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In the line of fire: “How can you criticize me forever?” asks Todd Stroger.
Sitting in a high-backed leather chair and nearly dwarfed by a hulking block of a desk, the man sometimes teased with the nickname “The Toddler” looks almost childlike—an impish boy who has sneaked into his father’s office at night.
I know that sounds mean, but those who criticize the beleaguered Cook County board president argue that this image is not that far from the truth. Todd Stroger enjoys high-level supporters and friends, but to a significant number of people he is the undeserving Machine hack who three years ago pulled off the equivalent of a political Ponzi scheme to replace his ailing father, John Stroger, as the county’s chief executive.
In part because of the questionable way he landed in office, Stroger’s three years as president have been a period of intense upheaval and bickering in county government at a time when the county, like most state and local governments, is reeling in crisis. A roster of challengers is already lining up for next February’s Democratic primary. And, fairly or not, Stroger has become a punching bag for the media.
“How can you criticize me forever?” he asked when we met recently in his office. “People can be mad at the beginning, but there should come a point where they say, ‘Is he doing what he needs to do?’”
Stroger looks younger than his 46 years. He has a high, nasal voice and a baby face crossed by a thin mustache. Throughout our discussion, he was genial and jokey, if a bit shy. In fact, almost everybody I interviewed for this story, both friends and foes, said they liked Todd Stroger personally—before adding a qualification, usually about his governing skills. The list of his purported flaws ranged from arrogance to incompetence to a plain lack of interest in governing. “I really like Todd Stroger as a person, but I just felt that too much was being heaped on him without him having the background to do it,” says Bobbie Steele, the retired commissioner of 20 years who unsuccessfully challenged the younger Stroger to replace his father on the 2006 ticket.
Even by the low standards of Illinois politics, the story of Todd Stroger’s ascendancy offers a disheartening glimpse of the system at work—a system where nepotism, race, secretive deals, and the self-interest of politicians play determining roles, while the public is effectively locked out. Paradoxically, one of the victims of this unfortunate state of affairs may be Todd Stroger himself.
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Todd Herman Stroger learned politics at his father’s knee. The youngest of the three Stroger children, Todd frequently accompanied his dad to political meetings, along with his brother, Hans, and sister, Yonnie Clark. “I ate a lot of meatballs,” says Stroger. “But that’s how my dad spent time with the children.”
His father, John Henry Stroger Jr., had carved a remarkable political record, rising from the depths of poverty in Helena, Arkansas. “He grew up dirt poor, literally a dirt floor,” says Todd. After moving to Chicago with a degree from Xavier University of Louisiana, the historically black Catholic school in New Orleans, John Stroger rose quickly through the Democratic organization, befriending Mayor Richard J. Daley, who suggested he run for the Cook County Board of Commissioners. During his 36 years there, 12 as president, Stroger championed legislation aimed at helping minorities, particularly by providing public health-care coverage for the poor and uninsured. The new Cook County Hospital, his crowning achievement, bears his name.
Growing up on South Blackstone Street in the comfortable middle-class Pill Hill neighborhood, Todd Stroger frequently buried his head in science fiction books and superhero comics, though his father used to put him and his siblings to work passing out copies of the neighborhood’s political newspaper, the Southeast Beacon, and cleaning the ward office. “John Stroger cared deeply about his children and their development, and he took a very active role in their development,” says Marlow Colvin, a state representative and a close friend of Todd Stroger’s since childhood. “In fact, that was his word: ‘I want to see you guys develop.’”
By all accounts, Hans Stroger, outgoing and gregarious, was considered his father’s likely political heir. An honors student at Xavier, he was about to start law school at Loyola University Chicago when, in December 1982, he suffered a severe asthma attack. He died the following day. His death at 22 had a profound effect on the family. “Losing a close relative is like losing an appendage—an arm, a leg, or something,” says Todd, whose eight-year-old son is named Hans. “You expect your brother or sister will always be there.”
After Hans’s death, Todd became the family’s new political standard-bearer, even though politics was not his first love. Prodded by his father, he left the University of Wisconsin and enrolled at Xavier. After college, he returned home and job-hopped around a few county offices. Through his father’s connections, he landed at the investment banking firm SBK Brooks.
Political opportunity knocked in 1992 when a seat in the Illinois House opened up on John Stroger’s turf. With the help of his father’s ward organization, Todd, then just 29, won easily. Asked if he truly wanted to be a legislator, he says, “I saw myself doing just about anything else.”
In Springfield, Todd Stroger was known as an uninspired backbencher who essentially shilled for his father and Chicago’s Democratic political machine, i.e., Mayor Richard M. Daley. He was also the chairman of the influential Labor and Commerce Committee, which should have bolstered his influence. “That was a beeline right to Mike’s office,” says one Stroger associate, referring to Michael Madigan, the clout-heavy House speaker.
In many people’s eyes, however, Todd seemed more interested in beelining it away from the speaker and General Assembly whenever he could. One often-told tale around Springfield has it that Madigan would sometimes have to call John Stroger to get Todd to show up for votes. “I think one of the reasons why John Stroger stayed on Todd so much was because the speaker told him several times, ‘Your boy is fucking off down here, and you need to pull him by the collar,’” says one Democratic legislator.
The relationship between John and Todd was complicated. The father could be pushy and overbearing; the son could be stubborn and resistant. “We’d fight and all that stuff,” acknowledges Todd. “Maybe that was just my nature. In the end, I’d do what he said.” Several intimates of John Stroger say that he felt frustrated and disappointed with his son’s political “development.” “His dad was real tough on Todd. I mean real tough,” says Walter Burnett Jr., the 27th Ward alderman and a childhood friend of Todd’s.
In 2001, after the 8th Ward alderman and John Stroger protégé Lorraine Dixon died of cancer, the elder Stroger arranged for his son’s appointment to her seat, even though the younger Stroger had never shown much interest in the grunt work of ward politics. “It was pretty much his father’s decision,” says Colvin. “Todd could’ve said no, but why would he? At the time he wasn’t accustomed to saying no.”
When I asked Todd Stroger why he became alderman, he replied, “Who ever says life turns out the way you expect?”
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Photograph by Katrina Wittkamp; Assistant: Amanda Barbato
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