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Stroger raises issue of race

Tuesday, January 25, 2005
Chicago Tribune
by Mickey Ciokajlo

Cook County Board President John Stroger bluntly injected the issue of race into the county's ongoing budget problems Monday by saying some African-Americans question whether commissioners oppose him "because I'm black."

Stroger later said he doesn't believe commissioners with whom he regularly butts heads are racially motivated but rather are being "strongly political."

It's not the first time Stroger has raised the specter of race divisions on the board.

During contentious budget debates last year, Stroger said some constituents were equating the fights with old Council Wars days when Chicago's first black mayor, Harold Washington, was opposed by a bloc of white aldermen.

Stroger again this year faces a difficult test with his budget after proposing controversial new taxes on restaurant meals and hotel rooms to close a $73 million shortfall.

On Monday, State's Atty. Richard Devine appeared before the board's Finance Committee to discuss his budget.

Ninety minutes into the session, Stroger dropped in for a short visit and soon after cut off Commissioner Tony Peraica (R-Riverside) as he questioned Devine.

Stroger let Peraica know that he thought his questions were terrible and unreasonable and noted that the county's budget problems are no different than those faced by other governments across the country.

Stroger then said he has been spending his time "going out to the black community explaining to people that you guys aren't jumping all over me because I'm black."

The debate quickly spiraled into a brief shouting match between Stroger and Peraica, who is white.

When the excitement subsided, Peraica said, "It's very unfortunate that when logic fails, the race card is brought out. ... I feel personally offended."

Afterward, Stroger said he interrupted Peraica because he thought the commissioner was badgering Devine.

On the issue of race and the County Board, Stroger said, "There are people who want to know why I have been treated differently from the governor and the mayor.

"I've been saying it's not a racial thing," Stroger added. "I do think it's strongly political."

Commissioner Larry Suffredin (D-Evanston), who was ill with the flu and missed Monday's hearing, said Stroger has brought up race when the board isn't going his way.

"He is like the schoolyard bully running out of things, and he's flailing," said Suffredin, who is white. "What I find really sad here is we have a Democratic president, we have 12 Democrats on the board and the president can't get a majority to support him."

Commissioner Deborah Sims (D-Chicago), who is black, said she doesn't believe commissioners who oppose Stroger have racial motives.

However, she said there is a sentiment in the African-American community in her district on the South Side and in the south suburbs that some commissioners defy Stroger because of his race.

"I've been asked that question a number of times," Sims said. "The community is quite concerned about it."

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