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Desperate Berrios and the 'Republican' lie

Thursday, December 14, 2017
Chicago Tribune
by Eric Zorn

You can’t blame Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios for running scared.

The work of his office has been hammered in a series of investigative reports by the Tribune in conjunction with ProPublica Illinois that show wealthy property owners benefiting disproportionately from the secretive, error-prone assessment process he oversees.

Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Chris Kennedy have recently called for him to resign, and Thursday a group of public-interest lawyers filed a civil rights lawsuit in Cook County Circuit Court alleging that Berrios is "perpetuating institutional racism" by shifting the property tax burden disproportionately onto poor and minority owners.

He’s become the obvious target for the wrath of those vexed by rising property levies and concerned by the prominence of tax-appeal attorneys in the state’s political power structure.

Meanwhile, one of his opponents in the March 20 primary, Fritz Kaegi, has more than $600,000 in his campaign war chest, according to the latest figures on the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform database. And Kaegi has lined up endorsements from, among others, U.S. Congressional Democrats Robin Kelly, Danny Davis and Bill Foster, Cook County Clerk David Orr, Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, several Chicago aldermen and potential progressive 2019 Chicago mayoral candidate, Troy LaRaviere, head of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association.

But all this reason to panic for Berrios is no excuse for his recent effort to label Kaegi a “Wall Street Republican.”

His claim is that Kaegi has “strong ties to the people responsible for crushing our economy to the brink of a depression and causing the housing crisis that we are still recovering from,” and is based on investments Kaegi oversaw when he was a fund manager for Columbia Wanger Asset Management in Chicago.

Notably, Berrios accused Kaegi in a recent TV ad of investing client money in private for-profit prisons, controversial institutions widely reviled by liberals.

Kaegi’s camp fired back, calling the ad a “malicious lie,” saying the prison investments were made by others after he stepped down and declaring that “there is not a single document listing (a private prison company) as a holding that also lists Fritz as a portfolio manager.”

Does the Berrios campaign have such a document? I asked Thursday and didn’t receive a response by my deadline.

But even if they did … really? Is Berrios so desperate that he wants to make the campaign about ethical asset management in areas utterly unrelated to the duties of the assessor? And that he thinks branding his opponent as a secret Republican is the key to re-election?

Not that there’s anything wrong with being a Republican. But city and county voting records show that from 1995, when Kaegi was living in the city, through 2016, when he was living at his current address in Oak Park, he took a Democratic ballot in each of the nine primaries in which he voted.

And all of Kaegi’s political donations on record have been to Democratic candidates or liberal causes.

Kaegi has said that, as a former financial professional, he will attack the knotty problem of assessments differently: “Eliminate pay to play,” goes his pitch, referring to the practice of tax-appeal attorneys donating to candidates for assessor. “Use a less regressive (assessment) model. Pay attention to the effect of foreclosures, underwater mortgages and vacancies on neighborhoods. Tell people how you arrived at their assessment. Focus your resources on getting it right the first time. Because the true measure of the office is how it’s doing for the person who doesn’t appeal.”

For the record, the Democratic bona fides of the third candidate in the race, veteran tax-appeal consultant and activist Andrea Raila, seem solid, though curiously she did donate $480 to the campaign of Berrios’ daughter Toni Berrios in 2012, when Toni Berrios was running for re-election to the state House.

Raila vows on her website “to ensure that all property owners are treated the same, no matter the location of their property, their income level or their ethnicity, and that property tax assessment increases (are) controlled and understood.”

That’s what this campaign should be about.

Berrios has more than $1.2 million cash on hand to try to make the case that voters should rehire him. He has the backing of much of the party establishment as well as of retiring U.S. Rep Luis Gutierrez, and he has a plausible argument that much of the public agitation about high property taxes has been caused by the leaders and lawmakers who’ve jacked up the levies, not the bureaucrats like him who have the complex task of estimating the value of individual properties.

Fear is no excuse to duck the real issues at stake.

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