budget of $3 billion and more than 27,000 employees as Cook County Board president.

The dean of African-American politics in Chicago, Mr. Stroger, 78, died Friday, nearly two years after suffering a stroke.

"It's an amazing journey," the Rev. Jesse Jackson once said. "John is a guy with a good mind and a good heart."

That amazing journey saw the grandson of former slaves become a political powerhouse.

He was a close ally of Mayor Daley and his father, Mayor Richard J. Daley. Presidential hopefuls curried his favor in hopes of tapping the rich mine of votes that his South Side 8th Ward Democratic organization routinely produced.

When Mr. Stroger seemed in danger of losing his final run for office, it was former President Bill Clinton who came to his aid, singing his praises in radio ads and in recorded automated phone calls.

Detractors denounced him as an old-school ward boss. But his supporters called him a champion of the poor, a defender of the middle class and a steward of sound government.

'We didn't have any boots'

John Herman Stroger Jr. was born and reared in Helena, Ark., the oldest of four children.

"We didn't have any boots, and we didn't have any straps," he once told a Chicago Sun-Times interviewer.

He caught the political bug early -- when Chicago Democratic congressman William Dawson came to Little Rock, Ark., and gave a speech promising that the election of President Harry S Truman would lead to full rights for African Americans.

"That really turned me on," Mr. Stroger said years later. "I went out and began organizing people, telling them what was at stake in the election and trying to get them to pay the poll tax."

After graduating from Xavier University in New Orleans in 1952, he returned to Arkansas and spent a year teaching math, coaching basketball in high school and fighting to desegregate public schools. But his mother insisted he move to Chicago.

"She felt that I would have a better future up here," he said years later.

Mr. Stroger moved to Chicago in 1953, joining the 3rd Ward organization of Democratic committeeman and future congressman Ralph Metcalfe.

He worked Democratic campaigns and landed a succession of jobs in the municipal court clerk's office, Cook County Jail and state Department of Financial Institutions. He earned a law degree from DePaul University's College of Law in 1965.

He was named Democratic committeeman of the 8th Ward in 1968 and elected to the County Board two years later with the support of Mayor Richard J. Daley.

In 1980, he ran for the congressional seat once held by the late Metcalfe, but finished last in a four-way race. An old ally, Harold Washington, won the seat.

A few years later, as a board commissioner, Mr. Stroger took heat when he supported Richard M. Daley over Washington in the 1983 Democratic primary for mayor -- a move that would pay off later.

After the primary, Mr. Stroger enthusiastically supported Washington, but his initial choice rankled some black leaders.

In 1984, as a commissioner, Mr. Stroger began a 10-year run as chairman of the board's prestigious Finance Committee. It was the traditional springboard to the board presidency, but the rules changed for Mr. Stroger.

'I wasn't going to roll over'

When then-Cook County Board President George W. Dunne stepped down in 1990, Democratic leaders bypassed Mr. Stroger and backed state Sen. Ted Lechowicz, who lost the primary to Richard J. Phelan.

Many saw the snub as racist.

Adding insult to injury, Phelan immediately tried to install his own Finance Committee chairman. But Mr. Stroger delivered Phelan a humiliating defeat, holding power by building a coalition of Democrats, Republicans and an independent.

"I wasn't going to roll over for anyone," Mr. Stroger later said.

Four years later, he was elected Cook County Board president after beating Circuit Court Clerk Aurelia Pucinski and Cook County Commissioner Maria Pappas in the Democratic primary.

He was re-elected twice, enjoying a firm grip on the County Board, easily passing his budgets and never losing an important vote.

He held the line on property taxes, improved the county's bond rating, got the new $551 million state-of-the-art county hospital built for the poor and launched a new Domestic Violence Court on the Near West Side.

But Mr. Stroger also had his failures. He lost his quest to build a $200 million

The stage was set for Mr. Stroger's toughest campaign.

