Todd Stroger is the most incompetent Chicago politician to hold major office in decades.
In his first year, Stroger devastated the county government's services by closing a 17 percent budget deficit with an across-the-board 17 percent cut, equally applied to the patronage-stacked clerk's office and the critically-important health bureau. A year later, he hiked sales taxes by a full percentage point and earned himself the unyielding ire of the county's voters. Then began a cascade of scandals culminating in Stroger's firing his own cousin-cum-chief-financial-officer for her relationship with an ex-con whom Stroger had placed on the county payroll.
Stroger is, to put it mildly, a fried goose. Until recently, nearly everyone was waiting for Commissioner Forrest Claypool to defenestrate the hapless board president in 2010, just as Claypool had nearly done to Stroger's far more politically-astute father in 2006. But Claypool's heart wasn't in the race, and he bowed out over the summer. Unfortunately, he made the announcement after his fellow reform-minded commissioner, Mike Quigley, had won a hard-fought race for Congress.
These two developments have left fed-up Cook County voters in a bit of a quandary. The most qualified candidates -- both of whom had once gunned for Stroger's father -- are on the sidelines. And Sheriff Tom Dart's decision to pass on the race means that the only candidates in the race with reform credentials have little familiarity with the current county government. Apart from Stroger, the two serious contenders are U.S. Rep. Danny Davis and Alderman Toni Preckwinkle of Hyde Park. (The other candidates are Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown and Metropolitan Water Reclamation District President Terrence O'Brien; Brown has little chance of prevailing, and O'Brien is a machine insider.)
Davis -- who was a county commissioner a decade and a half ago -- has done well in Congress, compiling a genuinely progressive record and showing sound judgment by resisting former Governor Rod Blagojevich's offer to appoint him to the Senate. Still, it's not clear whether he has the reformist verve needed to dismantle the patronage empire built over 15 years of Stroger family rule.
Davis has declined to say, for example, whether he supports Stroger's sales tax hike, and it certainly doesn't inspire confidence that he says things like, "How I can I take a position when I don't know the issues?" when discussing the county's finances. And though Davis has had some interest in the job before -- he asked committeemen to slate him after the stricken John Stroger was removed from the ballot in the summer of 2006 -- he hasn't been deeply engaged in local issues, and he certainly lacks an affirmative record of doing battle with the Chicago machine.
Preckwinkle's record is considerably stronger. She has long been a thorn in the side of the Daley administration, so much so that she doesn't have much regard for Claypool himself. (Claypool ran the Chicago Park District in the 1990s, and evidently there was some enmity between the two that lingers to this day.) For years, Preckwinkle has carried on the Hyde Park tradition of serving as the lonely dissenter against a Mayor Daley, winning numerous awards from IVI-IPO in the process. She has pressed the Daley administration for redistricting reform, and counts among her allies Judson Miner, the distinguished civil rights lawyer who has taken on the machine in a number of important cases and served as Mayor Harold Washington's corporation counsel.
Unlike Davis, she advocates a full rollback of the regressive sales tax increase. And though her plans for county government aren't terribly detailed, she seems to have at least thought through the major issues and identified the broad outlines of the changes she'd like to make. Take her criminal justice platform: though it contains few specifics on how she would revamp the court and jail system -- and nothing on how she would fund the changes she proposes -- she at least outlines the current challenges facing the system and the programs she would like to expand.
The voters who would have backed Claypool -- many of whom live on the North Side and in suburban Cook County -- might well be the swing votes in this election. Davis has voted well as a congressman, but his record as a reformer in local politics is relatively thin. Though Preckwinkle is by no means a perfect candidate, her instincts, influences, and tenure on the City Council indicate that she has the independence needed to fumigate county government. And so, barring some unforeseen change, I'll be checking my box for her come February.