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A fractured, fractious county board

Friday, May 29, 2009
Chicago Reader
by Mick Dumke

When the Cook County board meets again next week, commissioners are likely to resume their war over various proposals to roll back some or all of the 2008 sales tax hike that’s been a mushrooming political problem since it was imposed. And once again the divisions will be as clear as they are bitter: president Todd Stroger and his backers will defend the tax as a way to preserve social services for the poor; the reformers will say that sound management can protect those services while saving taxpayers some money.

Stroger and his closest allies are all black. The goo-goos are white.

That fact seems to bother Toni Preckwinkle almost as much as any of the tax and management questions they’re bickering over. “The board appears to be breaking down along racial lines, and I think that’s troubling,” Preckwinkle, the Fourth Ward alderman, told me in an interview. “When there isn’t a basic level of civility, it’s hard to get anything done. Acrimony breeds acrimony.”

Preckwinkle doesn’t speak as a neutral observer—she’s a black politician who represents a multiracial ward and, at this particular time, is trying to raise money and line up support for a bid to take Stroger’s job next year. So even if she means what she says, she has sound political reasons for arguing that the board needs someone who can deal with everybody.

“I think it’s the obligation of government to do two things: to deliver quality services and to be as efficient at it as possible,” she said. “One group on the board is focused on quality services and one is focused on efficiency, and unfortunately it’s broken down along racial lines. You have to persuade each side to pay attention to the other. Somebody’s got to lay that out to both sides.”

And yes, she believes she’s the person who could do it. “I’ve tried very hard in my 18 years in the City Council to get along with people whose political views are different from mine,” she said.

Not surprisingly, commissioners in the middle of the acrimony have a slightly different take.

Larry Suffredin voted for the tax hike last year in exchange for the creation of an independent oversight board for the county hospital system. Now he says the county government’s better off than it was and needs to lower the tax rate to stimulate local business.

Despite what Stroger and his allies have claimed, the health and hospital system is not in danger of cutbacks, says Suffredin, who represents a district on the north side and suburbs.

“I think President Stroger has decided that to win the Democratic primary he’s going to have to raise race as an issue, because the only person who’s talking about closing hospitals is President Stroger,” Suffredin says.

“President Stroger accuses us of not reaching out to the community. Well, I go to a lot of events all over, and I don’t see him reaching out. I think he stays in his base. And when he does venture out, he doesn’t answer any questions. I just think it’s an easy accusation to say this is north-side white guys verses south-side black guys.”

“It starts with ideological differences, but it always comes down to race, because the ideologies are based on race,” counters commissioner Jerry Butler, who’s supported Stroger’s efforts to keep the current 1.75 percent tax rate in place.

Without the revenues, Butler fears, the health and hospital system may not be able to provide services to everyone who needs them during a dark economic time. And some of his board colleagues don’t represent communities that will be affected. “Every time there’s an adjustment to the budget, what takes the hit? The bureau of health systems.”

Yet Butler doesn’t think that has much to do with why the board’s split. “It’s over who’s going to win the election,” he says. “All of them would say, ‘Yes, we need the bureau of health and we’re gong to take care of it,’ but if it succeeds while the current president is in office, he gets the credit.”

There is one thing that does appear to cut across racial lines: the perception that Stroger is in deep political trouble. As in toast.

“I once wrote a song called ‘Only the Strong Survive,’ and that’s the story,” says Butler, who to some of us is still thought of as the soul great known as the Iceman. “Todd is not the most popular president who ever lived.”

Suffredin agrees. Of course, he’s committed to backing Claypool for board president. Butler’s decided to go with Preckwinkle.

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