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Stroger should take lessons from Daley

Friday, May 01, 2009
by William Lee

I never thought Mayor Richard M. Daley would be my example for scandal management, but he definitely has a world of smarts beyond that of Cook County Board President Todd Stroger.

Though it's not smarts as much as it is common sense.

Had Daley hired a felonious busboy for a high-paying, do-nothing city job who later was arrested, I certainly wouldn't expect to see Daley's press secretary, Jacquelyn Heard, or his cousin, Homer Glen Mayor Jim Daley, bailing him out of jail. The mayor was schooled by his dad, the master of Chicago politics. He knows the political rule of proximity.

The boss must be several steps away from a nasty grease fire - you know, so you don't get popped - every good politician and decent chef knows that, Todd. It's Politics 101.

Of course, I'm referring to the ongoing furor surrounding Stroger, his cousin, former county chief financial officer Donna Dunnings and Tony Cole, a disgraced former college basketball player and patronage job recepient "fired for lying on his job application." Of course, by now you know there's much more to the story than that.

Cole, 29, captivated Stroger at a North Side steakhouse enough to finagle a $61,000 job, despite having a long list of criminal and ethical lapses. After being arrested for violating an order of protection in January, Dunnings, accompanied by Stroger spokesman and longtime friend Gene Mullin, came to bail Cole out.

We're told that both Stroger and Dunnings sought to "mentor" the young man. A source with the county told me Cole's main job was bragging about his connections to Stroger, acting aggressively in the workplace and speaking rudely to co-workers, especially female co-workers.

How does this happen in a government office? Well if he's to be believed, Cole has dropped hints of a bigger scandal lurking. Prosecutors are interested and have issued subpoenas in Stroger's office and questioned Cole.

Stroger has responded by going on a media tour, including an excrutiating interview on "Chicago Tonight," where he looked more defensive than Brian Urlacher at the running of the bulls (Todd looks quite uncomfortable lying on television). One wonders what his media handler - veteran Southland spin doctor Sean Howard - was thinking in letting Stroger off his leash.

This latest scandal highlights my basic gripe with Stroger; politically there's nothing particularly exceptional about him; he's nothing more than a status quo place holder chosen by Democratic committeemen to make sure the patronage machine runs smoothly.

The leaders of major municipalities should be, at best, dynamic and interested in improving their governments and, at least, intelligent and good at delegating responsiblity. Though a longtime cog in the Chicago Machine, Stroger's dad, John, was a high-powered, charismatic and intelligent politician who chose the right people for important jobs.

In 2003, when a fire in the County Administration Building killed six people and caused major damage, Stroger's chief of staff, Pat Shymanski, expertly organized the temporary move of several county departments and several hundred people to other county buildings while the building was repaired and the fire investigated.

His son? He fired a convicted steakhouse busboy whom his cousin, the county's top financial officer, bailed out of jail twice, but not before giving him a raise.

You can't make this stuff up.

"There's not a level head around him," said one close observer.

The truly sad thing is that despite the absurdity surrounding the entire affair, Stroger still has an outside chance of winning his seat next year. A lackluster cast of opponents and low voter turnout may have more to do with it than racial politics, as some have suggested. Stroger is an unpopular figure around the county, but do enough people dislike him enough to go to the polls and vote him out?

Hyde Park Ald. Toni Preckwinkle (4th), who's running against Stroger, may want to call in a favor and get an endorsement from old friend President Barack Obama if she wants to boost her name recognition and try to steal a bit of his thunder. Perennial Stroger foe Forrest Claypool also may want to visit a South Side church or two and make his case why he's a better choice. Because from what I can tell, everyone's waiting for The One to emerge in the county board presidency.

William Lee can be reached at or (708) 633-6747

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