The Cook County Assessor has his eyes on the office—whether or not Daley runs

Cook County Assessor James Houlihan to run for mayor?
Cook County Assessor James Houlihan
On Wednesday, I met with outgoing Cook County Assessor James Houlihan at his spacious downtown County Building office. The last time I interviewed him was in July 2006, when I was writing about Bill Clinton’s post-presidency. (The two men are golfing buddies.) Houlihan is a big man with an open face and manner—a great talker who has the natural gift of remembering people and knows just about everyone in local politics.

Assessor since 1997, the 67-year-old Democrat chose not to run in the primary. He does not hide his displeasure over the fact that the Dems’ candidate to replace him is Joe Berrios, who Houlihan fears is too entangled with Illinois party chairman and House Speaker Mike Madigan.

A former seminarian who came very close to becoming a priest “but left the seminary in ’68 to work for the Bobby Kennedy campaign,” according to spokesman Eric Herman, Houlihan is also a former aide to Harold Washington.

He says he has no plans to retire; even if he did, his wife, attorney Ann Tighe, would not allow it. Besides, he has some big plans, perhaps including another run for office.

We talked for more than an hour. Here, the first part of a transcript of the highlights—including which office he is eyeing and his role in encouraging County Commissioner Forrest Claypool to run as an independent against Berrios.

CF: What’s next for you?
I’ve been involved in school reform funding issues. I’ve been involved in tax and property issues that are devastating the state in terms of the budget. We just don’t have a reasonable way to finance government right now. I’d like to do some stuff in public policy—maybe in the academic area, maybe work for foundations, some lobbying… I’m not sure. But right now, we’re focused on a huge reassessment of the city.

CF: Any chance you’ll run for office again? Washington Post reporter Chris Cillizza has you running for mayor of Chicago.
Yeah, there’s a possibility. Any kid who grew up in Chicago who has been involved in government, who likes the neighborhoods and feels committed to the city, would want to take a run at being mayor. I think that’s where Rahm [Emanuel]’s interest comes from. [Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, said Monday during a TV interview that he’d like to be mayor of Chicago]. The one thing I know is I don’t want to run statewide.

CF: What else, County Board president?
JH: I had an interest at one time, when John Stroger was going to retire. The county, the forest preserves, the healthcare component of county government—these are very important issues, and I had some pretty creative ideas about how to deal with [them]. We have to see what happens, who’s doing a good job and the areas where we could do better.

CF: Do you think Mayor Daley is going to run again?
JH: It’s kind of strange for Rahm to come out and say something at this time. The mayor has a lot of issues to be focused on, not the least of which is personal. I don’t think anybody can question that [Daley] loves the city, so I think this is not the time to be speculating about who’s going to be running. There will be an appropriate time but I don’t think now’s the time.

CF: If Daley decides to run, could you imagine yourself getting into the primary to run against him? Is it a realistic possibility?
JH: I could imagine it. I think the issue is whether it would add to a better debate about the future of the city—whether it would crystallize some of the issues that are important for the state’s future. I think you see a lot of elections around the state when it’s just personal. You’ve gotta have a strong set of issues—that should drive the debate, not just the fact that you’d like to be mayor. That’s not enough.

CF: Did Forrest Claypool consult with you before deciding to mount this independent run at the assessor’s office?
JH: He talked to me. He looked at the circumstances and this situation; Berrios and Madigan and the conflicts drove him…. From his role as a reformer, he was pretty upset about that.

CF: Are you happy Claypool’s in the race? Did you encourage him?
There’s no secret that Joe [Berrios] and I have had some differences about the reductions that he’s given to businesses that I’ve felt are inappropriate. It probably would be better if the county’s [Democratic Chairman Berrios] were not the assessor. I thought it was important that [Claypool] take his own counsel about [changing] the dynamics of—as he described it—“pay to play politics.” I think he was especially offended by the conflicts that existed, so I was there more to sort of help him think through issues related to the office… and then let him sort through the “should I or shouldn’t I?” on his own. And he has done that.

Check back for part two of the interview, coming next week. In it, Houlihan discusses the Giannoulias-Kirk race, Tony Rezko’s reputation pre-Blago, and more.