The swing vote | Bleader

The swing vote

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Larry Suffredin reminds us once again that there is no such thing as an effective and pure reformer in Chicago. And anyone who claims to be one is going to end up a liar.

True, in certain parts of the Chicago area, it's helpful to campaign as a reformer. Voters think they want someone who will talk about standing up to machine Democrats, fighting for fairness and openness, and trying to cut waste out of government.

Then they get frustrated when that same government can't seem to get anything done and their representatives don't have anything to show for their time in office. So to keep their jobs, the reformers either need to convince their constituents that complaint and opposition really is a sign of accomplishment or they need to sell out once in awhile and cut a few deals with the bad guys. 

Suffredin had to make his own version of this choice during county budget deliberations last week. After years of marketing himself as a reformer, he had to decide whether to stand tall on his soapbox as the county government shut down or flip-flop and make a deal that would increase Cook County's sales tax. 

He decided to flip, and the criticism was immediate and withering. Given his history of vowing resistance to tax hikes, it was also fair.

Because of his choice, Cook County consumers will pay an extra 1 percent in sales tax to raise the millions of dollars needed to hire hundreds of additional county employees. In return for Suffredin's vote, county board president Todd Stroger agreed to farm out management of the county's health system--though that doesn't guarantee much-needed change there.  

But in an interview today, Suffredin argued that his horse trading had accomplished far more than any of the grandstanding of his critics. "I really wanted to get independent governance for the hospital, which makes up about a third of the budget," he said. "I realize this isn't a good tax, but it's better than the 2 percent they had proposed."

He said he was also afraid the county government would not have been able to keep running if a budget deal hadn't been cut, even though Stroger had sued for it to be allowed to.

And did he mention the independent governance of the health system? "I really believe the governance issue is very important," Suffredin said. "If the county hospital [system] is going to fail--and we are very close to that position--it would hit like a tsunami around us. Other hospitals would be inundated. We've got to remember this hospital [system] is essential to regional health."

Of course, Stroger and his allies have been making similar arguments for weeks: if we don't spend more money on the health system, it won't be able to make as much money, and it could implode altogether.

And as some of the harshest critics of the budget deal have pointed out, unions representing county workers were ecstatic at the notion of an expanded payroll, with many of their members "hovering behind [Suffredin] during deliberations," as the Tribune put it.

"I don't believe the unions had any undue influence on this process," Suffredin said. "And remember, the Chicago Federation of Labor opposed me when I ran for state's attorney."

He also argues that some of his critics in the media didn't want to see a budget passed. "They're disappointed because I think they really did want to see the government shut down."

It's an old trick to blame the media for your political problems, and Suffredin can be criticized at least as much as he can be credited for the terms of the deal he cut.

But to put things in perspective: when Mayor Daley proposed an array of tax hikes for the city budget he introduced last fall, some of his traditional allies balked, and initially it wasn't at all clear if he'd get a majority in the council. So his staff started holding discussions with several of the more reform-minded aldermen, asking what it would take to get their support.

"We were in a great position--we could ask for anything we wanted, and we were probably going to get it," said one alderman who was involved in the talks. "And we didn't know what to ask for."

Within a couple of weeks, Mayor Daley had worked out other deals with his old allies, and the reformer types had officially missed their chance. 

"I'm sorry people think I empowered Todd Stroger," Suffredin said Monday, "because I was trying to take away some of his power."

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