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Todd Stroger's health vs. public's right to know

Friday, June 22, 2007
Daily Southtown

The issue: Cook County Board President Todd Stroger undergoes prostate surgery 10 months after being diagnosed with cancer. Debate rages over when public should have been informed.
We say: Because his illness was not deemed life-threatening, Stroger was not obligated to reveal it during his campaign. However, the public should have been informed about his surgery before it happened instead of after.
How much disclosure about health issues do we have a right to expect from our public officials? How about from candidates?
The issue arises once again in the wake of revelations that Cook County Board President Todd Stroger had surgery this week to remove his prostate. The Chicago Sun-Times broke the story on Tuesday, a day after one of his representatives announced that Stroger underwent a "routine medical procedure" of a "private, personal" nature.
After the Sun-Times learned that the procedure was to remove Stroger's prostate, his spokesman said the board president was "committed to being as open as possible" about the procedure. Stroger reportedly will use his condition as an opportunity to urge men to be tested for the condition.
Apparently only Stroger's closest family members were aware he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer 10 months ago, during his election campaign to succeed his father, John, as board president.
Did Stroger have a responsibility to disclose the diagnosis last year? Some members of the county board believe he should have. We can understand that point of view, especially because the issues of health prompted by John Stroger's stroke and incapacitation were in the forefront of the campaign. The fact that the senior Stroger was very ill and unlikely to return to his job as board president should have been disclosed before the primary election last year in which Stroger won a hard-fought race.
After the primary, Democratic Party leaders selected Todd Stroger to replace his father. The choice was roundly criticized as nepotism, favoritism and machine politics at its worst.
But we're inclined to accept the argument that Todd Stroger's early diagnosis was a private matter and that he had a right to keep the information private at the time. It was not life-threatening, after all, and prostate cancer is not likely to be incapacitating. Some prostate cancer patients undergo only medicinal regimens, for example.
Stroger might have been able to provide a positive example for other men, particularly in the African-American community, where the incidence of prostate cancer is higher than in the general population. But he chose not to take that route and had a right to make that choice.
We wonder now whether some of Stroger's substandard performances during last fall's campaign were the result of illness or his reaction to the news of it. Our guess is he would have been cut some slack by political commentators and editorial writers if the diagnosis had been made public. Perhaps it is to Stroger's credit that he didn't take advantage of the situation.
On the other hand, he might have decided he didn't want to raise the health issue in light of the controversy over his father's illness and conduct of party leaders who kept it secret before the primary.
But Todd Stroger should have revealed that he was about to undergo surgery this week, before the procedure took place. The public has a right to know when its elected representatives cannot perform their jobs, or when someone else is in effect filling in for them.
County Commissioner Bill Beavers (D-4th) defended Stroger, saying "your health never comes up when you're running for office." But that's patently untrue. Beavers' second point -- that Todd Stroger "isn't running for president" -- is more on point. Russia isn't going to invade Cook County if the county board president is in surgery.
So if Beavers' point is that prostate cancer doesn't disqualify a man from serving as county board president, we agree with him. But there are times when a candidate's health is an issue that voters will want to consider. Likewise, there are times when voters ought to consider whether a candidate has a history of being open and honest with them.
We wish Todd Stroger good health and good luck with his recovery, and we hope he follows through on his staff's promise that he will try to educate the public about prostate cancer. He has an opportunity to turn his misfortune into a positive, and he should do so.

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