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Mr. Machine

A Critical Assessment



Sure he's bucking conventional wisdom. Sure he's tilting at windmills in this age of media politics, when people supposedly vote image, not platforms -- but, hey, that's Tom. "In my 16 years of government service," Tom Hynes stated in his campaign literature, "my approach to important issues has been to attack the issue, not my political opponent." We have Hynes's word that this campaign will be no different. "In the weeks to come I will discuss the issues and share ideas with you," he promised in a commercial that aired a few weeks back. "But I will avoid the kind of divisive and negative campaigning that is demeaning to the office I seek. There is more at stake in this campaign than just winning."

Yet there was Hynes last week certainly attacking an opponent and not the issues. He charged that Ed Vrdolyak met with a reputed mob boss: carefully said that's what he had heard, and that he believed it to be true. When reporters pressed him for proof -- even a hint -- he backed away, he would have no further comment on the subject. Two weeks earlier, Harold Washington had wondered aloud about a law firm suddenly receiving government bond work after hiring Hynes as a part-time lawyer. Hynes responded by summing up Washington's career as "one of sleaze," and then went on to recount Washington's familiar litany of personal troubles from years ago. Even Jane Byrne shied from that sort of attack. As political columnist Basil Talbott Jr. wrote, "Hynes substituted his appeal for sanity with a little savagery."

Hynes talks about being the issue-oriented candidate but has trouble talking about the issues themselves. A few weeks back, Hynes spoke to a group of DePaul students. In the question period that followed, a student pointed this out: you talk about this plan and that, Mr. Hynes, and speak of some grand "blueprint for improving the city," but neglect to provide details. Hynes responded, "If you want to sit in those seats for the next couple of hours and have me explain it. I am sure you have to do important things like go to class and I have to go soon. I have a substantial and solid program for improving life in this city. Politics here is a spectator sport. Everyone talks about politics, about improving the economic situation and the schools." With that Hynes thanked them for their time and left. His departure was so sudden as to be startling. After he left, the students mimicked his speech, poking fun at his incessant use of words like "leadership" and "vision." His speech had the hollow sound of wind blowing through a rusted-out tin can.

He claims he is a fresh alternative to the dirty infighting that has defined Chicago politics in recent years. Yet, though he's less visible than an Ed Burke or a Roman Pucinski, Hynes's hands may be no less dirty.

Tom Hynes is the Mr. Clean of Chicago politics, they say. Yet last month a page-one headline in the Sun-Times read, "Hynes Packs Payroll With Cronies." A few days earlier, another page-one headline read, "Business Soars Since Law Firm Hired Hynes" -- city business, that is. Over the years, as county assessor, he has been charged with providing big tax breaks to major landowners by grossly undervaluing the worth of major downtown properties. His campaign war chest is mostly money from downtown real estate interests.

If he's not Mr. Clean, if not a spanking new alternative, then who is he?

Answering that question means confronting a number of myths. No politician is all he claims. How a candidate wants to be perceived is easy to report; the challenge is sorting out myth from reality. But a politician's preferred image can be used as a standard against which to measure him. Does he come close? Does he even tend that way?

With Hynes, a great gulf spreads between campaign fiction and reality.

It's ironic that the Hynes campaign packages him as the candidate who'll lead us into some dream future. His rhetoric and the rhetoric of his image makers notwithstanding, Tom Hynes is neither new nor fresh; he is an anachronism, a time traveler from ten years back.

The last time Chicago had a Hynes-like candidate for mayor was 1979, with Michael Bilandic: the loyal Machine soldier.

We think of Vrdolyak and Byrne as true believers in the Machine way, and they are, but they've both long ago chucked the regular organization's guidelines and bushwhacked their own paths. They haven't been good organization people: too much ego, too much personality.

Of course it's possible that a Machine creation can evolve into something entirely different. The present mayor, for instance, began as a precinct captain, and look how he ended up. Nothing about Hynes, though, would lead anyone to believe that he's changed: not his experience as assessor, not anything about his actions in recent years. Instead, Hynes speaks of returning Chicago to more peaceful times after eight years of chaos and confusion -- in other words, to a time when Bilandic was mayor and a small clan of party regulars ruled. But we're jumping ahead. For now there is Hynes's early history to sketch.

Hynes followed the established Machine career path closely, and he has just the sort of credentials that could have won him the regular organization's endorsement for mayor had things not changed so suddenly with Mayor Daley's death. The oldest son of working-class Irish immigrants. A top lawyer in the Park District bureaucracy. A state senator -- with the blessings of the regular party leaders on the far southwest side. While in Springfield, he gained another office, 19th Ward Democratic committeeman, meaning the young state senator served as party boss over his ward and its share of patronage.

Hynes, however, had a leg up over your typical ward committeeman or Chicago legislator: a law school professor before enlisting with the bureaucracy, he was not a dem, deez, and doze man. The Sun-Times once named him one of Springfield's ten best legislators. Hynes seemed a perfect candidate for advancement: articulate and able to handle himself during debate, and also one who knew how to be a leader in public without upsetting the real leaders behind the scenes.

Generally Hynes supported a number of positive social welfare measures in Springfield, but his voting record shrivels when subjected to the higher ideals of reform. In its biennial ranking of Springfield legislators on key reform issues, the IVI-IPO ranked Hynes, in his last two years in office, 54th among 59 senators. To provide one example of his record, Hynes (siding with the regular Democratic contingency) voted against legislation prohibiting double-dipping, the Machine practice of serving as a state legislator while still holding a full-time, high-paying position in the city or county bureaucracy. His strong antiabortion voting record was typical of a Chicago regular Democrat.

