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Bolingbrook—C’est Moi!

He weeps, he insults, he builds lavish projects, and Mayor Roger Claar sees in his own journey—from chubby outsider to powerful Republican—a parallel to the booming emergence of his town.

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The Bolingbrook Golf Club clubhouse, aka “The Rog Mahal”

Dan Droogan is the son of Terry and Charlotte Droogan. They go back to Bolingbrook’s origins in the early 1960s as a couple of small subdivisions cut out of cornfields. Terry was an early village trustee and was fire chief from 1967 to 1993, when he retired from the department and staged a failed run against Claar for mayor. Charlotte taught third grade in a Bolingbrook public school for 30 years. Shortly after she retired, she ran unsuccessfully for a village trustee seat in hopes of becoming an opposing voice on what she believed was a rubber-stamp board.

To talk to these three Droogans is to hear three levels and two generations of dissent. Charlotte complains that while chasing his “grandiose ideas” to build Bolingbrook into an upscale suburb, Claar has neglected older, middle-class neighborhoods like hers, on the city’s east side. She says she’s been lobbying for many years to get sidewalks in her part of town for the safety of children walking to school.

Terry, who is divorced from Charlotte and now lives in Tennessee, questions how much Claar had to do with Bolingbrook’s growth. With a population explosion all over western Will County and the confluence of highways at Bolingbrook—I-355, I-55, and Illinois Route 53—the village would have grown exponentially “if Donald Duck was mayor,” Droogan says. (Chicago political expert and one-time Will County resident Paul Green echoes the sentiment, saying that Claar has been more the beneficiary than the cause of a “demographic miracle” that’s happening in Will County, the fastest-growing county in Illinois.)

Dan Droogan is in his mid-40s, and perhaps because he is part of the political system in the area, he’s less quick to criticize Claar, who has beaten the DuPage Township Democrats every time they have run someone against him. “I learned about politics from Claar,” Dan Droogan acknowledges. “He’s so good. Even though [the DuPage Democrats] are getting beat up, [Claar] is forcing me to get better.”

If the Droogans’ critiques of Claar are divergent, Claar’s response to the Droogans is not. “They’re fucking nuts,” he said when I said I might quote them in an article. He threw a copy of Chicago magazine onto the office floor and declared an abrupt end to the interview.

* * *

Roger Claar uses his powerful emotions strategically. He laughs a lot. He bellows sometimes. He preens. He can charm, he can pout, and he can intimidate. He let me sit in on a meeting in his office with several representatives from the Salvation Army, who were petitioning him to open a store in Bolingbrook on Route 53. Claar objects to the idea because the location is immediately across the border from Naperville, and he doesn’t want a Salvation Army outlet as “Bolingbrook’s front door.” He received the visitors coldly.

While they made their pitch, he signed purchase orders and made a point of re-arranging items on the conference table, at one point walking out of the room to get himself a cup of coffee. He sniffed at the guests for not having brought their business cards, and when one countered that they were “kind of low-key,” Claar snapped, “Well, once you come through that door, the low-keyness ends.”

This is the Claar that friends and rivals know: the fierce defender of Bolingbrook’s image, the straight talker, the man with an unwavering vision for his village. Early on, he ascertained that the town needed some industry to help with its tax base, and more and bigger houses to give those “young immigrants” room to grow beyond their starter homes. He cold-called higher-end developers, and urged them to build in Bolingbrook; he made the invitation more appealing by persuading local farmers to annex their land to the city and get it zoned for residential. And after a development was built, he asked the next developer to set the price of his cheapest house at the price of the most expensive house of the previous development. “That was the horse I rode on,” he says.

He was riding into a bedroom suburb with a weak civic tradition. Voter turnout is low; despite Bolingbrook’s estimated population of 75,000, Claar won his last election 3,078 to 235 over a write-in candidate. (Low voter turnout is not strictly a Bolingbrook phenomenon; Naperville’s more than 137,000 residents cast only 11,536 votes in a nonpartisan mayoral primary last February. Unlike Naperville, however, Bolingbrook doesn’t have much of a history—the oldest subdivision has brown historical-district signs that say, “Est. 1960.") Bolingbrook doesn’t even have a downtown. “Having toured the downtowns of many suburban cities, I’m glad we don’t have a downtown,” Claar says. “The downtowns were built for a whole other retail era.”

* * *

Over the years, Roger Claar has often been the target of criticism. Bolingbrook residents complained to Chicago, sometimes with a laugh, about a wide range of issues: Claar parks his car in front of the clubhouse (and not in a parking spot). He spent $20,000 from his campaign fund on a New Year’s Eve party a year and a half ago. He named one of Bolingbrook’s biggest thoroughfares Lindsey Lane, after his daughter. He takes in most of his campaign donations from developers and others who do business in Bolingbrook. He acquired a local church for the village and installed a nonprofit adolescent counseling organization, Heart Haven Outreach; its board president is Claar’s wife, Patricia (who is also an assistant principal at Bolingbrook High School), and its executive director is Lindsey Claar, who appears to have reconciled herself to the hurly-burly of being the mayor’s daughter.

The mayor has survived more concrete charges: He was forced to resign in 1991 as director of the Romeoville-based Wilco Area Career Center after an audit revealed tens of thousands of dollars missing from soda machines. (Claar says the soda delivery drivers took advantage of an illiterate maintenance man.)

A 1996 Will County state’s attorney’s investigation looked into a tollway authority land deal involving the developer Don Hedg, a Claar associate. While Claar was out of town, he learned that police were searching his home. “I seriously wanted to shoot myself,” he remembers, as tears come to his eyes. The investigation petered out.

He had to resign from the tollway authority in 2000 after the Chicago Sun-Times revealed that Claar had broken a rule forbidding board members to solicit campaign contributions from vendors who did business with the tollway. Claar protested that he was soliciting them as “people doing business with Bolingbrook,” he says. But he resigned from the paying tollway post after Gov. George Ryan gently urged him to step down.

And he’s survived conflict-of-interest questions stemming from his operation of American Consulting Services, through which he advised corporations that needed things from state or local government. (Claar says he has since shut this business down.) Claar does not concede that his multiple roles—mayor of a fast-growing village, political consultant, and tollway authority board member—ever represented an inherent ethical conflict. He believes most of the criticism he has received over the years comes out of jealousy among political rivals for what he has accomplished in Bolingbrook—and the flashy, brash way he has done it. “My style draws attention,” he says.

* * *

Roger Claar is Bolingbrook, and at this point separating his success from that of Bolingbrook is impossible. So why does Roger Claar keep crying? “Things wear on me more than they used to,” he says, referring to the investigations and accusations. Perhaps he is worried that he overreached with Americana Estates. He is uncharacteristically showing a willingness to back off another big plan: a second golf course he wanted to build, which would have been designed by the pro golfer John Daly. “If the market shows it won’t support it, I’ll be the first one to walk away.”

But walking away from Bolingbrook is another story. After spending a day driving around in Claar’s Jaguar and discussing big ideas and tiny details—"I am anal!” Claar exclaims—it’s impossible to imagine him retiring and watching someone else do his job. He plans to run for reelection in 2009, and his daughter Lindsey flatly says the best way out for her dad would be dropping dead of a heart attack on the job.

As village clerk Carol Penning recalled her long association with Claar, she talked about his toughness. “The mayor of Bolingbrook does not hug, and there’s no crying in Bolingbrook,” she says.

Well, the mayor of Bolingbrook has been crying. Maybe the man (and the town) are preparing to enter the next phase.


 

Photograph: Nile Young, Jr.

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