Every day I get calls and e-mails from friends, neighbors, and readers looking for guidance on how to vote in the Democratic primary for Cook County Board president.
Interestingly, absolutely no one's asked me about the two guys running in the Republican primary, former state senator Roger Keats and former Chicago cop John Garrido, because, well, I don't know anyone in Chicago who's thinking of voting Republican—maybe I should get out more. Green Party candidate Tom Tresser is an interesting guy, but he's running unopposed this time around.
So that brings me back to the Democrats. Frankly, until recently I've hesitated to weigh in on these folks. None of the four candidates—incumbent Todd Stroger, water reclamation district board president Terrence O'Brien, circuit court clerk Dorothy Brown, and alderman Toni Preckwinkle—really grabs my heart.
But with the February 2 election only days away, the time has come to make up my mind.
Before I reveal my choice, let me say this: my standards might be a little different from those of the average voter, who seems content electing and reelecting the same old crowd.
I love the fighters in Chicago politics—I want someone who will stick it to the Man. And by the Man I don't mean Todd Stroger. I mean the big guy himself, Mayor Richard Daley. And that other big guy, state house speaker Michael Madigan.
For county board president, I want a candidate who will cut the fat—including the patronage workers larding the payroll—and rework the budget so taxpayer money is spent on the people who need it the most. And I'd also like someone who's willing to rage against Daley's tax increment financing machine.
Yes, I've been known to rail against the abuses of the TIF program a time or two before. But there's a real connection to this office. The program collects about $500 million in taxpayer money each year, and roughly 10 percent of that would otherwise have gone to Cook County. Proposed TIF districts must be approved by the Joint Board of Review, which consists of representatives of the schools, parks, county, and other taxing bodies affected by TIFs. The board president could easily show up and raise a stink about the program's abuses. But none ever has.
But my hopes aren't terribly high for any of the board president candidates. I'll start with O'Brien. He's been campaigning as the guy who helped bring good government to the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, which is responsible for wastewater treatment. O'Brien has been on the water rec board since 1988 and its president since 1997. But he can hardly be called an independent or a reformer.
For starters, he's part owner of a couple of engineering firms that have received about $3 million in contracts from the state, city, and other local governments over the last few years, according to an investigation by the Chicago Sun-Times. The paper also found that in 2004 the district gave a $200,000 sewage inspection contract to a company owned in part by the mayor's son, Patrick Daley, and nephew Robert Vanecko. When Tim Novak of the Sun-Times wrote about this contract in 2008, O'Brien said he didn't know Daley and Vanecko had stakes in the company. Of course, that's also what Mayor Daley said when Novak wrote that the firm had received a city contract as well.
On the stump O'Brien has been talking about cuts made in the water rec district's payroll since he came aboard, saying he'd bring the same fiscal discipline to the county. Maybe so. But he's also been endorsed by such reform resisters as aldermen Richard Mell, Patrick O'Connor, and Patrick Levar, who can be expected to fight any attempts to cut the county jobs held by their guys.