Now, on the stump, Hynes thumps his chest proudly about one of the few bills he initiated while down in Springfield: a tax relief plan for small property owners. (Officially the home owners' exemption, but better known as the Hynes exemption.) Hynes, though, always fails to recount the most noteworthy part of the story. It was in 1979, under his tenure as county assessor, that the exemption took effect. And ironically, Hynes improperly administered his own bill, as a circuit court judge, and later the Illinois Supreme Court, ruled. His office allowed the owner of any building six units or less to take advantage of the exemption, whether or not he or she lived in the building. After a suit was filed, however, the courts ruled that the exemption only applied to home owners and not to landlords living elsewhere. The newspapers estimated that the gaffe cost local taxpayers $10 million.

Despite such gaffes, Hynes arguably has the ideal temperament and upbringing to succeed in Chicago's peculiar political system. A family friend described Tom's role in the Hynes clan as "typical of the oldest children of immigrants. He was like a junior parent, with a foot in two different generations. He was a model for the other sons. He's always played the role of the good Irish Catholic. He was an altar boy, I think, and he went to Quigley Seminary for a time. . . . He's always been like an overgrown boy scout.

"The political manifestation of that is that he was always the good, proper Machine loyalist. He followed the straight and narrow, kept his nose clean, didn't steal money, and never did anything radical. He was a hard worker who never took the next step until he had paid his dues. Basically, it's not within his character to be the type to rock the boat. Given the way he is, Tom is always going to do whatever is deemed proper within the framework and values of whatever institution or organization he is in. Since he was a southwest-sider, and wanted to get into politics, that pretty much meant being the Machine loyalist.

"His running for mayor is probably the single most out-of-character political move he's ever taken."

A reporter who has known Hynes for years, a likely Hynes voter, is surprised by Hynes's newfound imprudence. "What you've got to remember about Hynes is that he started in the ranks when Daley was still alive," the reporter said. "He's not used to acting without taking marching orders from the top . . . It's no wonder he had so much trouble making up his mind about whether or not he'd run for mayor."

While cautious, he is nonetheless ambitious. The state senate seemed, for Hynes, merely a way station; as it was for Mayor Daley and a host of other (future) bigwigs, a trip downstate was a way of proving oneself to the muckamucks back home. He served in Springfield for eight years, until his return to Chicago -- and career advancement -- were OK'd by party leaders. When the county treasurer's seat opened up, Hynes presented himself to Democratic slate makers over at the Bismarck. He lost that bid. That was 1973, only three years after Hynes had arrived in Springfield.

Career advancement came in 1976, when his fellow senators voted him senate president as the consensus candidate among Chicago Democratic regulars. Now, Hynes jokes about its taking him several weeks and 186 tries to win. A difference of opinion on racial politics in part caused the impasse. Hynes had assured the legislature's black caucus he would name a black to an assistant leadership position, but it would be someone of his choosing, not theirs. "We felt we, as fellow Democrats, should be the ones to recommend the one who would be representing our interests," said Ken Hall, a black senator from downstate who served with Hynes in the senate. Eventually Hynes capitulated.

Hynes's shot at the big time came in 1978, when he won the party's endorsement for county assessor. Though generally a low-profile office in the greater scheme of things, historically county assessor has been a highly coveted spot. Ranked third, perhaps, in the Machine hierarchy, behind mayor and party chairman. The county assessor's office is important, of course, because of its task of estimating, for tax purposes, the worth of about 1.4 million parcels of land. It's a sensitive job as well: assessing property, particularly big downtown office buildings, is more arbitrary than one would think, and a favorable assessment can be worth millions of dollars in yearly tax savings for one of those buildings. But the assessor's real power -- his political strength -- lies in his astounding ability to raise political funds. When Hynes ran for reelection in 1982, the Sun-Times reported late in the campaign that Hynes had raised just under $500,000, while his Republican opponent had raised $769. And it's not likely that Hynes was collecting those funds for any last-minute media blitz.

OK, so he's an old-fashioned politician who's more a blast from the past than a ticket to the future. Still, Tom Hynes supposedly has been a crackerjack county assessor. In 1978, with his election, reform finally came to the Cook County assessor's office -- so, at least, we're told.

No doubt Hynes has a better record than his predecessors of recent memory. That, however, is no great endorsement, considering his predecessors. There was the legendary P.J. ("Parky") Cullerton, chosen by Daley to serve out the term of Frank Keenan, after Keenan's conviction on income tax evasion in 1958. Mike Royko once wrote of Cullerton, "Parky had the qualities Daley was looking for: dollar signs for eyeballs, and a talent for never saying anything in public."

Cullerton served for 13 years, until the bribery convictions of 18 underlings put an end to his career. He was succeeded by his young protege, Tom Tully. Tully enjoyed a reputation as the so-called Mr. Clean of Chicago politics. The image, though, shattered a couple of years after his one and only term of office. An excellent Tribune investigation revealed -- as Royko summed it up -- that "people who received sharp tax breaks from his office found it in their hearts to cut Tully in on lucrative real estate deals." Tully had declared himself a man of modest means when he entered office and left it near a millionaire, the Trib reported.

