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Q&A: Fritz Kaegi On What He’ll Face as Cook County Assessor

The Hyde Park-reared mutual-fund manager beat powerful incumbent Joe Berrios handily in the primary. Can he fix the problems that made his victory possible?

Fritz Kaegi addresses the Cook County Democratic Party in June of 2017.   Photo: Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune

In what other city would the race for county assessor be as dramatic, as cut-throat—the subject of so many hyperventilating endorsements—as the race between Joe Berrios, incumbent machine-made Cook County assessor, and Fritz Kaegi, reformer and Hyde Park-reared professor’s kid?

We haven’t heard much from Kaegi since his big victory—49 percent to 34 percent—over Berrios. Who is this relatively young—46 to Berrios’s 66—high-finance guy who turned out to be Berrios’s worst nightmare? Characters like Berrios we’re used to; they sit on Chicago’s City Council, in Springfield, on the County board. The fancily educated Kaegi (Haverford College, Stanford MBA) seems almost a different species.

Kaegi whose unusual first and last names are attributable to his Swiss heritage—his great grandfather came to the U.S. from Switzerland in the 1890s—lives with his wife, Rebecca, and their three children in Oak Park. When the opportunity arose to interview him, I grabbed it.

We met in Hyde Park near his boyhood home. His mother, who had served in the Peace Corps in Tunisia and worked throughout her adult life to promote issues of social justice, died in mid-April. Her son was in Hyde Park, helping to plan her memorial service at nearby St. Thomas the Apostle Church

Here’s an edited, condensed version of our conversation.

This was your first run for office?

Yeah…. I was on Honor Council at Haverford College…. No village boards, nothing like that.

Did you think you could win?

Yes…. Years and years of reporting implanted in the voters’ minds that [Joe Berrios] is not an ethical person…. If you looked on Nexis, you would see hundreds of stories per year that were negative, which makes it different from a typical machine race, where the voters are not informed.

People don’t really understand what the assessor does. Was this the race that you wanted, or did you really want to jump in the governor’s race?

No, I wanted to be assessor because this is a job that is all about valuing things, which is what my career had been about. [He was, for 13 years, a financial asset manager at Columbia Wanger Asset Management.] It was about putting a price on every single piece of property in Cook County…. And I realized that while this has some important commonalities with the work I was doing before—valuing stocks and being a steward over people’s savings—I like the idea we can do this out of an executive office. I can have a much bigger impact.

Would you characterize your campaign as self-funded? And could you have won if you weren’t a person who could afford to put $1.5 million into your own campaign?

I contributed more money to our campaign than we raised, but we did raise a substantial amount of money, over a half a million dollars.… I was willing to put money in this. I thought it was a worthwhile effort.

On self-funding, we have these wildly wealthy guys running for governor. Doesn’t that keep people out who don’t have that cushion of wealth? Is there something really wrong with this picture?

I don’t think our campaign finance system is a good thing for democracy.… You have to spend lots of time calling people [and] that takes your time away from being out there on the trail and getting to know voters.

Having some sort of public financing or a matching system would be healthy for democracy. I came into this race believing that, and I believe it even more having lived the choices you make with your time. J.B. Pritzker had a big advantage in the governor’s race because he could be doing events with the voters all the time. He never had to spend any time raising money.

Who did you support in the gubernatorial primary?

We did not make any endorsement.

Your heart was with whom?

I didn’t have any candidate who won my heart. What I told people was, “go with the person… who you think is most sincerely dedicated to getting a progressive income tax passed here in Illinois.” And all three of them talked about this…. I would have been able to live with any of them… I met with all of them, got to know all of them…. If you watch J.B., when asked about the property tax assessment system, he said it is regressive, it needs to be fixed. He never praised Berrios.

Well Pritzker really got into a lot of trouble over the disconnected toilets and a resulting tax break.

I think that might have been over zealousness on the part of his lawyers, because whatever money he saved on that was a spit in the ocean.

