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O'Brien got his start as a precinct captain for 50th Ward alderman Berny Stone, one of the last remaining masters of old-time patronage politics. "I met Terry back in the 70s—he lived at Rockwell and Albion," Stone says. "He was my legislative aide. He prepared papers for me. During council meetings he sat behind me and if I needed stuff he handed it to me. I'll tell you a funny story. He looked so much like Richie Daley that Jane Byrne, who was mayor then, would see him sitting there and do a double take.
"Terry's a steady guy who keeps things working until he gets it done. He's not going to light up the sky, but he gets the work done."
Hmmm. As much as I love Alderman Stone—he's one of my favorite characters in Chicago politics—I'm not sure I'm ready to vote for a guy backed by what's left of the north-and-northwest-side Democratic machine.
That brings me to Brown, who will eagerly let you know she's a lawyer and a CPA and has an MBA. She doesn't usually mention that she also has absolutely no political guts.
I had high hopes for her when she ran against Mayor Daley in 2007. I followed her for the better part of a month in that campaign and she never seemed to say anything critical of the incumbent. It was like she figured she could beat a political giant by showing off her resumé. I remember standing in the cold outside the Belmont el station watching her shake hands with voters. Even then she could barely bring herself to rip Daley for the deterioration of the Red Line. Nice person, but she's no fighter.
Then there's Stroger. Yeah, I know the whole bill of goods—how the party bigwigs, including the mayor, ushered him into office in 2006 to take the place of his ailing father on the ticket. How he raised the sales tax and failed to do anything about the payroll except add some of his cousins and friends, including a guy he met when he was busing Stroger's table at a restaurant. How he's a lifelong machine operative whose allies have turned to race baiting in the final weeks in a desperate effort to win over black voters.
I know all that and I'm still tempted to vote for him simply because I can't stand the hypocrisy of north-side liberals who bash him but won't lift a finger to fight patronage and mismanagement under Mayor Daley.
But every time the impulse rises, I think about the 2007 county budget battle, when Stroger closed clinics and laid off hundreds of nurses, doctors, and other health-care workers. And then how he looked the other way in 2008, when Mayor Daley raided the Central West TIF district fund to give $75 million in property tax dollars to Rush University Medical Center, a private hospital and medical school with a $300 million endowment and a solid base of privately insured patients, so they could rebuild their near-west-side medical campus. Part of the project included building a new parking garage. Tax dollars for parking garages over health care for the indigent? What a system.
That leaves me with Alderman Preckwinkle. I've known her since 1982, when she was gearing up to run against incumbent alderman Tim Evans (now the chief judge of Cook County Circuit Court). I don't think she's changed much in those 27 years. She's still terse, humorless—though I do think I heard a story about her cracking a joke once—and supersmart.
Preckwinkle's got more spine than any of the other candidates in this race. She was voting against Daley's budgets long before it was fashionable. She also voted against last year's parking meter deal. Neither Brown, Stroger, nor O'Brien had a word to say about that—as county officials they generally get to avoid taking stands on any issues involving the mayor. It's a lot easier to claim boldness and independence when you never actually have to demonstrate either.
Preckwinkle's only drawback is that in the last year or so she's started sucking up to Daley, supporting his Olympic dream and even voting for his 2010 budget—you know, the one where the mayor raided the parking meter legacy fund that was set up to last for at least 75 years.
As she's said herself, she was hoping for the mayor's endorsement, which of course she didn't get. Though he did attend one of her fund-raisers, Daley is staying out of the race, as he usually does except in those rare instances when he endorses someone in an act of horse-trading but then does nothing to help them bring in votes. When are politicians around here ever going to learn that Mayor Daley demands everyone else's unwavering loyalty but sticks his neck out for no one?
Still, did I mention that back in 2006 Preckwinkle voted against the creation of the LaSalle Central TIF district? Well, she did—and was one of only three aldermen to do so (the others were Rick Munoz and Joe Moore). That's the TIF that declared much of the downtown business district a blighted area. Before it expires in 2030, it will have collected more than $1 billion in property taxes that otherwise would have gone to fund county government (making Stroger's sales-tax hike even less necessary), the schools, the parks, and other cash-strapped public bodies. Instead, if recent history is any indication, much of it is likely to be showered on well-connected downtown developers.
O'Brien could have opposed it at the Joint Review Board but he didn't. Stroger could have voted against it in the City Council—he was still Eighth Ward alderman back then—but he didn't. Brown could have come out against it too, since she claims to be eminently qualified to look out for taxpayer interests. But she didn't.
In this bunch, Preckwinkle looks like Patrick Henry.
Ben Joravsky discusses his reporting weekly with journalist Dave Glowacz at mrradio.org/theworks.