'I'll be on the battlefield'

Leading up to his final bid for office, the biggest issue was whether Mr. Stroger would seek a fourth term.

He was a diabetic who had survived prostate cancer in 1994, had quadruple-bypass heart surgery in 2001 and had been rushed to the hospital in 2002 after appearing confused and disoriented at a board meeting.

But in late summer 2005, he ended the speculation.

"I'll be on the battlefield," he told his precinct workers.

He wound up facing Cook County Commissioner Forrest Claypool, a Northwest Side Democrat who had become a thorn in Mr. Stroger's side.

Mr. Stroger ran a full-throttle campaign, complete with Mayor Daley singing his praises in television commercials and Clinton making similar pitches on radio and via automated calls.

But what was to be Mr. Stroger's final campaign took a tragic and bizarre turn only one week before the March 2006 primary when he was hospitalized after suffering a stroke.

The final days of the campaign were intense and a tad surreal, as Mr. Stroger lay bedridden in the hospital, and his supporters hit churches and the airwaves making the case on his behalf.

He won.

Claypool blamed "low turnout and, I must say, just an outpouring of affection and love for John Stroger."

But the intrigue didn't stop there. For months, Mr. Stroger's condition remained a closely guarded secret as various Democrats jockeyed for position to be his successor if he was unable to remain on the ticket.

Democratic committeemen ultimately chose his son, Ald. Todd Stroger (8th), to replace him on the ballot, and Todd Stroger went on to win in the general election.

'It's a disgrace'

Like many Democratic Machine politicians whose careers span more than three decades, Mr. Stroger leaves a legacy that is still being sorted out.

He made county government more responsive by changing the way commissioners are elected, passing an ordinance that ultimately replaced the at-large system with single-member districts.

In addition to building the new hospital and courthouse, he made sure county government provided more jobs and contracts to women and minorities. And he paved the way for generations of others by becoming the first African American elected to head county government, the second-largest local government in the state.

"Chicago ... would not be Chicago without John Stroger," the Rev. George Clements said in 2002.

But Mr. Stroger was also accused of padding the county payroll with political cronies and relatives, being more open to tax increases than cutting waste, and installing political pals in high-paying jobs in the Cook County Forest Preserve District.

In 2003, the Sun-Times ran photographs of garbage, graffiti and broken outhouses in the preserves and reported that one Forest Preserve official was nicknamed "The Ed McMahon of Cook County Government" because he seemed to do little besides laugh at Mr. Stroger's jokes.

"It's a disgrace," the late Sun-Times columnist Steve Neal wrote in 2003. "The Cook County forest preserves have been looted and vandalized on John Stroger's watch as Cook County Board president."

In one especially embarrassing revelation, the Sun-Times reported that a Cook County Forest Preserve official kept a fleet of five special outhouses for exclusive use at Mr. Stroger's annual picnic. Workers called them the "emperor's thrones."

'That's what I work at'

Even Mr. Stroger's personality was controversial. He could regale listeners with long, rambling stories about politicians and events long dead or forgotten. He could be charming and quick with sharp-witted humor -- directed at enemies as well as himself.

He once said his sister graduated from college magna cum laude.

"When I graduated, I just said, 'Thank you laude,'" he joked.

But he could also be autocratic and intolerant of dissent, often cutting off commissioners who disagreed with him in mid-sentence.

"You guys have screwed up this county," he told board members who opposed his call for a tax increase in 2005.

Generally softening his words with a broad smile, Mr. Stroger was decidedly old school, but tough not to like.

Even Neal, who often found fault with Mr. Stroger, called him "a good and decent man."

Mr. Stroger himself had his own ideas about his legacy.

"I would like to be known not as the first black to head the County Board, but as the best County Board president we've ever had," he once said. "That's what I work at every day."

Traffic Court
on the West Side. He boasted he cut 2,000 jobs, but his critics charged he treated county hiring as a tool to build his patronage army.


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