Joseph Berrios, Candidate for Cook County Assessor: Under the Microscope
THE INSIDER: With a background as a Democratic Party boss, a lobbyist, and a powerful commissioner of a property tax appeals board, Joseph Berrios now wants to be Cook County assessor, a role that will give him even more sway in picking winners and losers among local taxpayers. Chicago magazine’s political editor—working with the Better Government Association—argues that Berrios shines as a vivid example of the clout-infested politics for which Illinois is famous
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Inside Berrios’s world: Hefty campaign donations from tax attorneys have raised conflict issuesThe oldest of seven children born to Puerto Rican natives, young Joe Berrios got his start in politics after his family moved from Cabrini-Green to Humboldt Park. As a teenager, he worked precincts for the alderman Thomas Keane’s powerful 31st Ward political organization. Back then, Hispanic immigrants were rapidly altering the landscape of the Northwest Side, and Keane was looking for more Latino faces for his political crew. After Keane was convicted of fraud and conspiracy in 1974 and forced out of office, Berrios, a loyal Democratic machine soldier, continued to climb up the ward ladder.
In 1980, Berrios, who has an accounting degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago, got a patronage job as an accountant at the Board of Review—then a sleepy backwater called the Cook County Board of (tax) Appeals. In 1982, he was elected to the Illinois Statehouse but continued to work for the board.
After the ward boss who succeeded Keane was convicted on extortion charges in 1987, Berrios became the new boss, a post he still holds. A year later, he left the state legislature to run successfully for commissioner on the Board of Review. He’s been there ever since, today earning $100,000 for the part-time job.
In his other career, as a lobbyist in Springfield, he won an astonishing victory last spring for one of his clients, the Illinois Coin Machine Operators Association, when the state legislature voted to permit video poker in bars, restaurants, and truck stops across the state. The measure swept through the Madigan-dominated house, 86–30 (and one “present” vote), with little prior warning and no public hearings. Madigan and Berrios denied any backroom horse-trading, both insisting that the legislation had nothing to do with either their close political ties or their side business dealings before the tax appeals board. Others were skeptical. It must have been, as Greg Hinz, the political columnist for Crain’s Chicago Business, wrote with oozing sarcasm, “another one of those remarkable Springfield coincidences.”
People who know Berrios say he has always had his eye on another prize: the assessor’s office. In the machine hierarchy, the assessor’s office traditionally has been one of the plummest of the plum political jobs—a bastion for patronage and big campaign donations. In fact, Thomas Hynes, the assessor from 1978 to 1997, gave up the state senate presidency for the lower-profile job, which is currently held by the Democrat James Houlihan, who isn’t running for reelection.
Flush with campaign money and backed by party regulars, Berrios seemed a shoo-in for the assessor’s job. He announced his candidacy in August 2009 without much fanfare—actually in a press release put out on the same day he underwent gastric band surgery. But the race was not a cakewalk. In a three-way primary contest last February against two lesser-known opponents, Berrios squeaked by with 40 percent of the vote. Soon after, Forrest Claypool, the reform-minded county board commissioner, entered the assessor’s race as an independent against Berrios and the token candidates for the Republicans (Sharon Strobeck-Eckersall) and the Green Party (Robert Grota). The election will be held on November 2nd.
In the primary, Berrios tried to claim the mantle of reformer, promising to “clarify, demystify, and simplify” aspects of the county’s tax system. Yet during his time as a commissioner, he has regularly fought efforts to move the board out of the Paleolithic era—for example, he long resisted computer-assisted techniques, which can result in bringing more transparency and accuracy to the process. To this day, commercial appeals are still calculated manually, with pencils and paper. A few years ago, he even opposed the passage of a county board ordinance requiring the Board of Review to post its rulings on the Internet. “He fought it to the bitter end,” recalls Mike Quigley, the North Side congressman who sponsored the ordinance back when he served on the county board. (The measure passed, and all Cook County tax appeal results are now listed online.)
In making his case to be elected assessor, Berrios cites his vast experience working on property tax issues. By comparison, he points out, his leading opponent in the race, Claypool, worked at the county’s tax appeals board for only a short time during the early 1980s. “I know what I’m doing, and Forrest [Claypool] does not,” he says. “Five months’ experience at the Board of Review doesn’t give him the knowledge and the ability to work in the assessor’s office.”
The newspapers have been harsh on Berrios’s run for the job. The Tribune said his slating by the county’s Democrats was a “miserable mistake.” The Sun-Times called his candidacy a “tragedy.” Some Board of Review observers worry that if Berrios wins in November, he’ll become even more emboldened to play politics with the property tax system. Unlike with the board’s built-in system of checks and balances, such as they are, the assessor acts largely on his own. As the current board insider puts it, “Nobody will be watching Joe.”
Illustration: Jay Taylor