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Todd's secret

Monday, June 25, 2007
Crain's Chicago Business
by Greg Hinz

Cook County needs a boss who really wants the job
On just about every occasion when I saw him campaign last year, Todd Stroger left me with a nagging question: Does this man really want to be president of the Cook County board?
Though the then Chicago alderman was unfailingly affable and modest, Mr. Stroger overall came across as flat, uninvolved and almost cavalier in his lack of focus. He was the exact opposite of the typical pol, who would chew off his mother's ankle if need be in eagerness to win office. In fact, Mr. Stroger had less fire in the belly than perhaps any candidate I'd ever seen. Why?
That question returned last week, when news surfaced that Mr. Stroger had undergone prostate surgery for a cancer that had been diagnosed 10 months earlier, around the time of those remarkably flat campaign appearances.
I can't know for sure if last week's news provides the answer to the question, wholly or in part. I can say that, for taxpayers, standards of good government and quite possibly for Mr. Stroger himself, the events of the past year constitute a sad story of hurt and loss.
Mr. Stroger, of course, gained office amid a huge flap over whether his father, John, would have been renominated as county board president had voters been told more about the severity of the stroke he suffered a week before the March 2006 Democratic primary. John Stroger narrowly won that race, to be replaced on the November ticket by Todd Stroger, who in turn narrowly won the general election.
The flap had particular resonance because of widespread rumors at the time that Todd Stroger essentially was drafted into running by his family and by political associates with county patronage jobs.
For such reasons, Mr. Stroger should have said something about his medical condition then. He's only human. Who can claim not to be at least a little distracted at work while an ailing parent fights for his life and they themselves have to confront cancer at age 44? While Mr. Stroger is entitled to his privacy, voters are entitled to know relevant facts about whether a candidate is up to the job.
The issue of Mr. Stroger's health has continuing relevance because, having won the job, he's had a difficult time handling it.
I don't necessarily buy widespread talk that Mr. Stroger often is out of the office, rarely bothers to take notes at meetings and the like. For each tale like that, there's probably one like the story of how Mr. Stroger a few weeks ago quietly without TV cameras in tow spent a day talking to kids at the county's juvenile detention center because he was concerned that his own bureaucrats weren't giving him the full story.
What can be said is that Mr. Stroger has had an extraordinarily bumpy first half-year in office. Yes, he closed a huge budget hole. But he's made some stunningly tone-deaf staff appointments, the county hospital continues to hemorrhage red ink, big tax hikes loom and few, if any, of the long-term fixes needed to put the county on a firm financial footing appear to have been made.
Maybe he's been distracted by his health. Maybe it's his overall laid-back personality; Todd doesn't get passionate about anything, quips a friend. His style is quiet but eventually will produce results, an aide whispers.
Perhaps so. But it will be to no one's advantage should Mr. Stroger become a modern-day Eugene Sawyer, the nice guy that Chicago ward bosses decided ought to become acting mayor after Harold Washington died. Mr. Sawyer couldn't handle the job, and lost it. Ever since, the mayor has been a guy named Daley.
So, here's hoping that Mr. Stroger quickly heals both himself and a county government that's headed to the emergency room.
You can't run a government these days unless you want it, all the time, every day and deep inside your gut. Todd Stroger will do no one a favor, especially himself, if he sticks around for someone else's agenda.



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