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James Warren

James Warren

Posted: April 13, 2009 07:32 PM

Replacing Quigley on Cook County Board a Lesson in Democracy, Sort of

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The low-slung, steel-and-glass, Mies van der Rohe-like austerity of Chicago's Harry S. Truman College was abuzz with conspiracy theories on Saturday. Cable television hosts and pundits, who've feasted for months on the caricature of rough, tumble and corrupt Illinois politics, would have loved it.

What they would have learned is quite another matter. Perhaps, every once in a while, it all operates like, well, a democracy generally should.

A panel of Democratic ward committeemen assembled for a rather mundane act: filling the Cook County Board vacancy created by spirited reformer Mike Quigley's ascension to the U.S. Congress as the just-elected replacement for presidential chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.

Of course, one might inquire as to why anyone of sound mental health would want this part-time job. Cook is the nation's second-largest county, marked by the biggest court system, a sprawling health care system, stratospheric taxes, even greater unfunded pension liabilities and a well-merited reputation for ineptitude and political cronyism. The board's intellectually fallow meetings, which tend to be very tedious and amateurish-bordering-on-the-dysfunctional, resemble much of the county government's overall incompetence and together constitute a libertarian's nightmare.

Most of the time, the fix is in, usually for some pet project, or some relative, of the board president. It was no surprise that when John Stroger, the board's head honcho, lay on his death bed in 2006, his acolytes readied his aggressively unimpressive son, Todd, to replace him as president. Todd has reflexively continued the family tradition of feeding from the trough of public indifference, and refusing to cut into the de facto patronage army which bends toward the horizon.

So when the committeemen gathered Saturday, it was no surprise that talk of a fix was rampant.

For starters, there was the whispering of telephonic arm-twisting by reformer Quigley, on behalf of a longtime aide, Kimberly Walz, who was endorsed by both the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times.

It wasn't just because he wanted his well-liked, budget-savvy chief of staff, the whisperers said, but also because he distinctly did not want Bridget Gainer, director of public affairs for insurance giant Aon Corp., and a veteran of both Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's budget office and the Chicago Park District.

Gainer is a friend of mine and my wife's and we'd stopped by to see how she'd do. She once ran against Quigley (pulling out before the election) and, the pro-Walz whisperers said, was simply a Daley tool. Daley, they said, was pushing her, thus undermining Quigley's rightful desire for a seamless, in-house transition with a capable successor.

If Gainer won, the pro-Walz folks were saying, Gainer would be a rubber stamp for both nincompoop Stroger and Mayor Daley. As for actual evidence of Daley's personal involvement, nobody I spoke to could offer same. In fact, one Walz supporter on the panel groused that the only thing the mayor seemed focused on these days was getting the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Now if cable TV's political anthropologists would have actually shown up for the session, they might have been quickly thrown off as a parade of eight candidates delivered their five-minute pitches and then answered decent, if predictable, questions from a panel chaired with no-nonsense efficiency by 44th Ward Ald. Tom Tunney. There was an attentive crowd of about 100, with small cadres of friends and family cheering the introductions of each candidate.

Well, it actually seemed as if most of the candidates were actually quite competent and thoughtful. Some more than others, for sure. There were real estate attorneys, a former federal prosecutor, a gay rights advocate and even a Cook County electrician whose responsibilities include taping County Board meetings, among the group. The candidates had already called on the panel members privately and seemed quite prepared for the public questioning.

As might be expected, they did not exactly exhibit the height of political courage when it came to dealing with the county's budget mess and ramifications of a 1-percentage point hike in the sales tax, making Cook residents about the highest-taxed souls in the nation. They did mostly say they'd phase it out, but were far less specific in how they'd then deal with the estimated $400 million shortfall.

Most conspicuously, nobody flat out said the obvious, namely that the county government's payroll is grossly bloated and can surely be dramatically cut, given the featherbedding and incompetence. There was admission by several that there's no way to really know whether large swaths of employees actually do the work that they're paid to do, prompting mention of the need for some sort of personnel "inventory."

There was talk of "streamlining" and melding some departments' duties but not necessarily axing employees. Indeed, Walz herself spoke of phasing out the latest tax over two years and then finding hundreds of millions of dollars in savings via department consolidations and no layoffs. Hmmmm.

Still, one came away from the presentations confident that the level of hackery on the board would not be raised. Nobody mangled the language. Most displayed a decent understanding of the tricky health care tensions between cost and coverage. Most understood all the depressing challenges at hand. One lawyer candidate even delved deeply into energy savings and offered the vision of wind turbines on landfills (the same fellow was also the only one to not preach to the choir on the sales tax, wondering if, good intentions aside, the votes are there to ditch the hike).

And everybody seemed rather sincere about attempting to improve government, push for greater transparency and live by clear ethics rules, especially when it came to the pay-to-play campaign contributions with which Illinois is now associated in the national mind, partly thanks to Cook County 10th District resident Rod Blagojevich.

