Preckwinkle vs. Stroger is underwhelming choice





by RUSS STEWART

This week’s column will wax poetic. In characterizing the looming 2018 Democratic primary for Cook County board president, how about this: Hold your nose, close your eyes and pick the candidate you least despise.

And given the fact that the imminent choices are incumbent Toni Preckwinkle, predecessor Todd Stroger, and 2015 mayoral loser Bob Fioretti, March 20 might be a good day to bring a clothespin and a blindfold to your polling place, instead of a sample ballot.

In the political realm, certain acronyms describe the trajectory of political success, or the lack thereof. There is, of course, "W" for those who win their first bid for public office, and keep winning. There is "L" for those who lose their initial attempt, and are never heard from again. There is "LW" for those who lose respectably, and then win on their rebound attempt. There is "LLW" for those who lose, lose again, but finally, through persistence and with a growing base of support, finally topple the incumbent, or win because the incumbent finally quits. And there is, of course, the "WLs", the incumbents whose ineptitude becomes glaringly clear, and lose re-election.

But rarely is there a "WLW," meaning an incumbent who wins, loses, and then wins the same office in a comeback. That just doesn’t happen. But then a lot of people wish that Todd Stroger didn’t happen, and would just go away. Unfortunately, compared to Preckwinkle’s reign, Stroger’s tumultuous 4 years don’t look quite so bad. His pitch to the voters should be: Hey, I can’t do any worse, but let me try.

Among the elite, rich kids are often referred to as being born with a "silver spoon" in their mouth. Among Cook County’s and Chicago’s political elite, offspring are born with a comfy payroll job in their future – at least as long as daddy has clout. Thus was Todd Stroger begat by John Stroger. The elder Stroger was an ambitious Democratic precinct captain in Chicago’s 8th Ward, a once-white middle-class South Side area transitioning to African-American in the 1960s that included areas around Mud Lake, at 85th and Woodlawn, including Chatham-Avalon, Gately Park, Burnside, all west of the Chicago Skyway, stretching from 75th to 103th streets, east of Cottage Grove. In 1963, Chicago Cubs legend Ernie Banks ran for alderman as a Republican, losing to white Democrat James Condon.

In 1967, Harvard-educated lawyer William Cousins defeated Condon, making him the ward’s first black alderman; he was vociferously anti-Daley. Stroger was with Condon, and in 1968 was elected Democratic committeeman, which meant that all 8th Ward city and county jobs were funneled through Stroger, not Cousins. Over the years, Stroger was a master payroller, with jobs as court auditor, county jail personnel director, and state examiner. In 1970, he was put on the Democratic slate for county commissioner, of which 10 were then elected at-large from Chicago. Stroger was the 8th Ward’s fledgling political boss, and in 1971 delivered a 11,383-8,158 majority for Richard Daley, who beat Republican Richard Friedman 735,787-318.059. In that election, Cousins won with 61.7 percent. Cousins was eliminated in 1976, when Daley "promoted" him to a judgeship. Stroger was now total ward boss, picked the alderman and controlled the patronage.

On the county board, Stroger was a protege of country president George Dunne, who served 1968-90, and Stroger rose to be finance committee chairman. Stroger was always close to the Daleys. Of special concern to Stroger was Cook County Hospital, albeit not for the good works it did for the sick or the traumatized, but rather for the good jobs it offered. Stroger grabbed as many as possible. I think that Stroger believed that if you could empty a bedpan, mop a floor, or do an admission, then you could also work a precinct in the 8th Ward. By 1990, he had about 400 workers stumbling through his ward, including scores of nurses. It was not facetious to claim that the 8th Ward was the only ward where a precinct captain could check both a voter’s political and physical pulse at their front door.

Through the years, Stroger stumbled and bumbled, but was always secure in his 8th Ward base, and in his board seat. He backed Mike Bilandic in 1979, and Rich Daley in 1983. Harold Washington won the 8th Ward 14,365-1,745-1,150 over Jane Byrne and Daley, respectively. But Stroger survived. His redemption was that he could deliver 18,000 votes in his ward to any Democrat, anytime, over any Republican. In 1987, when Byrne opposed Washington in the primary, the resilient Stroger delivered his ward 27,197-360 for Washington. In 1989, when Daley ran against Tim Evans for mayor, Daley lost 24,026-1,445 in the 8th Ward.

