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What do voters need to know?
Stroger's illness prompts questions about a politician's right to privacy

Wednesday, June 20, 2007
Chicago Tribune
by Mickey Ciokajlo

Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, who zealously guarded details of his father's crippling stroke last year, kept his own cancer diagnosis secret as he campaigned to succeed him, his administration acknowledged Tuesday.

Todd Stroger, who learned about 10 months ago that he had an early stage of prostate cancer, had his prostate gland removed Monday at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, county spokeswoman Ibis Antongiorgi said. "The doctor expects a full and speedy recovery," she said.

Stroger will continue to run the county through his chief of staff, she said. Antongiorgi, who on Monday would only say that Stroger, 44, was hospitalized for a "routine medical procedure," said he kept his illness quiet because he considered it a private medical matter.

The revelation sparked new questions about candor, privacy and the public's right to know nearly a year after Todd Stroger was nominated to replace his father on the Democratic ticket. John Stroger, the longtime board president, had a debilitating stroke just one week before the March 2006 primary, and critics accused Stroger's family and party power brokers of keeping the severity of his illness a secret.

After the stroke, John Stroger's family closed ranks and revealed few details of his condition. Todd Stroger appears to have kept his cancer diagnosis a closely held secret, not even informing top members of his campaign.

County Commissioner Tony Peraica (R-Riverside), who lost to Todd Stroger in the November election, said the public had a right to know about Stroger's condition. He stopped short of saying the lack of disclosure affected the outcome of the election.

"I think a major diagnosis like cancer is one of those important facts that the voting public should be aware of," Peraica said.

County Commissioner William Beavers (D-Chicago), who is one of Stroger's closest political advisers, said he only learned of Stroger's cancer a couple of days ago. He said Stroger was not obligated to tell voters.

"He's not running for president of the United States," Beavers said.

But politicians have tended to be more forthcoming on issues of health in a media age that puts an emphasis on transparency. Experts say informing the public is good policy and smart politics. Voters, they say, feel entitled to know about any serious health issues afflicting elected officials.

"To some degree it's a judgment call by the person in question but certainly any operation, heart attack or cancer or any serious illness warrants disclosure if you're a politician ... certainly something that admits you to the hospital," said Dr. Barron Lerner, a physician and medical historian at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Lerner said the idea of not disclosing the diagnosis of a serious disease like cancer is "clearly a throwback to a different era."

"It's become accepted practice that politicians have an obligation to disclose serious illness to the public," Lerner said.

Both in Illinois and nationally, politicians have made serious illnesses public, often carefully framing the issue to minimize fallout.

President Ronald Reagan disclosed his diagnosis of and treatment for cancer while in office. So, too, did former Illinois Atty. Gen. Jim Ryan and the late state Sen. Penny Severns.

Republican Fred Thompson, mulling a run for the White House, revealed his battle with lymphoma, and Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) and the late Wyoming Sen. Craig Thomas waged public battles against serious diseases.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's prostate cancer diagnosis was fodder for tabloids and talk shows after he disclosed it while scrapping a bid for the U.S. Senate.

Mike Lawrence, whose ex-boss -- former Gov. Jim Edgar -- had three serious medical episodes, including open-heart surgery four months before his 1994 re-election campaign, said there was never any thought of not disclosing the governor's condition.

"In each case we consulted with the doctors so we would be accurate and we made the doctors available," said Lawrence, who directs the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. "Our view was that a public official ought to make significant health issues public soon after the diagnosis."

County Commissioner John Daley (D-Chicago), brother of Mayor Richard Daley, said the disclosure issue is personal. The Daley administration has disclosed both the mayor's health issues and those of his wife, Maggie, who has breast cancer.

"It wasn't a life-or-death situation," John Daley said of Todd Stroger. "If he was able to wait this long to have his surgery, that would indicate that it was not, you know, aggressive."

Commissioner Forrest Claypool (D-Chicago), who lost to John Stroger in the Democratic primary, said Todd Stroger's current situation is "completely different" from his father's.

"My understanding is this is the type of thing, if caught early is very treatable and is not a huge deal," Claypool said. "Until he actually went in for the procedure, I don't see why that was not a private matter."

County Commissioner Joseph Mario Moreno, the board's president pro tem, ran Tuesday's board meeting in Stroger's absence.

During a testy morning news conference before the meeting, Antongiorgi said Stroger was committed to being open about his condition and that he intended to launch a public awareness campaign about prostate cancer.

"He is committed to being as open as possible," she said. "He really wants to get the message out there."

Stroger learned he had cancer in an early stage after he had a routine screening in August, Antongiorgi said, about a month after the Democratic Party slated him as its nominee for board president.

Stroger's doctors monitored the progress of the disease and finally decided that surgery was necessary, the spokeswoman said, adding that Stroger did not delay having the procedure.

Stroger did not make his doctors available for comment Tuesday.

Antongiorgi described Stroger's cancer as having a "high cure rate." She said Stroger was expected to remain in the hospital for a couple of days and stay out of the office for up to three weeks while he recovers.

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