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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William Beavers, left, took command of Todd’s campaign last year to succeed his ailing father.
On July 18th, Democratic leaders meeting in the third-floor meeting room of the Hotel Allegro chose Todd Stroger to replace his father on the ballot, giving the son 77 percent of the weighted vote to 23 percent for Danny Davis (by then Steele had dropped out). The Republican candidate, Tony Peraica, who had camped out in the Allegro lobby, denounced the vote as “exemplifying what’s worst with our political system”—a message the media was more than happy to repeat.
The criticism of the selection process continues to irk Todd, and he’s got a point. Party officials picked him as part of a prescribed legal process. Perhaps it’s not the most democratic process, but it’s more democratic than allowing a governor to act alone to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat. (Sound familiar?) Had the Republican nominee for board president been felled by a stroke during the primary, the Republican committeemen would have chosen a candidate exactly the way Democrats did. After all, it’s state law.
But in fact, the coronation at the Allegro was merely the cherry on top of months of secretive, Machiavellian machinations. Why didn’t more people do anything to stop them? There were the standard goo-goo exhortations, and the newspapers predictably screamed bloody murder. Davis and Steele protested, but they were vying for the seat and thus hardly neutral observers. (Later, by the way, Steele would pass down her commissioner’s seat to her son.) Few officials acted honorably. Even Barack Obama and Dick Durbin signed a letter endorsing Todd Stroger’s candidacy, calling him “a good progressive Democrat.” “It was business as usual,” explains Andy Shaw, the executive director of the Better Government Association, who covered the events as a political reporter for WLS–Channel 7. “John Stroger had supported every one of these nepotism moves by prominent white politicians over the years. You think for a minute they were not going to reciprocate? It’s like night follows day: a done deal.”
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From the outset of the general election campaign, Todd seemed ambivalent—he frequently showed up late or not at all at events—and his campaign seemed disorganized. Beavers, known for his punctuality as much as for his loquaciousness, would get particularly annoyed. “Bill would sometimes say to Todd, ‘Look, man, if you don’t want to do this, just tell us,’” recalls Freddrenna Lyle, who served as Stroger’s finance chair.
Several close associates say Todd Stroger began to retrench from his father’s political organization during the campaign, preferring to surround himself with advisers with whom he felt more comfortable. The race turned out to be tougher than expected, climaxing with a malfunction in some of the county’s new touchpad voting machines on election day. In the end, though, Stroger beat Peraica, 54 percent to 46 percent. (No Republican candidate for county board president had cracked the 40-percent mark in decades.)
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Overnight, Todd Stroger was transformed from a bit player to a new powerhouse on the Illinois political stage. But he also inherited a government in dire straits: under the eye of the FBI for alleged hiring violations, larded with patronage, and facing a financial crisis—a $500-million deficit.
Stroger’s critics say his administration has been akin to a train wreck. Even his supporters quietly acknowledge the long and well-known bill of particulars against him: his penchant for putting friends and relatives on the payroll; his erratic stewardship of the county; and a series of embarrassing scandals, including the disclosure of an IRS lien on his house because he had not paid nearly $12,000 in federal back taxes.
What’s more, the power of the board presidency under Todd Stroger has been whittled down to a fraction of its former strength. Commissioners stripped away Stroger’s control of the Bureau of Health Services, which accounts for about a third of the county’s budget. Additionally, the troubled juvenile detention system was turned over to an outside authority.
Stroger says his father was better suited to defend himself from the brickbats thrown by outside critics and political opponents on the county board. “For me, it’s different,” he says. “I’m not a 36-year-old institution.”
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Stroger insists he has accomplished a lot: making substantial cuts to the patronage bureaucracy; appointing an independent inspector general to root out corruption; increasing participation in the county’s contracting programs for minority- and women-owned businesses; putting in place environmentally friendly green initiatives; and preserving the county’s health care system, a key safety net for low-income or uninsured people, despite a huge budget shortfall. Citing his successes, he points out that he has balanced three budgets. His critics respond that his accounting has been mostly smoke and mirrors, and his budgets were balanced only by pushing through last year’s 1-percent sales-tax hike, which raised Chicago’s overall sales tax to 10.25 percent—the highest of any big city in the country. Both Mayor Daley and his brother John protested the increase, and the county commissioners voted a repeal, which Stroger vetoed. Without the tax hike, Todd says, the county would have been forced to slash essential health care and public safety services. In fact, asked to list his biggest accomplishments in office, he quickly names one: “Passing that damn sales tax.”
One of his biggest headaches has been the hiring of Tony Cole, the Ruth’s Chris Steak House busboy and ex-felon, to a $61,000 job as a human resources assistant in the county highway department. While on the job, Cole was twice bailed out of jail by his boss, Donna Dunnings, then the county’s chief financial officer and Todd Stroger’s cousin. Todd eventually fired Dunnings, and the county’s inspector general has launched an investigation into the matter.
The Cole scandal aside, Stroger told me that most of his problems have been manufactured by the media. “Man, if I came from Hyde Park, I’d be made in the shade,” he said, alluding to the generally favorable coverage that Barack Obama has enjoyed.
In any case, Stroger’s three years of near constant turmoil have left him politically wounded. He has lost the confidence of key party officials, including the same bosses who propped him up in the first place. Speaker Madigan, according to one well-placed Democratic official, has been telling other political leaders that Stroger is faring so badly politically that he threatens to drag down the entire statewide Democratic ticket. The Daleys, too, reportedly have been distancing themselves from Stroger. Even his close friends seem prepared to abandon him. Walter Burnett, for one, says he’s supporting Stroger for the time being, although he quickly qualifies: “But, you know, Todd understands I do belong to an organization, and so that’s the business that we’re in.”
So far, three candidates, all African American, have said they will likely challenge Stroger in next February’s primary. Two of them, Toni Preckwinkle, the alderman from Hyde Park, and Dorothy Brown, the clerk of the county circuit court, are former protégés of John Stroger. The third, Danny Davis, is giving up the congressional seat he has occupied for six terms to run again.
The competition has sparked speculation that Todd Stroger will decide not to run for reelection, though he caught a break recently when Forrest Claypool—considered an easy front-runner—announced he was retiring to the private sector. Todd insisted to me that he will run. He believes that a crowded primary field of African American candidates favors him—after all, he’s the incumbent and he’s got the Stroger brand name. And he pointed out that people are always stopping him at the grocery store or at county events to give him encouragement. Nonetheless, he acknowledged that losing would not be the end of the world. “I don’t like to make it seem like I can just walk away and be happy—I do enjoy the job,” he said. “I could do something else. It wouldn’t be a great loss for me.”
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John Stroger died at Northwestern Hospital on January 18, 2008, just over a year after his son took over the board presidency. His whole life, Todd Stroger had always had his father looking out for his political interests, and without John, he has had to go at it alone—in a job he never really aspired to, weighted down by a family legacy that he has never been able to live up to. “John always protected Todd, and Todd’s mother always protected Todd,” says the longtime Democratic operative in the county. “I don’t think Todd ever learned the survival skills to succeed in this business. It’s enough to foist someone into a position of leadership, but as a parent, did John Stroger prepare his son to take on something like this?”
During our discussion, I asked Todd if he had ever talked about succession plans with his father, even before the stroke. Todd shook his head. “You obviously have never been the king,” he said. “You say something like that to the king, he’ll have you killed.”
Later, I asked whether his father ever learned what had happened.
“Yes,” Todd said, after a pause. “At least, I think he did. He couldn’t speak, but he had expressive eyes.”
Photograph: Chicago Tribune photo by Ovie Carter