Dunne finally retired in 1990, and there was a boisterous 4-man primary between the slated Ted Lechowicz, Stanley Kusper, Gene Pincham and rich independent Dick Phelan, who won 273,382 -223,774, or 39 percent over Pincham. Phelan tried to be a "reformer," and bailed out in 1994 to run for governor. The ensuing primary for board president featured the slated Stroger, Clerk of Court Aurie Pucinski, and independent Maria Pappas. Buoyed by a huge black vote, Stroger won 295,358-180,610-150,489, or 47.1 percent. In 2006 Stroger was opposed by Commissioner Forrest Claypool, who looked like a winner until Stroger had a stroke one week before the March primary. Again buoyed by the black vote, plus a sympathy vote, Stroger won 318,634-276,682, or 53.5 percent. Thereafter, Stroger’s condition was a guarded secret.

In July, after the third-party filing deadline passed, the ill Stroger supposedly submitted his resignation as both candidate and commissioner, and young Stroger was chosen by the party as his ballot replacement. "By then Todd Stroger already had a payroller history, with jobs like statistician in the Chief Judge’s office, jury supervisor, and a Chicago Park District staffer. In 1992, he was elected state representative in the district around the 8th Ward, and in 2001 Daley appointed him alderman when the incumbent died.

These nepotistic machinations soured voters, but their rage was insufficient to elect Republican Commissioner Tony Peraica, who ran a valiant campaign for the president’s post, losing to Stroger 641,980-547,225, getting 53 percent in a poor Republican year. Stroger won his ward 9,684-556. As president, with a $300 million budget hole, Stroger raised the county sales tax by one percent and had no hesitation about putting kin on the payroll.

In 2009, he was dumped by the party at slate making, ran anyway, and finished fourth with just 13.6 percent, with 50 percent for the slated Toni Preckwinkle, 23 percent for Terry O’Brien, the sole white candidate, and 14.4 percent for Dorothy Brown. Preckwinkle won the black-majority wards and townships 4-1 over Stroger and took half the vote in the white ethnic wards, Lakefront and the suburbs. Stroger got 41.1 percent in his 8th Ward.

But now Preckwinkle is in trouble, having reinstated the one-percent sales tax that she promised to cut, and then imposing the once-cent an ounce soda tax to close a $200 million budget hole. That has since been repealed, and serious budget cuts effectuated, but her once-pristine reputation with the voters has been permanently besmirched. She’s Toni Taxwinkle.
Fioretti, a glib and facile lawyer with whom I went to law school, was the 2nd Ward alderman for 8 years from 2007 to 2015 from the South Loop, which once contained part of Bronzeville, the area south of Roosevelt Road which was the initial settlement area for blacks migrating from the South in the 1920s and 1930s. By 2000, it had gentrified, had a white near-majority, and Fioretti beat the black incumbent in 2007.

In the council Fioretti was a gadfly, made no alliances, and in the 2011 remap his ward was scattered among other wards. Fioretti then ran for mayor in 2015 and got 7.4 percent. He ran for state senator in 2016 against a black female incumbent, and lost again. He’s a "WLL," but not for the same job. His 2018 mantra will be: Vote for me. I’m not Toni or Todd. Going into 2018, Preckwinkle had $ 360,664 on hand, Stroger had $110,720 and Fioretti had $19,278. But that doesn’t really matter. The images of Preckwinkle and Stroger are both shrouded in negativity. Had somebody like Phelan emerged, neither would have a chance.

Illinois, on the statewide level, has no "WLWs" – losers who come back to win. Bill Stratton, who lost the governorship in 1960, lost the 1964 Republican primary. Like Dan Walker, nobody else has tried. The ubiquitous Pat Quinn won and lost numerous times, but never for a job won. On the congressional level, Bob Dold won Mark Kirk’s North Shore 10th District seat in 2010, lost it to Brad Schneider (D) in 2012, won it back in 2014, and lost it again to Schneider in 2016.

There have been no countywide "WLWs." Pucinski, a "WLWLWL," finally made it to the bench in 2004, after switching to the Republicans to run against Stroger in 1998, losing, and then switching back. Pappas, after losing in 1994, became county treasurer. Tom Dart, after losing for treasurer in 2002, became sheriff in 2006. They were "WLWs" for other offices. Don’t expect any "WLWs" in 2018, which means slim chances for Todd Stroger.

Send an e-mail to russ@russstew art.com or visit his Web site at www.russstew art.com.