Politics 2005Week of May 23

Second Biggest Race in Illinois

Although Illinois Republicans have high hopes of rebuilding their near-moribund state party organization and taking the governorship and perhaps some other statewide offices next year, the race that draws the most interest and attention after the gubernatorial bout is that for president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners. With more than 26,000 employees under its aegis and overseeing about 40% of the voters in the Prairie State (Chicago and its surrounding suburbs), the board presidency is a cherished political prize.

For 37 years, the board presidency has been securely in Democratic hands. Veteran board President John Stroger has been a reliable cog in Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s Democratic machine and seemingly a cinch to remain in the office he has held since 1994. But lately, the hitherto secure hold on the post by the first-ever African American board president has begun to weaken.

Stroger’s relations with Daley and his brother, County Commissioner and board Finance Chairman John Daley, have recently been strained. Several pundits and pols suspect this is due to the 76-year-old Stroger’s mounting irritation with the perception that he is simply occupying the presidency to take orders from the Daleys, much as longtime Democratic board President (1968-90) George Dunne was perceived as a flunkey for their father, the late Mayor (1955-76) Richard J. Daley.

Internecine political warfare notwithstanding, Stroger is under growing fire for orchestrating the imposition of more than $300 million in additional taxes over the last two years. The restaurant tax, for example, was raised to a hefty 19%—a strange tax hike to levy on an area in which tourism is the biggest business and convention business is down. By one vote, the 22-member county board (17 Democrats, five Republicans) also raised the cigarette tax from 18 cents to $1 per pack. A new 3% lease tax on suburban businesses was also instituted.

Stroger, who has had serious bouts with diabetes and prostate cancer, has been the subject of several unflattering articles in local publications, which point out that more than 67 relatives of the board president are in patronage jobs with the county.

Thus it is a foregone conclusion in Cook County that Stroger will face a stiff challenge for renomination in the March ’06 primary and at least better-than-even money that one opponent will be backed by the Daley organization. Among those most frequently mentioned as a primary challenger are Forest Claypoole, formerly Mayor Daley’s chief of staff, and County Commissioners Mike Quigley and Larry Sufferdin.

Understandably, most Cook County Republicans feel they have their best chance at winning the Board of Commissioners presidency since 1966, when they last won it with the late Richard Oglivie, who went on to win the governorship in ’68. Most of the GOP bets are on Tony Peraica, board member from Riverside. An aunt in Chicago raised Peraica, a native Croatian who came to this country at 13 without knowing a word of English. He worked his way through the University of Illinois and John Marshall School of Law, and then launched a successful law practice. In addition, he served as special assistant to the state attorney general, secretary of the South Loop Chamber of Commerce and was an international vice president of the Boy Scouts of America.

“The climate of insider deals, nepotism and corruption that surrounds the board presidency makes it ripe for an outsider like me to win next year,” the 47-year-old Republican told me during a recent trip to Washington. A county commissioner since 2003, Peraica has been in the forefront of battles against domestic partner benefits and against raising the cigarette tax. As one who meshes “conservatism” and “reform,” Peraica is a vivid contrast to the bland, moderate candidates who have carried the GOP banner in the county for many years.

Others in the state and national Republican leadership are also beginning to see signs of a resurgence in Cook County. Former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer recently spoke at a party fund-raising dinner there and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani is also scheduled to address a GOP event in the county.

Peraica, who was national president of the Croatian-American Association for five years, believes his widespread contacts among fellow Eastern European immigrants will be an asset for a campaign in heavily ethnic Cook County. In a sense, he would be much like a modern version of Anton J. Cermak, a Bohemian immigrant Democrat who forged a coalition of fellow ethnic Americans and seized control of the Cook County Democratic leadership from its Irish warlords in the 1920s. Cermak went on to serve as president of the county board in the 1920s and as mayor of Chicago from 1931 until he was killed by an assassin’s bullet intended for President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933.

Citing his own ethnic background, Peraica told me, “We’ve got democracy in Croatia and the rest of Eastern Europe. We haven’t had democracy in Cook County in almost 40 years.”

(Tony Peraica for Cook County Board President, 5130 South Archer Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60632; (773) 735-1700;

More Bluegrass Bulletins

Fletcher’s Karl Rove for Congress?  During my recent visit to the Kentucky Derby (see Politics ’05, last week), one of the hottest rumors circulating in Frankfort concerned Daniel Groves, whose role with GOP Gov. Ernie Fletcher is similar to that of Karl Rove with President Bush. Many Republicans believe that Groves may run against the lone Democrat in the Bluegrass State’s congressional delegation, Rep. Albert B. Chandler III, who lost the ’03 gubernatorial race to Fletcher and then won Fletcher’s former U.S. House seat in the 6th District (Lexington) in the subsequent special election. The 35-year-old Groves, who managed Fletcher’s initial run for Congress in 1998 and his gubernatorial race two years ago and is now his senior adviser, confirmed to me that “this is something I’m looking at.” Groves also pointed out that he has had “upbeat” visits about a race with people in the White House Office of Political Affairs and with House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R.-Ill.).

Back to the Future: Staying at the Capital Plaza Holiday Inn in Frankfort during Derby week, I learned that I was in the state Senate district held for the past two years by Julian Carroll, the 74-year-old former Democratic speaker of the House, lieutenant governor and governor of the Bluegrass State from 1974-79. With his twilight years in the governor’s office marred by scandal, Carroll attempted a comeback bid for governor in 1984, but badly lost the Democratic nomination. In 2002, he toyed for a time with challenging Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, but opted against it. Finally, he won some measure of voter vindication by being elected state senator over Republican Harold Fletcher, brother of the current governor.

Although it may seem a comedown to go from being governor to state legislator, Carroll is the third former chief executive of a state to make such a move in the last half-century. The other two were Democrats James P. Coleman, who served one term in the Mississippi House of Representatives after leaving the governorship (1955-59), and Phil Hoff, Vermont’s first-ever Democratic governor (1962-68), who went on to serve as state senator from 1982-88.