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The Coronation

Todd Stroger’s reign as county board president has been marred by chaos, scandal, and deeply unpopular decisions. Here’s the story behind the maneuvering that elevated a political lightweight to one of the most powerful posts in local government 

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Todd Stroger (holding his daughter) looks on as John announces his bid for reelection in 2006
Todd Stroger (holding his daughter) looks on as John announces his bid for reelection in 2006

 

On April 4th, John Stroger was moved to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago for therapy. With a plainclothesman standing guard outside his room, Stroger remained cut off from the public and the press. Potential substitute candidates, including Todd Stroger, denied interest in running. “I would’ve been the Wicked Witch of the West if I woulda said, ‘He ain’t comin’ back and I know it,’” says Bobbie Steele, who badly wanted the job.

But behind the scenes, members of John Stroger’s 8th Ward political organization had been thinking about Stroger’s successor for weeks. Those in the elder Stroger’s inner circle knew that he would not be returning to work. Yonnie Stroger had put her foot down. “It was clear the John Stroger era was over,” recalls Marlow Colvin.

Colvin, who had taken over Todd Stroger’s legislative seat, quietly put out feelers to key power brokers to see how they would respond to a possible Todd candidacy. Colvin recalls that they were supportive, if lukewarm: “To be honest with you, they all of them probably said, ‘Is that something Todd would want to do?’” He called Todd to ask him. “I just remember telling Todd, ‘If your father can’t answer the bell, you should start thinking about running for county board president,’” recalls Colvin. Stroger’s reaction? “He hadn’t thought about it.”

Some days later, Colvin and Todd Stroger met at the East Bank Club with John Stroger’s top political advisers—his godson and trusted political fixer, Orlando Jones; his campaign manager, Bruce Washington; and his patronage chief, Gerald Nichols. Stroger said he was interested in running, but the group sensed his reluctance. Colvin recalls that Jones, who was practically family, asked point-blank: “Todd, are you gonna commit yourself? Do you really want to?” Todd replied, “You think I want to be alderman for the rest of my life?”

Todd Stroger told me in our June interview that he had wanted the job very much. He hesitated only over how the campaign—and presumably the president’s post—might affect his family. (He and his wife, Jeanine, have two young children.)

But there was another consideration. Sometime in early April, Todd was diagnosed with early-stage prostate cancer. It was not life threatening, but he didn’t tell most of his close associates or even his mother, who was still coping with her husband’s stroke. “There were concerns, sure,” he told me. “Cancer always gets your attention.” (He had his prostate gland removed in late June 2007, after he became president. When the news came out, it fueled even more criticism about his candor before the election.)

Todd insisted that he didn’t feel pressured to succeed his father. But John Stroger’s 8th Ward organization and his army of county and city payrollers knew much of their clout hinged on the president’s seat.

Under John Stroger, the committeeman since 1968, the 8th Ward was one of the city’s most formidable party organizations. A visit to the ward offices on South Cottage Grove Avenue confirms as much; the interior walls of the small storefront are covered with pictures of the elder Stroger posing with senators, congressmen, mayors, and presidents. As both a county commissioner and board president, John Stroger’s influence extended well beyond the boundaries of his ward. “The 8th Warders would not allow [the board presidency] to go to anyone else but Todd,” says a longtime Democratic operative in the county. “To this day they perceive it as an African American seat, but even more important, it’s an 8th Ward African American seat.”

* * *

By early May, people’s patience had begun to wear thin. Doctors had not given a medical update on the ailing president since the first days after the stroke, and confusion reigned at the county board. James Whigham told reporters that his boss was still in charge, yet Todd Stroger said his father was too ill to govern. What’s more, Todd said he would like to hold the position.

The backlash against him was immediate. “There is a fine line between promotion and manipulation,” wrote Mary Mitchell, an African American columnist at the Sun-Times. “Given the circumstances under which John Stroger is in the position to anoint his son, the younger Stroger’s ascension would seem to cross the line.” Even some Democrats viewed Stroger’s statements as presumptuous. Bobbie Steele, who coveted the job, slammed the younger Stroger as a lightweight, someone who simply followed orders to “sit down, be quiet, and not do anything.”

Todd Stroger pointed out that he followed a long Illinois tradition of nepotism, citing Lisa Madigan, the state’s attorney general; Dan Hynes, the comptroller; and U.S. Representative Dan Lipinski—all Democrats whose careers received huge boosts from their fathers. “I would put my experience up against theirs at any time. It’s probably twice that of any of them,” he said. Others around him injected the race card: If white politicians can pass down their offices, why can’t blacks?

On May 18th, the day before his 77th birthday, John Stroger was taken to a new home, a condo in a high-rise on the west bank of the Chicago River in the Fulton River District. Yonnie Stroger had quietly bought the unit to be closer to the clinic where her husband would be taking his daily therapy. Less than two weeks later, he was rushed back to the hospital. The Stroger family wouldn’t comment. By this point, the veil of secrecy surrounding the elder Stroger seemed almost farcical. Even Mayor Daley commented. “I think the family will speak out very shortly about his condition, rightfully so,” he said. “It’s a very serious issue.”

But the next day, Todd Stroger denied that his father had suffered a medical setback. “The doctors said he was fine,” he told reporters. Citing two sources with direct knowledge, however, the Tribune reported that John Stroger couldn’t even stand up and was being fed through a tube. The Daily Southtown offered an even grimmer picture: As recently as three weeks prior, Stroger could not recall his own name, the date, or day of the week.

