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John Stroger believed in helping people

Sunday, January 20, 2008
Daily Southtown
by Phil Kadner

John Stroger was old school. A gentleman politician. A fellow who believed government could and should help the helpless.

A man of his word.

He also was committed to the patronage system of Chicago.

As someone who frequently criticizes politicians, I had my problems with the former Cook County Board president but not for the reasons you might suspect.

People like to stereotype their elected officials as greedy, corrupt and arrogant. Bad people.

Anyone who knew Stroger would tell you he was "a really good man." Of course, people will say such things about the dead, and Stroger, who spent four decades in public life, died Friday.

I spoke to Democrat Dwight Welch, mayor of Country Club Hills and former assistant budget director under Stroger.

And Barclay "Bud" Fleming, a Republican, former Cook County commissioner and former mayor of Lynwood who eventually became a Democrat and also worked for Stroger.

And Frank Zuccarelli, the Thornton Township supervisor and Democratic committeeman.

All white men. South suburbanites. But fellows who understood what Stroger, the first black Cook County Board president, meant to their communities.

He created health clinics in Ford Heights, Robbins, Phoenix and more than 20 other communities.

He believed people without health insurance were entitled to quality health care.

That's why he dedicated himself to building a new Cook County hospital, which bears his name.

"I remember that he arranged for a bus to take a number of public officials to Ford Heights, including the assistant director of HUE (the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development)," Fleming said. "When we arrived, he asked the driver to stop the bus and ordered someone to go into a house and fill a glass full of water.

"When it was brought back to the bus, he handed it to the man from HUE and asked if he wanted a drink. Well, the fellow took a look at that filthy water and said he wouldn't touch the stuff. Stroger told him that's the water that comes out of the taps in Ford Heights. He ended up getting a federal grant to improve the water quality. He and U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who got another grant from the Department of Agriculture, did that."

Burton Odelson is a south suburban attorney who worked as the election lawyer for the Strogers during the transition of the county board presidency from John to his son Todd. Odelson expressed a sentiment repeated by everyone I spoke to about the old man.

"When he looked you in the eye and told you something, you knew it was the truth," Odelson said. "You don't see that much anymore."

"When he told you something, he didn't go out and say something different a few hours later to another group of people who might not like what he had to say," Zucccarelli said. "His word was always good. That's very rare for a politician these days. They will tell you one thing and say something different an hour later to suit the audience. You can't trust them."

"Honest to a fault," were words used to describe Stroger time and again. So I asked people what they meant by that.

He supported Richard M. Daley for Chicago mayor against Harold Washington, they said, because he believed in loyalty, especially to the Democratic organization.

Stroger was an advocate of the patronage system. He believed it was a way to open career paths to people in the black community who previously had found the doors of government shut in their faces.

The Irish had done it, Stroger would tell you. And so long as the people given patronage jobs did their jobs, there was nothing wrong with it.

Of course, not everyone did their jobs. But there was nothing new in that, either.

Reformers always will tell you they could have done better. They rarely do.

The old-school politicians seemed to understand their first obligation was to provide service to the community. If they could do that and still find jobs and award contracts to campaign donors, what was the harm?

The new breed seems to believe their first responsibility is to enrich themselves and their friends.

If they can do that and there's money left over to provide services, fine. If not, well, too bad for the public.

That's the difference between a public servant and a politician.

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