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.
* * *
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
John Stroger in 1980 with his ally Richard M. Daley, then a state senator
In the run-up to the 2006 election for county board president, it wasn’t certain whether John Stroger would seek a fourth term. A 76-year-old overweight diabetic, he had already survived prostate cancer and quadruple bypass surgery. Additionally, the luster of the Stroger brand had been dimming in recent years, as his administration was hit by a series of scandals, including allegations of child abuse at the juvenile detention center and an FBI investigation (still pending) into suspected hiring violations by the county. Furthermore, John Stroger seemed to have lost some control over the other 16 commissioners on the board, who were defying his calls for tax increases to pay for what they said was a government too loaded with patronage and pork.
Stroger’s wife, Yonnie, urged him not to run. She thought her husband had sacrificed enough for politics, and she wanted to spend more time at their condo near Fort Lauderdale, Florida. On the other hand, John Stroger loved his job, and he resented his likely opponent in the primary, Forrest Claypool, a county commissioner who had often defied him as president.
For months, Stroger deliberated. Three sources told me that he made up his mind only after Mayor Daley pleaded with him to stay on. “John didn’t want to run until Daley stepped in,” says one top Democratic insider. (None of the three sources would speak on the record for fear of offending the mayor.)
John Stroger and Richard M. Daley had enjoyed a long political alliance. In 1983, Stroger was the only African American committeeman to back Daley in his first race for mayor against Harold Washington—a move that did not sit well with other black leaders. In turn, Daley assisted Stroger’s bid for president of the county board, where, subsequently, Stroger helped the mayor’s brother John get elected commissioner and later appointed chairman of the powerful finance committee.
The alliance paid off for each man. Come election time, John Stroger used his “Soldiers for Stroger” political army to deliver votes for Daley from African American parts of the city, and Daley put his people to work for Stroger in the white ethnic areas.
Presumably, when Daley urged his old friend to run again in 2006, he was thinking ahead to his own race the following year. At the time, corruption scandals had weakened the mayor politically, and he faced possible challenges from two prominent congressmen, Luis Gutierrez and Jesse Jackson Jr. For Daley, the elder Stroger would provide a crucial bulwark.
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In the days before he suffered a stroke, John Stroger was visibly exhausted. “I knew he was tired,” recalls Todd. “But he’s John Stroger; he was gonna run till the end.” (For a Democrat in Cook County, the primary, not the general election, is more or less “the end.”)
The race was by far the toughest John Stroger had seen as president. Claypool was well funded, well organized, and he had a powerful message of standing up to waste and corruption, crafted with help from his longtime friend, the media strategist David Axelrod. Although Claypool trailed Stroger in most polls going into the final week, he had been surging, giving his supporters hope of victory.
At around 5 a.m. on Tuesday, March 14th, a week before the primary, John Stroger awoke feeling numb on his left side. An ambulance took him to Advocate Trinity Hospital near the Strogers’ home. Todd remembers getting a call early that morning. “I knew it had to be something serious,” he says.
After being stabilized at the hospital, John Stroger was moved to Rush University Medical Center, which has a nationally recognized stroke center and where Stroger’s personal physician was based. The family went into virtual seclusion. Early on, even the board president’s top aides didn’t realize the critical nature of his condition, which may account for some of the conflicting statements that came out.
The campaign higher-ups huddled and ultimately resolved to let the Stroger family decide what to say. In the meantime, the staff put out a press release to announce that Stroger’s campaign would carry on “full steam ahead.” “It was not—not even close—our intention to say to people, ‘It’s all good; he’s fine,’” explains a source close to the Stroger family. “But until we knew for sure, we had an active campaign.”
To deal with the media, the Strogers called on Dr. Robert Simon, then the county’s chair of emergency medicine and an informal medical adviser for many years to John. At a news conference that evening, Simon told reporters that the stroke would keep Stroger in the hospital beyond the Tuesday election. Though Stroger remained stable and could speak, albeit with a slur, “you never know with a stroke how bad it is for several days,” Simon said.
Forrest Claypool was driving to a morning campaign event when he heard of Stroger’s hospitalization. Right away, he says, “I knew the election was over—there was no way I was going to win.” He canceled his remaining appearances that day, and Axelrod scrapped a planned TV attack blitz.