By this time, many of the county commissioners had reached a tipping point. At the end of the first week in June, the board began taking steps to temporarily replace Stroger as board president with Bobbie Steele, a process made difficult by the lack of a defined succession plan. “We were all stuck,” recalls Larry Suffredin, the North Side commissioner.

Around then, Bill Beavers, the grizzled ex-cop turned alderman and longtime friend of John Stroger’s, declared himself the new spokesman for the ailing president. One of his first moves was to convince Yonnie Stroger to allow him and two influential South Side clergymen, Larry Trotter and Al Sampson, to visit her husband and report back to the press. His thinking was that the media would be likelier to trust two respected religious leaders than to trust Stroger political partisans. (Beavers did not return calls for this article.)

Trotter and a Beavers press aide who was also in the room recall that Stroger was in a therapeutic wheelchair. He was dressed in sweats and gym shoes. His left side seemed almost completely paralyzed. “We had to be careful because we weren’t supposed to talk politics with him—that was the agreement,” says the press aide. “President Stroger did talk politics, but when Mrs. Stroger came into the room, he stopped and put his head down.” At one point, Beavers said to Stroger, “You know they’re trying to take your job?” Recalls Trotter: “He kept saying to us, ‘Beavers know what to do; Beavers know what to do.’” He adds, “Beavers left that apartment saying, ‘If I die before I wake, I gotta make sure Todd gets that seat.’” But only a few days later, Stroger suffered another medical setback and was taken back to the hospital.

* * *

Heading into late June, the maneuvering among the three candidates hoping to replace John Stroger on the November ballot—Todd Stroger, Bobbie Steele, and Congressman Danny Davis—turned intense. The only votes that mattered in this contest were those of the 80 Democratic slate makers—50 Chicago ward committeemen and 30 suburban township committeemen—who, under state law, would decide the replacement nominee.

For weeks, Todd Stroger had quietly been calling nearly all of the 80 to line up support. But by this point, Beavers had taken over the driver’s seat. Chief of the city’s 50 committeemen and the powerful chairman of the city council’s budget committee, the old-school dealmaker had saved up years’ worth of political IOUs, which he cashed in for Todd. “Beavers was really the mastermind behind [the campaign],” confirms Freddrenna Lyle.

But as anyone who follows politics in Illinois knows, slate-making decisions of this magnitude don’t get done without the approval of Daley and Madigan. For the state’s top two power brokers, sustaining the balance of power between the city, county, and state governments was priority number one. The same was true for the pragmatic party committeemen, more than a dozen of whom were on the county payroll at the time—not to mention the hundreds of patronage workers they sponsored. In turn, many of those county workers gave money or helped raise funds for their political patrons. Just as important, the political loyalties extended into Daley’s city council chambers and Madigan’s assembly room. “A lot of those who were part of the Cook County Democratic party saw [the system] work to their benefit,” says Marlow Colvin. “Why would they want to disrupt it?”

Daley, Madigan, and the other party officials were just following a simple political maxim: Incumbent politicians benefit most from the status quo. In other words, the best political decision would be to replace John Stroger with a political clone, and in their minds, Todd Stroger was obviously as close as it got. Better still, adds the longtime Democratic operative, “Todd was one of those guys the party leaders thought they could control.”

But to African American leaders outside John Stroger’s South Side power base, the handoff to Todd looked like a transparent attempt to hold on to power, shutting out two more-deserving African American West Siders, Steele and Davis. Until John Stroger officially withdrew, however, West Side political leaders who complained were cast as opportunists trying to shove Stroger out of office.

John Stroger didn’t step down until after Beavers and Todd Stroger had collected enough pledged votes to secure Todd’s nomination—and after the deadline had passed for independent candidates to file to run. Todd told me that his family’s privacy, not political gamesmanship, was the reason for the delay. “The back room with the smoke-filled air—that’s how it was portrayed,” he said. “For one thing, nobody smokes anymore, except for Beavers.”

Still, Beavers and Todd Stroger soon made another announcement that carried the whiff of smoke: Beavers would resign as alderman and take John Stroger’s county commissioner seat—meaning Beavers and Todd would split the two jobs held by John. Mayor Daley would then appoint Beavers’s daughter, Darcel, to the vacant alderman post. The Sun-Times called the arrangement an “outrageously self-serving scheme.”

Todd Stroger told me that he persuaded Beavers, who had been thinking about retiring from politics altogether, to go along with the plan so that he would have a knowledgeable ally on the board from the start. “Shoot, I guess the truth of the matter is I pulled him out of retirement,” Todd says. (Or perhaps Beavers was lured by the prospect of receiving three public pensions—police, city council, and county board.)

At this point the only thing standing in the way of Todd Stroger’s coronation by the party committeemen was, technically, his father. To make the deal go down, party leaders needed a letter of resignation from John Stroger. They got one dated June 29th, signed in a shaky but legible hand. The same day, John sent a resignation letter to the county board with a signature that looked like chicken scratching. About a week later, he issued a third letter officially withdrawing his candidacy, and this time his signature was nearly perfect. Pressed to explain the varied signatures, Todd chalked them up to the “peaks and valleys” of his father’s recovery. The Tribune editorial board saw the situation as less innocent, calling it “a fraud on voters and taxpayers.”

* * *

Photograph: Chicago Tribune photo by Jose More

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