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Chicago-Style Politics Live On In Cook County

Monday, April 28, 2008

CHICAGO (AP) ― Todd Stroger promised Cook County government would be different when he was in charge.

Long criticized as bloated by unwise spending and a padded payroll, the county would be leaner. Hiring based on political clout would be a thing of the past. And the massive bureaucracy would be made more efficient.

But more than a year after Stroger was sworn in as president of the County Board -- succeeding his father -- critics say not much has changed in a government perhaps best known as a place where clout greases the political machine.

Stroger has been criticized over friends and family members on the payroll. A recent county tax increase gives Chicagoans the highest sales taxes of any major city in the country.

And a federal court monitor says the county still has not cleaned up the political patronage that long has helped unqualified people get jobs and kept politically connected workers from being disciplined.

"Not much has changed," said Commissioner Mike Quigley, who unsuccessfully proposed cutting commissioners' office budgets to help fund mammograms at the cash-strapped, county-run hospital named for Stroger's late father, John Stroger. "It's basically the same crew that's always been here. It's the same mentality, it's the same culture and the actions are the same."

Stroger said he's doing what he promised run a county that -- with a $3 billion budget and more than 5 million residents -- is larger than dozens of states and even some countries. He also insists he doesn't know of any illegal political hiring on his watch, "and if there is, it doesn't flow from me."

But it's no secret that patronage has long played a role in Cook County politics.

Stroger's late father, a pioneering black politician, wasn't shy about his ability to put supporters on the public payroll, and oversaw a vast patronage empire at the county for a dozen years before suffering a massive stroke in 2006.

The court monitor was appointed in 2006, shortly before Todd Stroger took over, as part of a lawsuit settlement aimed at ridding the county of most political patronage hiring. Two months earlier, FBI agents had raided Cook County offices in what county officials said was an investigation related to political patronage hiring.

Todd Stroger has been dogged by allegations of favoritism, stretching back to how he got his job.

When it was announced that his father would retire because of his stroke, the elder Stroger wanted his son, then a Chicago alderman, to replace him on the ballot. Democratic leaders obliged, and Todd Stroger went on to beat Republican County Commissioner Tony Peraica, who railed against family succession.

Media accounts have chronicled what some commissioners call Stroger's friends-and-family hiring plan. The wife of a childhood friend got a job. His spokesman is a longtime pal, too.

Recent disclosures about a 12 percent pay boost for Stroger's cousin, who was promoted from budget director to chief financial officer after he took office, have stoked those criticisms.

"He's like a kid in a candy store handing out goodies to his buddies and his family members at a time when the average taxpayer is hurting," said Democratic County Commissioner Forrest Claypool, a frequent Stroger critic.

Stroger spokesman Eugene Mullins defended the CFO's salary increase, to almost $160,000, saying Stroger's cousin didn't take a pay raise when she was first promoted because of county money troubles. His cousin has worked at the county for more than 20 years.

Stroger said it's the county president's job to make some appointments and voters can decide whether he made the right choices. "In 2010, if they don't like who I hire they kick me out," Stroger told commissioners during a recent meeting.

Jay Stewart, executive director of the Better Government Association, said he believes the elder Stroger and his loyalists wanted Todd Stroger to take over the helm "to protect the hanger-ons of the Stroger dynasty."
"Todd was anointed to preserve that at all costs and that's what they've done," Stewart said.

Stroger draws criticism for more than just who's on the county payroll.

While running for office in 2006, he said he wouldn't raise taxes in the next budget -- the 2007 budget saw no tax increase and some jobs were cut -- and saw no reason why taxes would have to be increased in the next four years.

This year, he persuaded the county board to pass a 1 percentage point sales tax increase -- expected to pump in more than $400 million annually and close a more than $230 million deficit -- that pushes Chicago's cumulative sales tax to 10.25 percent. That's substantially higher than New York and Los Angeles, where the sales tax is less than 8.5 percent. The budget also adds more than 1,000 new jobs, although some were court-mandated.

One Cook County community is so angry, it's considering seceding.

"You're just fed up," said Scott Lamerand, a council member in Palatine, where the sales tax will hit 10 percent in July.

Quigley said the county isn't making the progress Stroger promised.

"This last year has been a big step backward," said Quigley, adding that the public would support a tax increase if they had faith in the government. "They definitely don't see any change at the county."

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