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A look into 'Bizarro world'

Sunday, February 25, 2007
Daily Southtown
by Jonathan Lipman Staff writer

After weeks of buildup, Friday's showdown vote on the Cook County budget let politicians reveal their true colors.
 
Only many were flying different flags than they'd flown before.
 
There were commissioners Tony Peraica (R-Riverside) and Forrest Claypool (D-Chicago) getting cheered by the crowd of uniformed sheriff's police and union workers -- people who fought tooth-and-nail to defeat both men at the polls last year.
 
There was Commissioner Joan Murphy (D-Crestwood), blasted by critics as an unwavering ally of the county administration, standing firm with Claypool to fight board President Todd Stroger while others wavered.
 
There were three Republicans providing key swing votes for Stroger, who's often held up as the epitome of a Democratic machine politician that GOP voters love to hate.
 
As the scheduled 10 a.m. start to Thursday's budget meeting steadily was pushed back until it started nearly 12½ hours late, the county board slipped further into "Bizarro world," as longstanding alliances crumbled.
 
How did they get there -- finally approving in Friday's wee hours a budget that includes widespread layoffs and no tax increases to close a $502 million shortfall?
 
"What we saw ... was old-fashioned politics," Claypool said Friday. "Todd Stroger pulled commissioners into a back room -- and peeled them off with deals."
 
"It was a conglomeration of people that you could never see," said Commissioner Elizabeth Gorman (R-Orland Park). "But that's the beauty of the business of politics."
 
Stroger's original budget plan cut deep into health and public safety to balance the budget without raising taxes. The public uproar over the proposed cuts was loud and constant.
 
Stroger and a coalition of 12 commissioners led by Claypool, Peraica and Larry Suffredin (D-Evanston) proposed competing packages of budget amendments. Both called for trimming administrative jobs to restore some of the doctors, nurses, prosecutors and sheriff's police that were to be cut in the original proposal.
 
The coalition argued that Stroger's plan didn't cut enough administrators, while Stroger said the coalition cut irresponsibly and would cripple county government. Because neither side was sure it had enough votes, the meeting was repeatedly delayed. It wasn't until late in the evening, as reporters watched one commissioner after another walk down the hall to Stroger's office, that it became clear Stroger had won.
 
Murphy, a strong supporter of Stroger's father and predecessor, John Stroger, surprisingly stuck with Claypool and Peraica, two commissioners she publicly loathes. A strong supporter of the unions, Murphy said Stroger was cutting too many union workers to get her vote.
 
But three of the board's five Republicans -- Gorman, Gregg Goslin (Glenview) and Pete Silvestri (Elmwood Park) left the coalition to forge a compromise with Stroger.
 
"I don't know what was said in that back room," Claypool said. "I don't know what deal the Republicans got."
 
There was no deal, insisted Silvestri and Gorman. It wasn't the Republicans looking for help, it was Stroger, they said.
 
"I didn't vote for the Stroger budget, I voted for the evolved compromise amendment," Silvestri said. "There's a lot of good things going for this budget."
 
Stroger said Republicans listened to him because he was a "genuine person."
 
"We talked about what I wanted to do," Stroger said. "I respected them, and they respected me."
 
Republicans got something for their cooperation. Their compromise plan cut $5 million more than Stroger's revised proposal from departments such as finance, administration, human resources and the circuit court clerk's office.
 
Combined with new revenue, the GOP compromise boosted funding for the sheriff, state's attorney and health bureau by $16 million over Stroger's amended plan.
 
The final budget contains about 1,270 layoffs, eliminates 439 open positions and closes 12 of the county's 26 community health clinics. Those clinics, which were a rallying point for protesters, were also the wedge that drove the three Republicans away from Claypool, Silvestri and Gorman said.
 
"(Claypool and the coalition) wanted to maintain all the clinics that were being improperly run," Gorman said. "The clinics being shut down (served) only 5 percent of the overall patients."
 
There was also no point in being on a losing side, Silvestri said. Stroger had promised to veto the coalition's budget plan.
 
Before the meeting began about 10:30 p.m. Thursday, Commissioner Mike Quigley (D-Chicago), one of the staunchest voices for reform on the county board, tried desperately to explain to the press in the back hallway that compromise was not evil.
 
Two weeks earlier, Quigley had blasted Stroger and promised never to vote for his budget because Stroger was using $13 million from the county forest preserve district to help address the county government's deficit.
 
But during Thursday night's debate, Quigley lashed out at his one-time allies, Claypool and Suffredin, arguing that their image as advocates for county workers was a sham.
 
"I got a secret for you. -- If you don't think that people were protecting their buddies and their patronage friends -- then I have a wonderful bridge to sell you," Quigley said.
 
Suffredin fired back.
 
"The saddest person is a person who blames his failure on the success of others," he said. "I've heard a commissioner attack the integrity of another, and I'm really upset about it."
 
Jonathan Lipman may be reached at jlipman@dailysouthtown.com or (312) 782-1286.
 
Roll call on Suffredin/Claypool coalition amendment:
 
Bill Beavers - no
 
Jerry Butler - no
 
Forrest Claypool - yes
 
Earlean Collins - yes
 
John Daley - no
 
Elizabeth Gorman - no
 
Gregg Goslin - no
 
Roberto Maldonando - yes
 
Mario Moreno - no
 
Joan Murphy - yes
 
Tony Peraica - yes
 
Mike Quigley - no
 
Tim Schneider - yes
 
Pete Silvestri - no
 
Deborah Sims - no
 
Robert Steele - no
 
Larry Suffredin - yes
 
+++++++



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