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John Stroger in 1980 with his ally Richard M. Daley, then a state senator
In the run-up to the 2006 election for county board president, it wasn’t certain whether John Stroger would seek a fourth term. A 76-year-old overweight diabetic, he had already survived prostate cancer and quadruple bypass surgery. Additionally, the luster of the Stroger brand had been dimming in recent years, as his administration was hit by a series of scandals, including allegations of child abuse at the juvenile detention center and an FBI investigation (still pending) into suspected hiring violations by the county. Furthermore, John Stroger seemed to have lost some control over the other 16 commissioners on the board, who were defying his calls for tax increases to pay for what they said was a government too loaded with patronage and pork.
Stroger’s wife, Yonnie, urged him not to run. She thought her husband had sacrificed enough for politics, and she wanted to spend more time at their condo near Fort Lauderdale, Florida. On the other hand, John Stroger loved his job, and he resented his likely opponent in the primary, Forrest Claypool, a county commissioner who had often defied him as president.
For months, Stroger deliberated. Three sources told me that he made up his mind only after Mayor Daley pleaded with him to stay on. “John didn’t want to run until Daley stepped in,” says one top Democratic insider. (None of the three sources would speak on the record for fear of offending the mayor.)
John Stroger and Richard M. Daley had enjoyed a long political alliance. In 1983, Stroger was the only African American committeeman to back Daley in his first race for mayor against Harold Washington—a move that did not sit well with other black leaders. In turn, Daley assisted Stroger’s bid for president of the county board, where, subsequently, Stroger helped the mayor’s brother John get elected commissioner and later appointed chairman of the powerful finance committee.
The alliance paid off for each man. Come election time, John Stroger used his “Soldiers for Stroger” political army to deliver votes for Daley from African American parts of the city, and Daley put his people to work for Stroger in the white ethnic areas.
Presumably, when Daley urged his old friend to run again in 2006, he was thinking ahead to his own race the following year. At the time, corruption scandals had weakened the mayor politically, and he faced possible challenges from two prominent congressmen, Luis Gutierrez and Jesse Jackson Jr. For Daley, the elder Stroger would provide a crucial bulwark.
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In the days before he suffered a stroke, John Stroger was visibly exhausted. “I knew he was tired,” recalls Todd. “But he’s John Stroger; he was gonna run till the end.” (For a Democrat in Cook County, the primary, not the general election, is more or less “the end.”)
The race was by far the toughest John Stroger had seen as president. Claypool was well funded, well organized, and he had a powerful message of standing up to waste and corruption, crafted with help from his longtime friend, the media strategist David Axelrod. Although Claypool trailed Stroger in most polls going into the final week, he had been surging, giving his supporters hope of victory.
At around 5 a.m. on Tuesday, March 14th, a week before the primary, John Stroger awoke feeling numb on his left side. An ambulance took him to Advocate Trinity Hospital near the Strogers’ home. Todd remembers getting a call early that morning. “I knew it had to be something serious,” he says.
After being stabilized at the hospital, John Stroger was moved to Rush University Medical Center, which has a nationally recognized stroke center and where Stroger’s personal physician was based. The family went into virtual seclusion. Early on, even the board president’s top aides didn’t realize the critical nature of his condition, which may account for some of the conflicting statements that came out.
The campaign higher-ups huddled and ultimately resolved to let the Stroger family decide what to say. In the meantime, the staff put out a press release to announce that Stroger’s campaign would carry on “full steam ahead.” “It was not—not even close—our intention to say to people, ‘It’s all good; he’s fine,’” explains a source close to the Stroger family. “But until we knew for sure, we had an active campaign.”
To deal with the media, the Strogers called on Dr. Robert Simon, then the county’s chair of emergency medicine and an informal medical adviser for many years to John. At a news conference that evening, Simon told reporters that the stroke would keep Stroger in the hospital beyond the Tuesday election. Though Stroger remained stable and could speak, albeit with a slur, “you never know with a stroke how bad it is for several days,” Simon said.
Forrest Claypool was driving to a morning campaign event when he heard of Stroger’s hospitalization. Right away, he says, “I knew the election was over—there was no way I was going to win.” He canceled his remaining appearances that day, and Axelrod scrapped a planned TV attack blitz.