Certainly there've been no reports whatever that Hynes has struck it rich as assessor. And he was far more qualified for the job than his predecessors: as an attorney just out of law school, and then as a law professor, he specialized in commercial real estate transactions and zoning law. Even his harshest critics concede that Hynes brought the assessor's office into the 20th century. A modern computer system was installed, the result more efficiency and better record keeping. The staff is better trained and more professional than in the old days -- again, according to critics -- and the office is more accessible to the small property owner unable to afford high-priced real estate lawyers. Particularly acclaimed have been two projects, the Taxpayer's Advocate and Project Reachout -- the former for those who disagree with the assessor's valuation of their property and don't know their recourse options, the latter a traveling version of the same project.

Still, many of the criticisms heard under Cullerton's and Tully's tenures -- widely uneven assessments that are far too kind to big-money landowners and a lack of accountability, to name a few -- are still voiced today. If Hynes brought the assessor's office into the 20th century, it was no further than Chicago in the 1970s. For Hynes's political organization the assessor's office has been a patronage gold mine. An estimated one in ten employees of the assessor's office, the Sun-Times reported last month, reside in Hynes's 19th Ward. The paper reported that among those hired are his campaign manager's brother and brother-in-law, the daughter of his campaign treasurer, assorted cousins of the Hynes family, 19th Ward Alderman Michael Sheahan's wife, a campaign consultant's mother, and the children of assorted Machine dignitaries. During summers, he has hired children of his deputy campaign manager and of Congressman Bill Lipinski. Hynes did not deny the Sun-Times's findings but defended himself in quaintly familiar fashion: those singled out are all fine, fine people, hardworking and professional; you're bound to discover talent among family, friends, and the relatives of friends. Hizzoner would've been proud.

Actually, it's a wonder there aren't more 19th-Warders on the payroll. The assessor's office doesn't bother with job postings or written hiring policies, Hynes admits. Unlike other local officials, like State's Attorney Daley and the mayor, Hynes has still not signed, is in fact appealing, the Shakman decree banning political hiring and firing.

Hynes's ward is on the far southwest side, and predominantly white, so it's not at all surprising that the assessor's staff is mostly one color. The Sun-Times found that whites hold 93 percent of the higher-paying jobs in Hynes's office, and that four of every five new employees hired from January 1, 1980, through last December have been white. Males dominate management positions. More than half the jobs that pay under $15,000 are filled by women, according to a study by Washington partisans; women account for 17 percent of the jobs paying between $25-1000 and $35,000; and only 9 percent of the jobs paying more than $35,000 are held by women.

Like his predecessors, Hynes has received large campaign contributions from the real estate industry -- another area of controversy. The media have documented this since his first run for assessor. At least 40 percent of Hynes's campaign funds over a 16-month period (through November 1986) have been from major property owners and real estate attorneys who deal with his office, the Sun-Times recently reported. Most of that 40 percent was from attorneys regularly dealing with the assessor's office on behalf of large landowners. (Typically these lawyers are paid a percentage of the reduction achieved on a client's behalf.) The Washington campaign sifted through contribution lists dating back to July 1981 and found that the real estate industry accounts for 59 percent of the 1.74 million in contributions Hynes received in five and one-half years.

Hynes is correct when he points out that, as assessor, he appraises the worth of every parcel of property in Cook County, so that any campaign contribution from any property owner can be viewed as suspect. Of course it's large campaign contributions from big names in the real estate industry that raise suspicions, not a $100 donation from the owner of a modest home. When pressed on this point, Hynes said in one television interview that "no one has ever influenced the judgment of our office because of any campaign contribution."

But assurances are not enough, at least for some. For years Pat Quinn, one of the better-known good-government crusaders, has argued that it is inappropriate for Hynes to accept donations from anyone doing business with his office. When Quinn served on the Board of (tax) Appeals, which reviews complaints by those believing their property has been overvalued by Hynes's office, he refused these donations. Hynes is, in effect, a judge whose rulings on what a property is worth can potentially save millions in tax dollars for the owner of a large building. "I don't think you'd be very comfortable," Quinn said, "if you knew the judge in some court case had over the years received ten or twenty thousand in campaign contributions from some defense lawyer trying cases before him." Other, less rigid critics feel that Hynes at least ought to place a cap on the amount of money he receives from any potential donor -- $1,500, perhaps.

Another time-honored complaint, whether under Hynes or Cullerton, has been the reluctance of the assessor's office to provide the public with even the most basic information. (Such tales of bureaucratic foot-dragging are legendary among those regularly dealing with his office.) A college intern's visit to the assessor's office, which he made on my behalf, was typical, according to those who have long suffered interactions with the soporific clerks manning the counter. Saying he was a college student working on a project, the intern asked for the appraisal files on two properties. The clerk said it would take a couple of months to get the information. But right there on the Freedom of Information form, the student pointed out, it says the request should take no longer than one week. "Don't believe everything you read," was the clerk's reply. Though it should be a routine procedure, the clerk said that they're not set up to handle such requests, and groused that it would tie up a few people's time and cost a couple of hundred dollars for some "stupid school project." The clerk tried to talk him out of it.