The polished and upbeat Walz, who also runs a graphic design firm and joked about a personal life which includes a boyfriend in California, recounted her intimate involvement in negotiations with the small cadre of bona fide reformers on the County Board. Her point was that she was a chip off the old Quigley block who knew the gritty details of the job.

But, she said, she would not be a clone of her ex-boss. "I won't wake up every morning and ask, 'What would Mike do."

As for Gainer, she's an activist-intellectual of liberal bent who juggles three small kids with a bigtime job at AON and still finds time to read books and the New Yorker cover-to-cover. Herself the child of a sprawling and politically active Irish-Catholic Beverly family (which seemed to take up the first several rows), her experience in the Park District was much in evidence, especially on finances, and apparently held her in good stead.

She spoke capably of the use, and potential misuse, of bond issues, including pension obligation bonds, and hearkened to her Park District days with detailed responses to Tunney's questions on privatization. "Privatization is not a panacea," she said, and explained how the Park District's success was premised on targeting very specialized, revenue-generating functions, like running the harbors and parking lots (she might have also mentioned the vastly improved golf courses).

By comparison, she noted the county has few such money-making possibilities.

When the questioning concluded, the panel disappeared into private session for more than an hour. This was the one element of the process which fed the caricature of sneaky, closed-door politics. No surprise that as we all waited, conspiracy notions seemed to grow as to what was assumed to be a Walz vs. Gainer faceoff.

The system of voting was weighted, depending upon how many votes Quigley had received in a particular ward when he last ran in 2006. Thus, Tunney's 44th Ward had 12,923 votes, while the representative of the 45ths Ward had a mere 217.

It was generally acknowledged that Walz and Gainer had locks on roughly 80 percent of the votes. But it was unclear for whom the rest would go. And, with the critical discussions being held in private, idle minds were the devil's workshop and one unavoidably wondered about vote trading and last-minute phone calls.

The whispering escalated as the wait continued and the famished split to the Jimmy John's sandwich shop across the street. Would the undecideds fall to supposed Daley or Quigley pressure?

In the end, Gainer topped Walz, 36,308 to 25,389, with 1,208 abstentions. Tunney lauded a "very thought-out, transparent process"---he didn't mention the distinctly secret, final deliberations---and said he believes the Democrats now had "a strong commissioner to carry out the reforms" of Quigley, albeit not Quigley's preferred candidate. The winner takes over the vacancy this week and has it for the 10 months leading to the regular primary election.

After his public remarks, Tunney said to me that in the end, Gainer, who possesses both a rapier intellect and wit, just came off as more polished and a bit more sophisticated (which begs the question as to why he cast his ward's votes for Walz).

So, was it possible that the much-maligned Democratic apparatus had actually functioned in a sensible fashion? Was it possible that the talk of skullduggery was all a tad inflated? Did this process, which included previous interviews of the candidates by the individual committeemen, actually result in the right decision?

Attorney Marty Oberman, the bright former 43rd Ward alderman of independent streak, opined that, "Gainer will just fall down for Daley and Stroger, you just watch." My wife told him she decidedly thought that would not be the case. Well, he shrugged, maybe that was true, ambling out the Truman College front lobby and into the mid-afternoon sunlight.

The newspapers' accounts the next day couldn't quite shake off the assumptions pervading the conspiracy theories. In particular, there was the first reference by both the Tribune and Sun-Times to Gainer as a former City Hall official. In fact, if anybody had checked, they would have learned that she was one of about 30 grunt analysts in the budget office 10 years ago. Describing Gainer as a "former City Hall
official" is akin to calling Dave Bialas, bullpen coach for the 1999 Cubs, a "former Tribune Co. official."

In the accounts she was not, first and foremost, a current AON big shot who presumably has a track record. Safe to say, nobody who reported on the event has much of a clue what she's done at AON; it was sufficient to regurgitate that she once worked at City Hall and to conjure up all inherently slinky caricatures.

One paper noted that AON's former majordomo, Pat Ryan, is leading the city's effort to get the 2016 Summer Olympics. The subtext was obvious: Gainer worked at City Hall for Daley. Daley wants the Olympics. Her former AON boss is Daley's chief Olympics strategist. Thus, Daley must have pushed Gainer and, since Daley is viewed with frequently facile suspicion by most journalists, as if collecting a pay check at City Hall is akin to having labored for the East German Stasi, something must be kinky. Wink, wink.

At minimum, I know one thing: Unlike County Board President Todd Stroger and some other board members, Gainer not only knows the ins and outs of pension obligation bonds, as well as a raft of complicated public policy issues, but she actually goes to movies, devours serious books and reads the New Yorker. It's a reason for some hope.

She'll need back issues of the magazine to get through those board meetings.