I’m a little late with this, but Nov. 14 is not that long ago, is it? That’s when Democrat candidates for county board president showed up at the Oak Park library, brought together by Dem Party of OP (DPOP). The Veterans Room on the second floor was filthy with Democrats, including assorted other candidates, with potential judges predominating.
But the stars were the incumbent, Todd (John-son) Stroger, who came late, and three challengers: Terry O’Brien, president of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (former Sanitary District, does sewage treatment for the Chicago area); 4th Ward (Hyde Park) Ald. Toni Preckwinkle; and Clerk of (county) Courts Dorothy Brown.
O’Brien made most sense. He would repeal the one-cent Stroger sales tax increase right away, all at once. It’s a tax-base destroyer in his book. Sales proceeds are down 14% in the year ending June 30, admittedly a bad year for sales. But businesses are decamping for neighboring counties. Reduce the tax rate, he argued implicitly, and you will increase tax revenue. Even in Cook County, liberal doctrine can be mugged by reality.
The other two challengers were not so sure. Preckwinkle would make “incremental cuts” while encouraging “economic development,” talking with “regional planning councils,” and starting “a jobs program.” Oh my, as if the market were waiting to be goosed by planners and programs.
Brown came out for “new ideas, not new taxes,” leaving cuts unmentioned — but not before winning the Oak Park Library declamation prize hands down. Rather, hands up, one holding the mike, the other moving continuously — circling, jabbing, flip-flopping, as if directing an invisible orchestra, eyes darting to and fro, face wrinkling, decibels multiplying.
She ended one segment, to scattered applause, with something about “the American dream.” Ending another, when the moderator called time, she hugged him. Later, when she announced her no-new-taxes (!) policy, she perorated, reaching crescendo with a memorable “If Barack Obama can be president, Dorothy Brown can be president of the county board!”
Preckwinkle was bland in comparison, businesslike, and direct enough. County hires, she said, come from “a few ward organizations, one of them the president’s [Stroger's].” Jobs should be open to “the skilled” and spread around, especially to “Hispanics, [who] are underrepresented.”
Discussing the Forest Preserve district, O’Brien said he would consolidate it with the county. Brown would use “biometric technology” to monitor workers and would sell space for advertising on district property. Preckwinkle would rely on “professionalism,” keeping in mind that forest preserves are not just for recreation but are also “an ecological preserve.”
Forty-five minutes or so into the forum, Stroger arrived. “Had to stop at a funeral,” he explained. He said the board had “had a good three years” during his presidency, which would come as a surprise to many newspaper-readers. But it was “newspapers and television” that had decided he’s “a public enemy.” He had “found” a half-billion dollar deficit on entering office (slated to replace his stricken father on the ballot) and had worked it down to $238 billion, he said. To make up the shortfall, he had raised the sales tax.
He was glad he had done so. “You don’t hear complaints about services. We operate efficiently.” As for cutting taxes, “you have to be responsible,” he said. “You need money to do things.”
To a question about how the board might operate more effectively, Preckwinkle said she would bring “a new tone,” persuading commissioners to be “respectful of each other” and not engage in “hurtful personal interaction.”
“You lead by talking to people,” said O’Brien. “You must reach out to other elected officials.” Brown echoed that, saying they should pay more attention to “Springfield.”
Stroger portrayed opponents as “playing to the camera,” which he said “has become a way of life” for them. He said he had asked intended tax-cutters to show how they would avoid cutting services, but they had no answer. “We can take no money away” from services, he said, especially health system services.
Opposition to his leadership was “all posturing,” he said, but added, “We get along very well.” Again, the problems were caused by “the press.”
In the matter of spending and bidding on contracts, O’Brien said he was “shocked” to learn that expenditures of “up to $100,000″ did not require board approval. But Stroger denied it. The limit was $25,000, he said. “All is done through requests for proposal,” he said. “We run things in a very professional way.”
O’Brien said there should be one procurement department for all of county government. He would do audits of every department, streamlining and consolidating as was done at the triple-A bond-rated Water Reclamation District, which last year returned $56 million to taxpayers. The district had 3,000 employees in 1988, when O’Brien became a commissioner; now it has 2,000, the reduction gained entirely by attrition, he said.
Preckwinkle blamed the patronage problem on the absence of public financing of elections. [No: see comment from her campaign below] She would take no money from county employees, she said: It “smacks of coercion.”
Stroger repeated his emphasis on non-interruption of services: “You’re going to hear a lot of things,” he said. “But nobody is saying they are not getting what they need.”