The assessor's office has even stonewalled other bureaucrats. Pat Quinn was elected in 1982 to serve as one of two commissioners serving on the Board of Appeals, marking the first time in recent memory that a politician attained that post without the backing of the regular Democratic organization. (Quinn joined the Washington administration earlier this year as a top bureaucrat, and his comments need to be considered in that light.) The assessor's system breaks the county into 400 neighborhoods, and each neighborhood has its own unique formula for figuring an assessment. Given that Quinn's job was to evaluate fairness of assessments, you would figure that he'd need to know -- or at least be permitted to know, if he wished -- the various formulas, but Hynes's office would never comply. "I tried for four years," Quinn said. "I filed FOI [Freedom of Information] requests, I did everything under the sun. So I said I just wanted to know the assessment neighborhoods. But we never even got to see the maps.

"I wrote to a number of assessor offices," Quinn said. "In Phoenix, New York California, all over the place. I explained who I was . . . and asked them to send the formulas they were using. Not one jurisdiction turned me down.

"Upon occasion we got to see an assessee's file. But it was like Christmas or your birthday -- a once-a-year kind of thing. As far as the average taxpayer, it clearly wasn't an open process."

In 1985, Quinn called on the state legislature to force Hynes's office to reveal the secret computer formulas. At the time Richard Vanecko, a spokesman from Hynes's office, said that the formulas are no secret but they are incomprehensible to anyone but a mathematician or a statistician. "So we hired a PhD in economics from Northwestern who taught property taxes for ten years at Circle," said Quinn. The resident expert made no difference -- still no formulas.

Then the official word from Vanecko was that the whole matter was a question of sovereignty. "There was no reason for him to know how we came up with a number," Vanecko told me in a recent interview. "Quinn was there to judge whether or not an appraisal was fair, not to evaluate our methods." But then, academics and watchdog groups that have requested the formulas have not seemed to have had any business knowing, either -- their requests have also been rejected. More than one person I spoke with jokingly suggested that there really were no formulas, nor any fancy computer programs, but instead Hynes was like the Wizard of Oz: the fancy gadgetry was all a way of covering up the truth that the whole system amounts to some guy scribbling on a scratch pad behind a curtain.

Vanecko dismisses Quinn's quest as grandstanding. "There's not exactly a ground swell of people out there demanding to see the formulas," he says. "What people care about is that their assessment is fair."

On the one hand, this fight for access to information can be seen simply as a matter of principle, with all sorts of high-minded appeals to the public's right to know. On the other hand, it can be seen as a matter of missing evidence in an area that has always been legally, politically, morally murky. Perhaps the secretive nature of Hynes's office has nothing at all to do with possessive bureaucrats but indicates an office with something to hide -- that's what some in the field believe. "The law is clear, and they [the assessor's office] are obviously using a formula other than that prescribed by law," says a man you're about to meet, Northwestern professor Stanley Hallett. "They have every obligation to release it. Otherwise, the only thing we can do is take him at his word."

Talk of patronage abuses and of the impropriety of large campaign donations from real estate attorneys has not generated nearly as much controversy as the assessor's office's practices in assessing expensive properties, whether a downtown skyscraper or an Evanston mansion on Sheridan Road.

A few weeks back, the Washington campaign released a study by Professor Hallett of the assessment of 13 large downtown buildings by Hynes's office. The study showed, in no uncertain terms, how the value the assessor's office assigned each of the 13 buildings -- called the "fair market value" -- was nowhere close to its actual worth in the marketplace. Yet Illinois law defines "fair market value" as the price a willing buyer would pay a willing seller for the property.

The 300 South Wacker building was sold in 1982 for $42 million, Hallett reported, yet when it came time for its quadrennial assessment, in 1983, Hynes's office set the building's fair market value at $23 million -- only 55 percent of its market value. The most flagrant example that Hallett cited was 111 N. Wabash, assessed at only 22 percent of its worth.

Hallett found that the fair market value was, on average, only 63 percent of the true market value -- at least as established by the marketplace. All told the 13 buildings were underassessed by $191 million. In Hallett's view, that translates into a $13 million tax break.

Now, any home owner who knows the actual worth of his or her home also knows that his property is worth more than Hynes's office says it is. A two-flat that commands $100,000 in the marketplace isn't going to be assessed at $100,000 but at closer to $60,000. Vanecko is quick to point out that all property -- commercial, residential, industrial -- is underassessed.

"If these supposedly public-minded citizens are so concerned about underassessment," Vanecko says, "Why aren't they saying that all homes in Chicago should be raised?"

Hallett's study, however, is more than a statement of the obvious. For one thing, it shows that a number of these downtown properties are receiving, percentagewise, much bigger breaks than your typical home owner. And, as Hallett says, "When downtown doesn't pay its fair share, it's the neighborhoods that are making up the difference." (How becomes clear in a minute.) For another, he found considerable unfairness from assessment to assessment -- a high coefficient of dispersion, in assessor talk. For instance, though both buildings were assessed the same year, 111 N. Wabash is assessed at only 22 percent of its market value, while 188 W. Randolph is assessed at 80 percent.

Actually, across-the-board underassessment doesn't make much sense anyway, not given the peculiar way the city and other local taxing bodies set property tax rates. Unlike most major municipalities, Cook County establishes its tax rates after the fact. Every year, the county's eight taxing bodies authorize the expenditure of a certain number of dollars. Then, after the assessor submits his assessment of the total worth of county property, a rate is calculated that will deliver the authorized amount. While it may help from a PR point of view -- hey, what a break I'm getting! the bungalow owner says -- an across-the-board underassessment merely means the tax rate will be that much higher.

