06/29/2010 06:16 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Claypool Gives Joe Berrios, 'Pay-to-Play Personified,' a Run for His Money

Reform-minded Commissioner Forrest Claypool, a Democrat running as an independent for Cook County assessor, scared off any challenges to his nominating positions this week and ensured that he will be able to take on insider Joe Berrios in November.

Who is Joe Berrios? He's the quite literally the head of the machine: the Cook County Democratic Central Committee. While that certainly doesn't disqualify him, his other activities do.

Berrios serves both as a commissioner on the Cook County Board of Review, which grants or denies property-tax appeals, and a registered lobbyist representing the gambling industry, among others. Due to these two jobs, Berrios has an unwritten quid-pro-quo with Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan where each uses his position in government to enrich the other. And I don't mean with campaign contributions; I mean personally.

Here's how it works.

As a commissioner on the Board of Review, Berrios rules on property-tax appeals that can mean millions of dollars in tax changes for major developers. Madigan runs one of Chicago's biggest law firms specializing in property-tax appeals, one that has a strong history in front of Berrios' three-member board.

Likewise, Madigan, as House speaker and chair of the state Democratic Party, has the decisive say over what happens in Springfield, where Berrios is a prominent lobbyist. Last year, as Madigan pushed through a $31 billion infrastructure bill funded in large part with revenues from video poker, Berrios served as the lead lobbyist for the gambling industry, an industry with a long history of connections to the mob.

These insider dealings have been known for years, and have even been reported in the local press. Andy Shaw, the director of the Better Government Association, says that the Berrios-Madigan connection is legal, but "eminently unethical and a giant conflict of interest."

"Anyone who games the system instead of reforming it is suspect," Shaw wrote in The Chicago Tribune. "And that means Joe Berrios."

The assessor's office, whose chief function in other counties is to simply mail out property-tax bills, has enormous sway over who bears the tax burden through its power to assess real estate in the county. Do Cook County voters really want Berrios -- who Shaw calls "pay-to-play personified" -- making the county's most consequential decisions about property-tax rates?

In contrast to Berrios, Claypool made a name for himself as a reformer by tangling with successive Stroger administrations as a commissioner and fumigating the patronage dumping ground that had been the Chicago Park District. He entered the assessor's race with the backing of the current assessor, James Houlihan, whose efforts to limit tax hikes for homeowners are the only thing that have kept the tax situation in the county at all tolerable. (Full disclosure: I once spent a summer working for Claypool on fiscal reform issues.)

Critics point out that Claypool served as chief-of-staff to Mayor Richard Daley and said nothing about the insider deals during his time there. But Claypool has convincingly responded that Daley's chiefs-of-staff during the 1990s focused on policy, not on patronage. After all, none of them -- like former Justice Department official John Schmidt, Museum of Science and Industry chief David Mosena, or former Board of Education president Gery Chico -- has come under any federal questioning. And no one denies that Claypool was a patronage buster at the park district; he even let go of Madigan's own ward secretary.

While some are upset with Claypool for leaving the Democratic Party to run, it's fealty to progressive ideals -- not a party that sometimes strays from them -- that ought to matter.

Sure, I'd never vote anything but Democratic if a legislative majority were at stake. And I wouldn't vote anything but Democratic if doing so would help elect a Republican. My guess is that Claypool, who played a senior role in President Obama's campaign and once served as a top aide to Senator Paul Simon, wouldn't either.

But neither of these considerations is at play here: electing Claypool endangers no Democratic agenda, nor would it throw the race to a Republican. In fact, it does just the opposite by striking a blow against self-serving government and showing independent voters that our Blagojevich-stained party is on the mend.