Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Lessons in Cook County politics with Larry Suffredin

Thanks to Herb for putting together a really fascinating evening with Larry Suffredin. Here's my recap of the evening, for the benefit of those who couldn't make it. I'll also put it on my blog at http://www.djwinfo.blogspot.com

The Sun-Times front-page headline in December "Hell Freezes Over" described the massive political shift on the Cook County Board when, for the first time in at least 50 years, the President's submitted budget was not simply enacted as a matter of course by the Board. The Board finally emerged as a real legislative body, chipping away at the patronage-driven, top-down political style perfected by George Dunne and currently practiced by John Stroger.

Cook County has a budget of $3 billion. It runs the largest public hospital in the nation (not owned by a state or the federal government). It owns the largest nature preserve -- 68,000 acres of forest smack dab in the middle of the metropolitan area -- in the country that is literally in the midst of urban/suburban development. It runs the largest court system in the nation and a massive jail system that Amnesty International should be monitoring for potential human rights abuses. If Cook County were a state, it would be the 15th largest in the Union.

And yet it is the invisible government. Far more attention is paid to the Chicago City Council (and specifically the Office of the Mayor) than the County Board. Some people have been paying attention, however, and reformers have been steadily making progress for years. The end of 2003 might have been the most dramatic sign of progress, but there have been many steps to bring us this far.

The weight of history settles heavily on the shoulders of the County reformers. Racial divisions and decades of discrimination, real and perceived, color the politics of the county. These same divisions took over our meeting at IVI-IPO, unfortunately cutting short Commissioner Suffredin's presentation, but the unscheduled discussion on race did help to illuminate this powerful but often-upspoken motive in county politics.

The shift to single-member districts in 1990 (previously, 10 commissioners were elected city-wide from Chicago and 7 commissioners were elected suburban-wide from the rest of the county, leading to the predictable Dem sweep in the city and GOP sweep in the suburbs, as cumulative voting rights were not permitted) proved to be the beginning of a more democratic board. Incidentially, Commissioner Suffredin believes that if President Dick Phelan (1990-1994), had stayed on for a second term as President until 1998, he might very well have been governor.

Mike Quigley's arrival in 1998 added the first persistent voice of modernization to the board. Other long-time independent-minded commissioners include South Sider Bobbie Steele, who knocked off an annointed candidate but currently is aligned with President Stroger, and Earleen Collins, long active in West Side politics.

Forrest Claypool who had worked for Pat Quinn and Richard Daley, and Larry Suffredin, an old-school liberal organizer and advocate, came to the board in 2002. A new spirit of reform and modernization came to the board after the November 2002 election, as old-time incumbents lost out. With 17 members, a majority needs 9, and the 'modernizers' -- still an amorphous, ambiguous coalition, as many of the newly-elected commissioners had never met each other -- seemed to approach the magic number.

Sensing trouble, President John Stroger (serving since 1994) had the lame-duck County Board approve the 2003 budget a few weeks after the November 2002 election, in order to lock in the budget before the newly-elected commissioners could do anything about it. It would prove to be the last budget the President would submit without any input from the board.

The President of the County Board personally controls 27,000 county jobs. While there is a civil service system in the county, all 27,000 office holders ultimately report directly to the President. Even the staff of the other commissioners can be summarily dismissed by the President at any time. This is the source of the President's power, and in patronage-driven organizations, it is an awesome office to control. It is, of course, remarkably corrupting, as the many of the 27,000 county employees can feel compelled to volunteer on behalf of the political candidates that the President supports, dramatically (and artifically) increasing the support of the chosen candidate and perpetuating the power of the patronage-driven organizations to the direct detriment of taxpayers and independent voters. It also leads to remarkably inefficient government, as employees need not do their county jobs well in order to keep their paychecks so much as do the bidding of the President's ward organization well.

When George Dunne served as President, the 42nd Ward Organization (located in the near North Side) hired a ridiculous amount of county employees and played a disproportionate role in county and state politics. Now, John Stroger's South Side 8th Ward organization hires a huge number of county employees and plays a huge role in decided which candidates win elections, because of its patronage army of campaign workers.