Hallett's study didn't break any new ground. It merely added some examples to a long list of such cases of unfairly distributed "tax breaks" uncovered over the years by investigative reporters, community groups, academics, and political foes. Complaints that the county assessor's office grossly undervalues big downtown property are not at all new. In 1970 a longtime Machine foe, Republican Benjamin Adamowski, ran for assessor against Cullerton and charged that the Merchandise Mart was worth around $100 million, not the $15 million at which it had been assessed. A Sun-Times reporter did some digging and confirmed Adamowski's charge: the building, according to real estate experts, was then worth at minimum $75 million, and perhaps over $100 million. Eleven years later, the Mart was reassessed at $73 million, to reflect millions of dollars in improvements.

It's not only those owning buildings downtown who are making out under Hynes. The northwest side's Brickyard Mall sold for $86 million a few years back, Pat Quinn said, yet the county had set its worth at $48 million two years earlier. On the southeast side, a building owned by Ed Vrdolyak, the Trib reported in 1982, was valued at $230,000. A bank appraiser had said the building was worth at least $467,000 when Vrdolyak put the building up as collateral.

Nor is it only commercial property. A 1985 study by an Evanston community organization representing a dozen neighborhood groups found a big-money bias in the assessment of residential property. They found that the assessments of lower-priced homes were much closer to market value than those of higher-priced homes. The prices of nearly 1,500 homes and condominiums sold between 1981 and 1984 were compared with the reassessment that hit all of Evanston in 1984. Property taxes are not based directly on market value, but on "assessed valuation" -- 40 percent of market value for commercial property, 16 percent for residential property. (There are some further adjustments made to the numbers at the state level, but they can be conveniently ignored here.) The coalition found that the assessed valuation of homes worth $300,000 or more averaged 8.8 percent of market value, rather than 16 percent. In contrast, the assessed valuation of homes worth $100,000 or less averaged 12.4 percent of market value. Art Lyons, whose studies on the assessor's office have appeared since 1971, is not familiar enough with the Evanston study's methodology to offer his opinion, but he wasn't at all surprised by the findings. For years, his studies have led him to the same conclusion: a clear bias in the assessor's office in favor of higher-valued homes.

The assessor's office dismissed the Evanston study as unreliable. There were mistakes here and there, true, but its findings were still solid enough to win the support of Pat Quinn when hearings on the Evanston assessments were held before the Board of Appeals. Quinn's fellow commissioner Harry Semrow, voted against the group, praising the assessor's office for its "exemplary" performance. (An assessment stands unless the two commissioners can agree.)

Those doing studies have chosen properties recently sold because that way they don't need to bother figuring market value -- the market has figured it for them. A newly built building offers that same methodological advantage: its construction costs serve as the market price. The assessor's office initially placed the market value of the behemoth Presidential Towers at $204 million -- pretty much the construction cost. The owners of Presidential Towers appealed, as is routine, pointing out that only two of the four towers were completed, so the assessment was cut in half -- so far, still routine. But the assessor's office did not stop there. It may or may not be relevant that Michael Madigan's law firm -- Madigan is a Democratic committeman, speaker of the state house, and, like Hynes, a member of the so-called Daley faction -- represented Presidential Towers. Or that the building's developers are connected: one is Daniel Shannon, a former business associate of Congressman Dan Rostenkowski, also a part of the Daley faction. The assessment was eventually lowered to $17 million.

A community group calling itself the Chicago 1992 Committee challenged the assessment before the Board of Appeals. Members pointed out that Presidential Towers sits, on land the assessor's office said, in its assessment for 1983, was worth $30 per square foot. That figure had not changed since 1968, when the neighborhood went by the name Skid Row. They noted that property directly adjacent was assessed at as much as $100 per square foot. (Vanecko points out that property on the other side of the project is still assessed at the same $30.) Commissioner Pat Quinn called the underassessment "flagrant," but Harry Semrow said the evidence did not support an assessment hike.

"We were constantly badgered by the assessor's office, which I could never really understand," said one of the attorneys who challenged the Presidential Towers assessment. "They were not our adversary in the case [it was before the Board of Appeals], but it wasn't like they took a neutral stand on this. To my eyes, they clearly felt they had some sort of vested interest in keeping the assessment where it was." As an example, the attorney said that they got to see the assessor's file on the case only one day before the hearing, "with no time to analyze it in any way so as to be useful," and only after "a series of fucking games to get me to withdraw my FOI request."

Dick Vanecko of the assessor's office says he's had it up to here with the so-called experts and their ballyhooed conclusions about underassessments. To Vanecko, every bit of controversy can be chalked up to a handful of people who are either lost in the complicated foreign land of property assessment or skewing things to gain publicity, whether they're reporters interested in a flashy story or politicians looking for a cause. To him it's likely a lot of both.

Stanley Hallett is a prime example. Knows nothing about real estate and yet he's enough of an expert to publish a study. An obvious partisan, too. And Pat Quinn -- another know-nothing partisan, and a self-aggrandizer from way back. Art Lyons? He only thinks he knows about the appraisal business.

Lyons is an academic who's been monitoring the assessor's office for going on 16 years, a Northwestern professor and director of a nonprofit research group called the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. Quinn served on the Board of Appeals for four years and is now head of the city's Revenue Department. Hallett is a newcomer to the field, but he's no slouch. Formerly a bank executive, now a professor at Northwestern's graduate school of business, he is credited with pretty much inventing the concept of a community bank when the South Shore Bank was in danger of folding. Back in the 1970s, he helped found an organization called the Center for Neighborhood Technology. It was his work with various community groups, Hallett claims, and not partisan politics, that prompted him to undertake the study. The Washington campaign just took advantage of its conclusions.