Have you been talking to JB, and consulting with him since the election?

We’ve talked and we’ve done a couple of events together. And I’ve told him that I want to be out there to help him fight for a progressive income tax amendment in Illinois. Which is really important to getting to the heart of how we finance education in the state. When we go to places like the south suburbs, we can say, “We can fix the regressivity in the property tax assessment system.” But even if we get that perfectly right, we are still using a regressive system to finance education…. We’re number 50 in the United States in how we finance education at the state level.

Rauner’s boogey man is Mike Madigan. Madigan and Toni Preckwinkle were in the Berrios camp. So what’s your relationship with those two politicians?  

I grew up at 53rd and Greenwood; a block away from Toni Preckwinkle.… She knew my dad because she’d see him walking by all the time. And then when I introduced myself when I was starting this race, she said, “I can’t meet with you, I’m committed to meeting with Joe.” She was very polite about that.

Did that make you think, “What’s wrong with this woman? How could she really with a straight face say she’s supporting Berrios?”  

Well I do think that what Joe Berrios stands for is not what voters think of when they think of what Toni Preckwinkle stands for…. She stands for transparency, fiscal responsibility, social justice,  and fixing this system advances all of those goals, so we think she’s sympathetic on that course.

Right they think of her as a reformer, but she’s a Democrat first.

Right. And I think she feels personally loyal to him. And I understand that  adults make different decisions and politicians make different decisions about why they’re with people. And loyalty is a fine quality, especially when you’re in the leadership of the party together. I didn’t hold that against her. We were not critical of her on the campaign. I’ve not met with Michael Madigan.

Do you think he’s a noxious presence in this state?  Would we all be better off if he’d just finally retire and pass the mantle to his daughter, as most parents would do?

What we realized when we were running the campaign is that we don’t want to fight multi-front wars. We’re going to talk about the assessor’s office and the way Joe Berrios ran it and why it needs to be changed, and hopefully people can hear some things about me and what I want to do and what I can bring to the office to change it.

What voters didn’t like about Joe Berrios was enriching [himself] and [his] family based on a public trust.… When we talked to people all around the county, that resonated with them even more strongly than the inequity of the property tax system.… People don’t like when publicly elected officials have second jobs that can seem to be in conflict with their public trust.

You’re saying that Berrios is a lobbyist?

Yeah, Berrios is a lobbyist but also had property tax appeals folks funding his campaign, and that seemed to be an enormous conflict of interest that voters did not like.

It surprised me that Berrios could legally hire his relatives.

Yes, it surprised me too, but it’s not covered by Shakman.

Are you going to impose an anti-nepotism rule?

Yes. Not only are we not going to hire my relatives—I’m not going to hire my brother or other family members—but also we want to have a really highly qualified team of people because this is the biggest assessor’s office in the country.… There’s give-or-take 20 political appointees and about 280 total employees to do a lot of very complex, technical evaluation work.

When you formally take the office, do you sweep out a lot of people?

In the policy office I can install people, so that’s the so-called Shakman-exempt, give or take 20 positions. And there are about another 260 or so who are civil service employees who are there before you arrive and they will be there when you are gone, and we need to get the most out of them. We’ve talked to a lot of folks in that office and they want to be professionally led; they take pride in their work. They want to have their skills expanded. We’ve told them we need every single one of them to bring the change we want to bring.

Are you going to have to fire Berrios’s relatives or cronies? Do you know who these people are and are you going to go in and say,  “See ya.”

What we can do depends on whether they are in Shakman exempt or not. We have to be very careful with how we treat people because… Berrios, when he came into office, he fired a lot of people, not following the rules, and we as Cook County tax payers had to pay more than half a million dollars discrimination settlement because there was score settling that was not considered fair.

We also want to bring the most effective people we can at the policy level….. We have a lot of people who are interested in these 20 or so policy-making positions that we have there and we’ll take the best people that are available. And some of them may be people who are there now, we don’t know.

