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Playing Lardball

Despite efforts of reformers, Cook County government remains larded with patronage jobs jealously guarded by clout-wielding bureaucrats. Identifying the problem is easy. Fixing it has proved maddeningly difficult.

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Cook County commissioner Mike Quigley has a favorite joke about all the county employees who live in Chicago’s 19th Ward, the South Side political base of Sheriff Michael Sheahan.

“What’s the top pickup line in the 19th Ward?” he asks, pausing just long enough for the question to sink in before delivering the punch line:

“Hey, baby, want to see my ‘M’ license plate?”

Those plates-the “M” stands for “municipal,” signifying a government car-make the joke a painful one for Quigley, one of a handful of commissioners trying to restructure the behemoth known as county government, where widespread patronage burdens the payroll. But the joke goes a long way toward explaining what’s wrong with Cook County, and why no one seems able to fix it.

At least, not yet.

There are some hopeful signs. After months of wrangling and debate, the County Board voted unanimously in late February to pass a 2005 budget of about $3 billion, with Quigley and his fellow insurgent commissioners beating back a new tax on restaurants and hotels proposed by board president John H. Stroger Jr.

In fact, the board never voted on the new taxes. Instead, the commissioners closed a $73-million shortfall with a series of amendments that trimmed various county programs, thus resolving this year’s budget battle but making little headway in the only fight that ultimately matters: eliminating the hundreds of jobs, perhaps thousands, many of them superfluous, that are pushing the county toward financial collapse.

If the City of Chicago’s budget suffers from a case of love handles, with needless layers of politically connected supervisors, then the county payroll is nothing short of obese. Largely ignored by the press except at budget time and barely a flicker on the average citizen’s radar, county government operates under a system of favoritism and job hiring that seems outdated even in the city that turned political patronage into an art form. “This isn’t a unit of government that thinks it needs to tighten its belt,” says Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a budget watchdog group. “This is a government that doesn’t even think it needs to wear a belt.”

Unlike Chicago, where the power ultimately resides in one central authority-Mayor Richard M. Daley-county government is more like a feudal system, with rival fiefdoms competing for the jobs that fuel their political influence. (For a brief outline of the role of Cook County government, see “The County Line") Despite numerous calls for reform and stacks of detailed plans for streamlining the county bureaucracy, the officeholders who control the bulk of the patronage won’t give it up. “People say, If you let this person go, you’ll be offending that ward committeeman, and if you let that person go, that’s someone’s son or nephew,” says Forrest Claypool, another of the independent commissioners pushing for reform. “What we need is a big, bright spotlight. Sunshine is the best disinfectant.”

Chicago analyzed the 24,000-strong county payroll by ZIP Code and compared it with a countywide list of 3.5 million registered voters, revealing a conspicuous pattern of jobholders living where the power is.

Not every employee owes his job to the local ward or township boss; after all, county workers have to live somewhere. Yet the areas with the highest concentrations of employees make up a murderers’ row of political clout. At the top of the list is Stroger, the ten-year incumbent president, whose County Board district is home to an estimated 3,700 workers. Stroger can tally 354 county employees-and at least 16 members of his political organization-just in the 8th Ward, where he is the longtime committeeman. Stroger also holds sway over the Forest Preserve District; many of its top jobs are held by 8th Warders and other beneficiaries of patronage.

Next up is Commissioner John P. Daley, brother of Chicago’s mayor and the County Board’s powerful finance chairman. He can find more than 3,000 county employees in his district, which includes much of the 11th Ward, where Daley is keeper of the family’s political organization; the 13th Ward, controlled by Illinois House speaker Michael Madigan, one of the state’s top power brokers; and Sheahan’s 19th Ward. The sheriff’s ward is home to at least 513 county workers; of those, 203 serve in departments directly under Sheahan’s control, and 23 have direct ties to the 19th Ward Democratic organization.

The employees living in Stroger’s and Daley’s districts account for 27 percent of the county payroll. Smaller fiefdoms are no less covetous of their power; about 900 employees live in west suburban Proviso Township, where the recorder of deeds, Eugene Moore, is the Democratic committeeman.

And Democrats aren’t the only ones keeping an eye on the payroll. Republican Carl R. Hansen, who represents the 15th district, in the northwest suburbs, is a longtime critic of county spending, particularly in the health care system, but he is far less critical of what the county spends on public safety. He represents 470 county employees spread over three suburban townships; of those, 134 work for the sheriff.

But patronage is not just about getting jobs for your immediate constituents; in a decentralized system like Cook County’s, the feudal lords are quick to defend their own budgets while pointing an accusing finger at all the others, and the stalemate that results usually turns into a tax increase. “Patronage is power and turf, and there’s a lot of ego involved,” says Quigley, whose 10th District includes much of the north lakefront. “If county government were kindergarten, we would all be sent home with a note saying we don’t work and play well together.”

The county’s annual budget crisis is like a nightmare episode of “Let’s Make a Deal,” he says. “Monty Hall is only pointing to two doors. One is a tax increase and the other is job cuts. What’s it going to be?”

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