Hallett, however, is not a certified appraiser, that much is true. It's also true that the appraisal business is arcane. But then, Hallett chose only those buildings that had been either recently sold or mortgaged, avoiding the need for any appraisal work. In the case of a recently mortgaged building, he relied on the bank's appraisers. For those buildings recently sold . . . well, it's highly unlikely that some developer is going to pay $120 million for a property that's actually worth only $75 million.

There! That's the problem, Vanecko says. Those know-nothings don't realize that determining the market value is not as simple as looking at a sales price. That's the mistake in the Hallett study, the Evanston study, and in all the newspaper accounts exposing supposed tax breaks. The selling price of a building, Vanecko says, is not as reliable as critics make out. He speaks of the purchase of land for tax shelters rather than for the value of the real estate. He speaks of creative financing queering the seeming worth of a building. "Your first day of Appraisal 101, you learn two principles," he says. "One is location, location, location. The second is that selling price does not equal market value."

It's funny how many people seem to have been absent from that first day of Appraisal 101. Apparently the people running the Illinois Department of Revenue missed that lesson. Every year the department compiles a report on each of the 102 county assessor offices in the state. (And every year Cook County is found to have a particularly high coefficient of dispersion -- that is, a serious lack of uniformity.) Those folks are as dumb as Hallett, Quinn, Lyons, and all of us media folks; they, too, use the market value to make an assessment determination. The people who wrote the state statute must have registered late for that course. The law states straightforwardly that a county assessor is required to appraise all property in the county at its "fair market value" -- what a willing buyer would pay a willing seller for the property. In fact, another person absent from class was the author of an easy-reader booklet Hynes's office provides that explains how property is assessed. Step one? Determine the market value, of course. How? "Market value is the amount you would expect to receive if you sold your property to a willing buyer," according to the booklet.

"The assessor's office talks about creative financing and such, but investors are no dummies," Quinn says. "They're wealthy and can afford to buy the talents of top appraisers in the business. Generally they make prudent decisions. So when they pay $100 million, or $50 million, it's not like, 'Oh, we're going to give an extra $10 or $20 million because we're not doing our homework. . . .'

"The assessor's office supports their lower-than-market-value assessments saying, 'Well, we based it on an alternative approach,' and sort of expect you to say, 'OK, that's all we needed to hear.'"

So why, then, are some of these downtown properties so severely underassessed? One theory holds that Hynes's office is simply sympathetic to the concerns of big-money landowners -- but on public-minded grounds. Cook County is the only one of Illinois' 102 counties that taxes on 40 percent -- no other county taxes so high a percentage -- of a commercial property's worth. (Homes and apartment buildings under six units are taxed only on 16 percent.) Perhaps Hynes is wary that a true reassessment will send businesses fleeing over the county line. "All of Hynes's top advisers are political appointments, not professional appraisers," said one longtime observer of the assessor's office who wishes to remain anonymous. "So when the time comes to assess major, high-visibility pieces of property, Hynes is very susceptible to pressure by large law firms and their hired-gun appraisers."

One of those hired-gun appraisers is Jared Shlaes, a well-respected professional commissioned by a group of large landholders in 1983 to show that a true reappraisal based on the increased worth of Loop property would chase business out of Cook County and discourage future development. The study showed that downtown market values had shot up by an average 78 percent since the last reassessment four years earlier. The Shlaes study was part of an extensive campaign, the Tribune reported at the time, to convince Hynes "that recent sales of office buildings exaggerated the worth of Loop property."

The campaign apparently succeeded. The average hike in the Loop assessments that year was only 40 percent, the Trib reported. Still, a cry went out among the downtown business community. "We got grief from everybody," Vanecko says. "The businessmen screamed that we raised things too high, and everyone else yelled that it was too low." To Vanecko, that's proof his office must be doing something right. Yet the real estate industry couldn't have been too angry, since it has continued donating large campaign contributions to Hynes's coffers.

"Let's say it's your turn to be assessed," Quinn says. "Say the assessor gives you a 50 percent increase. You the downtown businessman holler that this is terrible, I've gone up 50 percent. But really the market value of real estate downtown is, say, 80 percent higher than it was four years ago. So the assessor thinks 50 percent is a lot, which it is, but the market value still went up a whole lot more."

This explanation -- that he's fostering a good climate for business in Cook County -- would not fully excuse Hynes, if for no other reason than that it's beyond the boundaries of his office. Hynes is, in effect, legislating policy. "The assessor's job is to assess property according to the law," Art Lyons says. "It is beyond his jurisdiction to make and implement development policies. . . . If property taxes are too high in Cook County, then the legislative bodies should change the laws, but the assessor should not take policy into his own hands."

It's also possible Hynes has other motivations, equally wrongheaded and far less noble. Certainly the real estate industry is a rich constituency, and many a politician feels the need to remain on its good side. The question is whether or not that has any effect on assessments in Hynes's office.

Seemingly there's never been much of an effort to examine the possibility of a connection between low assessments and big campaign contributions. For one thing, the assessor's low-profile office rarely attracts attention. For another, there's Hynes's clean-cut image. "I think the general impression that he's the boy scout type has made investigative reporters think there's not much there to be found," said a reporter with one of the dailies. Nor does the closed nature of his office make things easy. Assessor's office rules state that a patron can make only ten file requests a day; even if you limited your work to downtown properties, such a study would take over a year.