The next day, Robert Simon and James Whigham, Stroger’s chief of staff, briefed county commissioners, telling them that Stroger was improving. Simon went so far as to say that Stroger was doing “outstanding, just outstanding.” (Later, critics argued that Simon deliberately deceived voters—a charge Simon flatly denies. Suspicions grew louder after the November election, when Todd Stroger, the new county board president, promoted Simon to be interim chief of the county’s health system, a move many decried as political payback. Simon calls that nonsense. “I never wanted that job,” he says. “If anything, it’s the job from hell! I took a $90,000 reduction in pay! How would it be payback if I were taking a reduction in pay?”)
The day after Stroger’s stroke, the Sun-Times columnist Neil Steinberg published a column saying he initially assumed Stroger was faking his illness to win sympathy votes. Though Steinberg went on to acknowledge that “the man seems to be actually sick,” he offered this advice to readers: “If you are voting to try to improve the vital Cook County services, the vote is for Claypool. If you vote your race, for any clown, no matter how ignored and betrayed you are year-in, year-out, then go for Stroger.”
The Stroger campaign team saw an opportunity. They arranged for Roland Martin, then the midday host at WVON (he’s now a contributor and analyst at CNN) to interview Steinberg on the air. “Mr. Steinberg, you are a complete ass,” he began. “When you have a white columnist working for a white newspaper who has the audacity to suggest that a black politician checked into the hospital for campaign purposes when in fact he is actually sick . . . [it] shows the kind of ignorance that is pervasive.”
The station replayed the segment throughout the day, and other stations picked up on it. “That was all that black radio talked about all week,” recalls Claypool. “And then they tied me to Steinberg, like somehow I had written it.”
On Friday, four days before the Tuesday primary, Dr. Michael Kelly, head of the stroke center at Rush, said tests showed that Stroger had likely suffered a thrombotic stroke that blocked a key artery in his brain. “It is a serious stroke,” explained Kelly. “I don’t think he’s going to be able to pull back, or come back from this.”
Nonetheless, Stroger’s campaign and his supporters continued to put a positive spin on his recovery. Todd Stroger, speaking publicly for the first time since his father’s stroke, told thousands of parishioners at Salem Baptist Church, “President Stroger will be back!” The same message was echoed in black churches all over the county. Mayor Daley joined the chorus. “John Stroger is alive and well,” he assured voters at a news conference. “I’m supporting and voting for him. Let’s be realistic—he’s coming back.”
Were these sunny predictions “realistic,” as the mayor put it, or deceitful?
Todd Stroger says he had watched his father battle prostate cancer and diabetes and bounce back from quadruple bypass surgery; surely he could come back from this, too: “John Stroger is the strongest person I ever met—the will of a lion. He would do whatever it took to come back.”
To say otherwise publicly was practically unthinkable to those in Stroger’s political circle. “No one verbalized a ‘What if?’ scenario because that would be like treason,” recalls Freddrenna Lyle, the 6th Ward alderman and a close ally of the Stroger family.
Claypool’s supporters saw a different scenario: a cynical effort by a political machine to deceive voters and cover up John Stroger’s true condition while party leaders were secretly preparing to pick the president’s successor. But Claypool’s campaign couldn’t find a way to question Stroger’s health without seeming to disrespect an elderly, infirm public servant.
Stroger won on March 21st, with 53 percent of the vote to Claypool’s 47 percent. At a news conference, Claypool summed up the loss: “We were victims of low turnout and, I must say, just an outpouring of affection and love for John Stroger.”
Would Claypool have beaten a healthy Stroger? Probably not. Turnout was remarkably low, and a Tribune poll on the day of Stroger’s stroke had showed Stroger ahead by 10 points. Although the Trib story called the race still “fluid,” the gap was probably too big to make up in one week. Indeed, some observers think the gap narrowed because of questions about Stroger’s health. “Stroger lost votes because a lot of people thought, Why would I vote for a guy who apparently was gonna die?” says the source close to the Stroger family.
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Photograph: Chicago Tribune photo by Chuck Berman
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.
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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
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.”
* * *
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.)
* * *
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.”
* * *
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