What did Berrios say to you when he called to concede on election night?

He called us about 7:30 or 8. He was very gracious. He was a gentleman.  He said I want to be helpful with transitions…. And Toni Preckwinkle, I’ve already met with her. We already met with most of the commissioners.

Is Berrios planning on staying put until after the November general election?

He’s been quoted in the media saying that he wants to facilitate an orderly transition, so to me that suggested he’s not planning on stepping down. 

And what are you going to do until then? Vacation?

No, we’re planning for the transition. We just got back from a meeting with all the township assessors in Cook County.… There’s a huge amount of work that will go into building a landing plan and team.

It’s my impression that Rahm Emanuel and J.B. Pritzker were supporting Berrios under the table.  You agree?

We actually did not see signs of that at all. There was radio silence from Pritzker and the mayor about Berrios the whole campaign.

There’s been a lot of talk about how your election spells the end of the machine. Does it?

It’s certainly a sign that the party needs go in a different direction for how it turns out voters and produces candidates. People in Chicago kind of forget that we are one of the last 20th-century political machines in this country. And in many places the model is you come out and do campaign work for me because you can get a job and I can give you a contract. Caring only about issues is for suckers.  The country moved beyond that old model to having candidates that emerge out of primaries largely based on issues and enthusiasm for their character. I think we need to kick the party here in that direction.

One of the interesting things to me about this campaign was the almost orgasmic support you had on the editorial pages. I’ve never seen anything like it.  They’d urge readers to vote Fritz in and get rid of this horrible Joe Berrios, and, after you won, they congratulated you (and the voters). Did that surprise you? Do you think the endorsements made a difference?

I think the endorsements made a difference, but I think the bigger difference was Joe Berrios’s actions based on the facts.… These were not invented things that he had done…. We started running before the Tribune series came out about the tax divide, but for sure it helped. It was extraordinary. Having all these other candidates in other races being asked to take a position on our assessor’s race was very unusual. We were very grateful for the media spotlight. Like I said, the machine is the weakest when voters are informed about these issues.

Could that Chicago Tribune/ProPublica Illinois study have been better timed for you? You really had a lucky star over your head.

We’d been running for about a month when that came out and it was very helpful for us. Because what it did was add a whole new narrative to this office. This narrative about pay to play and corruption and conflict of interest had been there for years. Academic specialists, like at the Civic Federation, had noted that the system was regressive and unfair, but voters weren’t really aware of that and the Tribune series helped build that awareness. That was very important in the south part of the county.

One of the most interesting things about Berrios is his background; his parents were from Puerto Rico and as a child he lived in Cabrini-Green and in the Humboldt Park neighborhood.  His first volunteer job for the machine, obtained with the help of a 31st Ward precinct captain, got him clouted out of a speeding ticket. His first patronage job was cleaning toilets in Humboldt Park.

Joe Berrios’s biography was his greatest strength, and we noticed the more the voters heard about it the more his positives went up. But on the other hand, you can’t fool the voters when they’re getting their property tax bills and… they’re seeing it with their own eyes. And I think that was ultimately his undoing. The system was failing. He’d had a long chance to fix it, it had gotten worse, and he seemed pretty indifferent to the need to fix it. And that’s ultimately what caused the voters to reject him. When Toni Preckwinkle was asked about him she talked about getting the bills out on time. That was the greatest strength that she pointed to.

It did bring to mind Mussolini and his on-time trains. It seemed kind of lame to me.

Yeah, especially if they’re being sent out on time, but they’re inaccurate and they are robbing the South Side of hundreds of millions of dollars unnecessarily… because of under-assessing downtown.  

Has Rauner been in touch with you? Do you know him?

No [and no] I do not. A little bit before I announced, I wrote a column in Crain’s  about how his approach to things has been the wrong one for Illinois. I point to the example of Jerry Brown in California for how you get the state back to fiscal stability…. My wife’s a teacher. We don’t like what Rauner has done on the labor side, on the education side.