The Washington campaign pieced bits and pieces together. There's the Chicago Title and Trust Building, as one example. It was sold in 1983 for $40 million, yet assessed at $27 million the next year, according to the campaign's figures. All told, the Washington campaign contends, the building's owner and his attorneys contributed over $27,000 to Hynes in the last five and a half years. Similarly, 20 N. Michigan was underassessed in 1984 by one-third (compared with its 1983 sales price); the building's owners and the law firm representing them made $12,400 in contributions, also over five and a half years.

But this sort of data is inconclusive. Art Lyons provides an ironic and backhanded defense against any charges of misuse of office: "You may be able to draw a correlation between contributions and consistently low assessments of properties owned and handled by contributors, but it would be very weak because many major owners who do not give also receive low assessments."

A typical Tom Hynes speech: Key to the city's future, he begins, speaking at Northwestern's law school, is leadership. Point number two is that Washington has not provided leadership. He offers no examples. He speaks generally about his record as assessor. The next topic is a "new leadership." Hynes ticks off several urban problems, mentioning -- but only mentioning -- that he has this eight-point plan and a "plan of action." The key to solving all of these problems, he points out, is leadership. "In every area, we need to do the best we can . . . so we can attain the greatness Chicago rightfully deserves," he adds.

The floor opens for questions. What specifically do you plan to do, Mr. Hynes, about the Chicago Housing Authority? He responds with several general criticisms of the CHA's last four years; Washington's record, he says, has been one of mismanagement, bungling, and a general lack of leadership. His plan calls for leadership, for better security, and for maximizing federal dollars. About the only interesting point Hynes offers is his idea for enlisting the support of tenants in decision making -- probably the Washington administration's best accomplishment at the CHA. Interestingly, when he unveiled his ten-point plan for the CHA, he confessed that he had not enlisted the support of any of its residents.

He sounds like politicians from yesteryear, like Mayor Daley giving a speech before a bunch of Rotarians. The cliche is the message. (I wanted to meet with Hynes to press him for particulars but never was able to. Though I had been promised "all the time [I] could possibly want with Tom," in the end his press secretary said the candidate was so busy he couldn't spare a moment.)

Hynes's campaign spots haven't exactly been 30-second versions of a new housing policy, either. Ironically, Ed Vrdolyak has been far more issue-oriented than has Hynes.

He doesn't so much have a platform as a reaction to the previous day's news. He flounders, searching for an issue that will catch fire. The day before Illinois Bell changed its rate structure, Hynes called a press conference to blame the hike on Washington. The CHA bungling a $7 million federal grant has been the single most-repeated charge of Hynes's campaign. He has seized on scandals of a teapot scale: A committee of businessmen spent a year creating a long-range financial plan for the city, and among its hundreds of recommendations suggested that, as a cost-saving measure, the city consider closing any underutilized police stations. The appendix listed eight the mayor's staff might want to evaluate. Hynes called a press conference to criticize Washington for not immediately rejecting any such closings.

The Hynes campaign has released a series of position papers -- a half-dozen by my count -- yet even these lack substance. The Tribune reporter assigned to the Hynes campaign recently wrote: "Some of his 15-point plan for collecting revenues are as simple as saying that he will collect unpaid parking tickets and ambulance fees, but not explaining how that will be accomplished. He is asking voters to believe that because he is a good administrator, these and other things will get done."

Hynes is boring. No myth there. His style is wooden; his personality is old fogyish. Speaking before any audience, he's nothing compared to a Vrdolyak or Washington, both expansive, charismatic personalities. He sounds like a law professor teaching real estate law, except that, since it's the first day of class, there's no need to get into the meat of the subject.

Supposedly his image makers first tried changing him but eventually settled on a different idea: he's the calm voice of reason, missing from local politics in recent years. It became his main selling point (he would be the mayor you wouldn't see or hear from for four years) and his primary criticism of both Washington and Vrdolyak (they bickered and Chicago is now at the brink). Hynes was just some guy toiling away as assessor, entirely removed from the recent craziness of local politics, pained and baffled by it all.

It's a clever strategy, no doubt. Turns a liability into a strong campaign theme. But it's not entirely accurate.

It is true, as his campaign contends, that Hynes has not been much of an official player in Council Wars. But there's the reality of a creature long familiar to Chicago politics: the powerful committeeman who does not sit in the City Council but who, in effect, votes by proxy. Dan Rostenkowski has Alderman Terry Gabinski, George Dunne has Burt Natarus, and Tom Hynes's vote on any given issue is cast through the 19th Ward's Michael Sheahan. Given Hynes's history, it was no surprise that, in 1983, with Harold Washington threatening the entrenched order, you could find Tom Hynes (through his representative) firmly aligned with those opposing the new mayor.

It's also true, as those in Hynes's campaign headquarters contend, that for years Vrdolyak and Hynes were on opposing sides in several political fights -- Vrdolyak taking Byrne's side, Hynes Daley's. (Different mudbath, same mud.) Yet while the Hynes party line holds that this is irrefutable proof Hynes can't be connected to Council Wars, it seems more to show how past differences can be placed on hold when racial questions and political survival intervene. Twice in the last four years Hynes, as Democratic committeeman, voted for Vrdolyak as chairman of the party.

