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Except in the Eighth Ward, where he's trying to hold on to his post as Democratic committeeman, Cook County Board president Todd Stroger won't be on the ballot in February's primaries. But lots of people across the county are running against him.
Since taking office a year ago, Stroger has been portrayed as a bumbler, a child, a pawn, a doofus, and, in the biblical sense, a tax collector. In his latest act of embarrassing irresponsiblity, the thinking goes, he's got the nerve to push for nearly $900 million in tax hikes to support a bloated county budget that mostly succeeds in employing scores of his family members and friends.
There are lots of reasons Stroger is characterized this way, including the fact that some of it is true. But when election season comes around, precision matters less than perception and polling numbers. As a result, 2008 is looking like the Year of the Anti-Toddler.
It makes some sense that Tony Peraica would make a big deal out of his opposition to Stroger's management and tax proposals. Peraica's a Republican Cook County commissioner who lost a tough race to Stroger for the County Board presidency last fall--then led a collection of zealous supporters in an ill-advised storming of the County Building on election night.
While that image might fade into local political history, Todd Stroger's has only gotten worse; he's still trying to avoid looking like a freshman about to be stuffed into a locker . . . and somewhere in there figure out how to get the county funded for next year. Peraica is running for state's attorney now, but he remains busy reminding voters that's he's not Todd Stroger. "I oppose Todd Stroger's budget proposal because it unfairly and oppressively reaches into the pocketbooks of Cook County taxpayers to fund a government than has proven to be anything but efficient and accountable," Peraica wrote in a letter to supporters, parts of which were also published in the Tribune this week.
Peraica isn't the only candidate to adopt the strategy. Kenny Johnson, an ally of Jesse Jackson Jr., has relentlessly challenged the Stroger tax plan even though he's running for a seat in a different legislative body, the Illinois House. A few weeks ago Johnson led an anti-tax demonstration, the awkwardly named Boston Tea Party in Chicago, and more recently he sent around an e-mail urging suppporters to "raise your voice loud and clear against Cook County Board President Todd Stroger's excessive and regressive tax hike proposal."
In a campaign announcement sent out Friday, Michele Smith, a candidate for 43rd Ward committeeman, also mentioned the Toddler: "The need for change was vividly illustrated when our current Committeeman [Peggy Roth] voted to slate Todd Stroger as the replacement for John Stroger in the race for Cook County Board President, even though the 43rd Ward voted overwhelming for Forrest Claypool, the second-place finisher in the primary."
Smith said in an interview that she wasn't using the Stroger name as a wedge--she just wanted to illustrate that committeemen are supposed to be the party's ward representatives, but too often simply operate as a "closed group." Still, given the lack of support for Stroger on the north side, it's not going to hurt her image to be on the record supporting someone--anyone--else.
Mismanagement in Cook County has been the center of Seventh Ward alderman Sandi Jackson's campaign for Democratic committeeman against Stroger ally William Beavers and not-so-subtly alluded to by 28th Ward alderman Ed Smith, who's challenging incumbent recorder of deeds Eugene "Gene" Moore.
Perhaps all of this is simply a sign that Stroger has guts and resilience the others could only wish for. "It's never popular to support a tax increase, but the reality is that the president wants to continue to provide health services and other services in Cook County, and to do that we need additional revenue," said Ibis Antongiorgi, Stroger's press secretary. "If others want to take advantage of that for political purposes, so be it, but President Stroger will continue to work for responsible government."