The next day, Robert Simon and James Whigham, Stroger’s chief of staff, briefed county commissioners, telling them that Stroger was improving. Simon went so far as to say that Stroger was doing “outstanding, just outstanding.” (Later, critics argued that Simon deliberately deceived voters—a charge Simon flatly denies. Suspicions grew louder after the November election, when Todd Stroger, the new county board president, promoted Simon to be interim chief of the county’s health system, a move many decried as political payback. Simon calls that nonsense. “I never wanted that job,” he says. “If anything, it’s the job from hell! I took a $90,000 reduction in pay! How would it be payback if I were taking a reduction in pay?”)
The day after Stroger’s stroke, the Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg published a column saying he initially assumed Stroger was faking his illness to win sympathy votes. Though Steinberg went on to acknowledge that “the man seems to be actually sick,” he offered this advice to readers: “If you are voting to try to improve the vital Cook County services, the vote is for Claypool. If you vote your race, for any clown, no matter how ignored and betrayed you are year-in, year-out, then go for Stroger.”
The Stroger campaign team saw an opportunity. They arranged for Roland Martin, then the midday host at WVON (he’s now a contributor and analyst at CNN) to interview Steinberg on the air. “Mr. Steinberg, you are a complete ass,” he began. “When you have a white columnist working for a white newspaper who has the audacity to suggest that a black politician checked into the hospital for campaign purposes when in fact he is actually sick . . . [it] shows the kind of ignorance that is pervasive.”
The station replayed the segment throughout the day, and other stations picked up on it. “That was all that black radio talked about all week,” recalls Claypool. “And then they tied me to Steinberg, like somehow I had written it.”
On Friday, four days before the Tuesday primary, Dr. Michael Kelly, head of the stroke center at Rush, said tests showed that Stroger had likely suffered a thrombotic stroke that blocked a key artery in his brain. “It is a serious stroke,” explained Kelly. “I don’t think he’s going to be able to pull back, or come back from this.”
Nonetheless, Stroger’s campaign and his supporters continued to put a positive spin on his recovery. Todd Stroger, speaking publicly for the first time since his father’s stroke, told thousands of parishioners at Salem Baptist Church, “President Stroger will be back!” The same message was echoed in black churches all over the county. Mayor Daley joined the chorus. “John Stroger is alive and well,” he assured voters at a news conference. “I’m supporting and voting for him. Let’s be realistic—he’s coming back.”
Were these sunny predictions “realistic,” as the mayor put it, or deceitful?
Todd Stroger says he had watched his father battle prostate cancer and diabetes and bounce back from quadruple bypass surgery; surely he could come back from this, too: “John Stroger is the strongest person I ever met—the will of a lion. He would do whatever it took to come back.”
To say otherwise publicly was practically unthinkable to those in Stroger’s political circle. “No one verbalized a ‘What if?’ scenario because that would be like treason,” recalls Freddrenna Lyle, the 6th Ward alderman and a close ally of the Stroger family.
Claypool’s supporters saw a different scenario: a cynical effort by a political machine to deceive voters and cover up John Stroger’s true condition while party leaders were secretly preparing to pick the president’s successor. But Claypool’s campaign couldn’t find a way to question Stroger’s health without seeming to disrespect an elderly, infirm public servant.
Stroger won on March 21st, with 53 percent of the vote to Claypool’s 47 percent. At a news conference, Claypool summed up the loss: “We were victims of low turnout and, I must say, just an outpouring of affection and love for John Stroger.”
Would Claypool have beaten a healthy Stroger? Probably not. Turnout was remarkably low, and a Tribune poll on the day of Stroger’s stroke had showed Stroger ahead by 10 points. Although the Trib story called the race still “fluid,” the gap was probably too big to make up in one week. Indeed, some observers think the gap narrowed because of questions about Stroger’s health. “Stroger lost votes because a lot of people thought, Why would I vote for a guy who apparently was gonna die?” says the source close to the Stroger family.
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Photograph: Chicago Tribune photo by Chuck Berman