There are important distinctions between Vrdolyak and Hynes. One longtime independent stated it well: "Say Hynes had happened to end up in the council, rather than the legislature. Hynes would've been one of those aldermen who jumped up to dutifully defend the mayor -- which puts him ahead of a lot of aldermen, who never speak out ever. Now Vrdolyak was always too busy to jump: he was the guy in the hall trying to stall a vote to see if he could cut himself in on the deal."

But let's take Hynes at his word. OK, so he wasn't part of the fight. Yet the question can be posed the other way: Why wasn't Hynes more visible during these past four years? He is a powerful political figure, with influence within the Daley bloc; how come he didn't call on his colleagues to support the mayor on select issues? Now, as candidate for mayor, he pleads for the city's politicians to end the bickering, but how come we didn't hear from him for the last four years? Where was this self-proclaimed man of moderation and compromise who can bring the city together then, when we needed him much more than we do now?

While in his view the city was crumbling, this supposed party heavyweight and city leader was being boring.

He didn't weigh in even when it was clearly to his ward's advantage.

Consider, the mayor's 1984 bond proposal. Sheahan opposed the bond, along with his 28 brethren -- a peculiar stance for Sheahan to take. Under the proposal, the 19th (one of the city's richer wards) was to receive $9.3 million in bond revenues, almost $3 million more than any other ward in Chicago. Part of what the Washington administration proposed was to replace 130 blocks of quasi streets dating back to the Depression. (The streets are really dirt roads paved over with asphalt; they have no drainage sewers and no curbs, and basement flooding has been a major complaint. For years they've been an irritant to those who live on them.) Nearly half the $16 million the Washington administration slated for these streets was to go to the 19th Ward. That proposal languished in committee for 18 months before it was finally enacted, no thanks to Michael Sheahan or Tom Hynes.

"There ain't no clean hands on that side," Alderman David Orr offers. "No one stepped forward -- Rich Daley, Tom Hynes, or any of the other Daley folks with the exception of George Dunne -- no one stepped forward to say, 'Hey, this obstructionism is crazy, let's mend fences.'" As Vrdolyak said of Hynes and the rest of the Daley bloc, "They never took a draw, never took a stand."

"Keep in mind," Orr continues, "that [Vrdolyak] couldn't have done much of anything without the votes of the Daley bloc; he had no power without them." Neither could Vrdolyak have remained party chairman without the support of Hynes and most of the other Daley-bloc committeemen.

Hynes also might have helped ease racial tensions if, after Washington won in 1983, he had allayed existing fears of a black mayor in his predominantly white community. Again, he was being boring. He was also being politically astute. Abating racial fears was not exactly in Hynes's best interest. Washington threatened Hynes's power. The Washington administration stood for opening up city government to those who had always been excluded. Under Washington, community groups have replaced ward organizations as the main power brokers in the neighborhoods. The city wasn't supporting bloated budgets and patronage armies. Under the most cynical view of this mayor -- that he wants to re-create the old Machine, but with blacks in those positions formerly reserved for the Irish -- there's no disputing that Hynes was on the outs.

Hynes proclaims himself the Great Healer, a sane voice promoting racial unity. Yet he pretends a dangerous naivete about Council Wars: It was Harold Washington's inability to work with people. The mayor lacked good programs, that was the problem. He denies its realities, denying even that Michael Sheahan was a staunch Vrdolyaker. Hynes described Sheahan's voting record as "very well-balanced. . . . He has supported Harold Washington on many occasions, he has opposed Mayor Washington on many occasions when he thought the mayor was wrong." Yet somehow, for the first three years of Washington's term, every major issue ended up in a 29-21 deadlock, despite Sheahan's balance.

A top Hynes campaign aide challenged me to offer one thing Washington had accomplished. OK -- he cut the city payroll by somewhere around 18 percent. The aide scoffed, saying that that was just a way for Washington to rid the payroll of white employees.

Even Hynes's campaign strategy distinctly smacks of Council Wars. Every action Washington takes is the height of irresponsibility. He sums up one of the black community's heroes as a man of "sleaze" -- not a way of winning the respect of the black community. He portrays the mayor as an incompetent, and talks in code about how the mayor is clearly not interested in working with all segments of the city. (Translation: the mayor didn't talk to me, therefore he's not interested in the white community. Certainly a far more effective rap than saying we had a good thing and Washington's blowing it.)

If he were really interested in healing, Hynes might point out that whites haven't gotten an unfair shake under Washington, might still criticize Washington for shortcomings but give him his due in the area of race relations. Washington didn't do to the white communities what their leaders had forever done to the black community. And while on the subject, Hynes could have thrown in a few words about the racism and unfairness of the Democratic Machine he was a part of for all those years. The Machine was repressive and undemocratic and wasteful but, more than anything else, grossly unfair to those not white and those not willing to play ball.

Of course Hynes couldn't be a healer even if he said that. His whole run is predicated on race. A lifelong Democrat steps outside the party for the first time in his career. What is it that changed, what prompted him to go, for the first time in his career, against a Democratic nominee for office?

The Hynes campaign poster picturing a multiracial group of kids seems symbolic. Three of the six kids are white, one is Asian, one Latino, and one black. Although there are about the same number of blacks as whites in Chicago, in the poster the ratio is three-to-one. That seems about right: the Machine's racial MO was always about three for me, one for you, whatever the real count might be. It's also telling that the three whites are grouped in the middle, while the three nonwhites are on the fringe.

Just like the old days.

This story was prepared with the help of Chris Meister.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Paul Sequeira, Bill Stamets.

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