But do you think he has a point about Madigan?

I think that nobody has made Madigan look better than Bruce Rauner…. Rauner is Madigan’s greatest asset at this point.

You’re a professor’s kid?

My father taught at the University of Chicago until last June. He taught history of Rome and Byzantine and early Islam. He taught there for 52 years. Started teaching in ‘65.… PhD from Harvard. He went to Haverford undergrad…. He knew he should retire when he fell asleep in his own class. He’s an emeritus now.

Growing up in Hyde Park you went to Kenwood Academy.  Why not the Lab School?

I started at Lab, nursery through 7th grade. We lived in Princeton [NJ] in 8th grade and we came back and I started at Kenwood because I had a lot of friends who had left Lab and gone to Kenwood and really liked it—actually a lot of historians’ kids. I loved it. It was one of the best decisions I’d ever made. I was pretty unhappy. I was kind of a troublemaker at Lab School.

And you wanted to see some new faces?

New environment. Having a change of scenery is good for boys after middle school. In my case it was very good. I had great teachers at Kenwood.

How did you end up in Oak Park? Why not come back and live in Hyde Park?

I made the best argument I could for moving back to Hyde Park. But my wife taught at a middle school in Oak Park, got to know Oak Park well and we wanted a diverse community with neighborhood schools that’s walkable….. We looked around and I never expected to move to the suburbs, but it all led to Oak Park.

Your kids go to public school?

Yes, they go to our neighborhood public school.

Where does your wife teach now?

Pritzker College Prep, a CPS charter [high] school and she teaches Russian part time. So she’s not the biggest fan of the charter school model but in her case she likes the way the school’s running and there aren’t many high school part-time Russian teaching jobs in this world.

Did your children have any opinion about whether you should run for office?

Oh, they liked it. They understood what I was doing then much more than they understood when I was a small cap mutual fund manager. All they understood about that was that I would be traveling to exotic countries and be gone. During the campaign, they could come to events. 

In the 2016 democratic primary, were you a Hillary or a Bernie voter?

I like both of them, I did vote for Bernie.

Trump?

Trump is like straight out of someone that they were writing about in the Federalist Papers as a threat to democracy. This is why you don’t allow foreign emoluments…Having lived in Russia and seeing how democracy got corrupted there, it revolts me to see it happening here. So that Trump election was one of the things that pushed me off of the sidelines to think, “I should take this now at this point in my life.”

Do you want to be assessor for more than one term or do you see this as a couple-term deal?

I think that we can do the things that we want to do, certainly, in the first four years. But I intend to run for reelection to protect the change that we have, because we’re taking on some really entrenched interests, and it’s only reasonable to expect that those interests will try to field a candidate four years from now, and we want to protect it.

So you don’t see yourself as assessor for two years, then run for governor, or run for county board president?

No. People have really been hurt by this system. People have a lot of hopes invested in us. And I don’t want to let them down. So I’m not running for anything else.

Toward the end of his three terms as assessor, Jim Houlihan [Berrios’s predecessor] was flirting with running for mayor. Would you like that job?

I live in Oak Park, I mean Rahm Emanuel had trouble enough explaining his Trevian roots at New Trier. I love Chicago, but I’m in Oak Park. My wife made me swear that we’re not going to move.

What am I missing?

We have a lot of work ahead of us in this office. There is the regressivity of the residential property tax system;  there’s the underassessment of downtown commercial properties that has to be addressed. We have to bring in a whole team of people to make this office work more professionally.

We really need to improve the quality of data that they have. I don’t know if you own your home, but if you’ve looked at the information they have about your home, it’s probably way off. This is true of most people. And it’s very urgent. Literally hundreds of millions of dollars every year taken out of certain neighborhoods that should not be being taken out,  so we feel this urgency very deeply.

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