The need of the machine for ever-more patronage workers and the need of taxpayers and voters for an efficient government and affordable tax burden are in direct conflict, and the first showdown in 50 years to try to weaken the machine is over the Cook County budget. The county has been running a $220 million surplus for the last three years, overtaxing residents, and has also kept 2000 jobs -- funded every year -- vacant. This year, the county faces a potential deficit. President Stroger submitted a machine budget to keep those vacant jobs intact and with new taxes: a lease tax of 4% that will surely drive every suburban car dealer into other counties and a sales tax increase that will further erode the purchasing power of lower-income residents. Bad public policy, but good for the machine.

Would the modernizers get 9 votes to block the budget? The five Republicans were against the new taxes. The three North Siders -- Quigley, Claypool and Suffredin -- were united against the new taxes. But where was the ninth vote?

Joan Murphy and Deborah Sims, the two new south suburbanites, aligned with Stroger. John Daley and Jerry "Iceman" Butler stuck with Stroger, as did the two Latinos, Joseph Moreno and Roberto Maldonado. Stroger was the seventh vote. And Bobbie Steele decided to stick with Stroger.

But Earlean Collins, former state senator and West Side advocate, wouldn't go with Stroger. She believed that far too many county jobs were going to Stroger's South Side 8th ward organization, and told Stroger she wouldn't vote for his submitted budget. She was the ninth vote, and sent shockwaves through the machine.

President Stroger, sensing defeat, cancelled the board meeting in December and simply refused to call another meeting since.

At this point, the obvious racial divisions manifested themselves at the IVI-IPO meeting. The three black members there leapt to Stroger's defense, essentially asking why eight white commissioners and one black commissioner should disrespect the black President of the Board, when no similar rebellion ever surfaces against the white Mayor of Chicago.

And while our members agreed that Stroger was a machine politician, the fact that Stroger appeared to be singled-out for this political backlash when other similarly-imperious political leaders (notably Mayor Daley) did not suffer the indignity of political defeat felt like racism to them -- not any personal racism from any commissioners, but a nagging sense of unfair treatment of a high-profile African-American leader that no white leader has had to endure.

This is one of our progressive dilemmas: crusading against patronage and the inherent waste, apathy and lost opportunities for raising living standards for everyone that inherently accompanies patronage while recognizing that some of the beneficiaries of the wasteful government jobs, at least in Cook County, are disproportionately African-American. There is certainly white patronage (just ask Tom Hynes or Michael Madigan), but a large amount of those jobs go to black workers.

The conversation remained civil and Commissioner Suffredin was remarkably patient with losing the last half of his time to an unscheduled talk on racism. It taught me that white progressives must reach out to blacks and Latinos that share our values but do not share our white privilege of not having to think about race. (It reminds me of when I spent a week in Japan, and as the only non-Japanese face whenever I left my college group, I was constantly thinking about race). Since African-Americans and Latinos would disproportionately benefit from a better county government, as they would use the services of a better county hospital more than more affluent whites, the political leadership of minority communities are our natural allies. Many of them are still stuck in patronage-driven distribution of government benefits (as President Stroger certainly is), and we need to continue to attack wasteful government spending without triggering the ever-present suspicions of racial bias. And I do believe the burden is on white progressives to make the extra effort, because we're the fortunate ones that enjoy white privilege (which manifests itself in not getting pulled over as much, in being trusted more by people in power and lots of other little ways).

It's also incumbent on black and Latino progressives to elevate their fidelity to progressive principles above brotherhood to machine leaders who share their color but nothing else.

The next showdown vote is scheduled for January 22nd when the Board will vote on issuing a demolition permit for the old county hospital. There are 7 votes to save the hospital: Hansen, Gorman, Silvestri, Peraica, Murphy, Quigley and Suffredin. Claypool is a disappointing vote for demolition. The two potential swing votes for saving the hospital are Bobbie Steele and Earleen Collins. Make those phone calls now.

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