Mystery of the Missing Board President

Soviet leaders Stalin and Brezhnev were out of sight for long periods before the Kremlin finally confirmed they weren’t going to appear again. Dr. Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, Portugal’s strongman prime minister from 1932 to 1968, suffered a brain hemorrhage in 1968 and was replaced as head of the government, but his physicians and government officials maintained a charade of meeting with Salazar as though he were still in charge, out of fear that the shock of being out of power would kill him. Salazar, who was denied access to newspapers and television by physicians on the grounds that they would tire him, died in 1970 without knowing he had been removed from power.

The same eerie drama familiar to many one-party dictatorships is now being played out in Cook County, Illinois. John Stroger, 77-year-old president of the county board of commissioners and overseer of more than 4,000 patronage jobs in Chicago and its surrounding suburbs, suffered a stroke March 14 and has not been seen since. Democrat Stroger, who became the first African-American board president of the Democratic bailiwick in 1994, has issued no statement and there have been no photographs of him as he recuperates in the Rush University Medical Center.

Family members and political allies insist that Stroger, a chain smoker with a history of high blood pressure and diabetes, is recovering nicely. Less than a week after the stroke, he won renomination in the Democratic primary by a 52%-to-48% margin over County Commissioner Forest Claypool, former chief of staff to Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Now, with just over two months to go before the September 7 deadline for ballot printing for the November elections in Illinois, area and national media attention has begun to focus on Tony Peraica, a current county commissioner who is the Republican nominee against Stroger. If the mystery of the missing board president continues and the local media maintain the “Where’s Stroger?” drumbeat, could one of the most reliably Democratic counties in America actually elect a Republican to its top office? If so, the 47-year-old Peraica, a Croatian-born lawyer and onetime campaigner for Pat Buchanan for President, would become the first Republican president of the Cook County Board in 40 years and thus oversee a $3-billion budget and the thousands of patronage jobs now held by Democrats.

A “President Peraica” in Mayor Daley’s backyard would have a powerful impact on Prairie State politics as well as on national politics in ’08. Accompanied by veteran political consultant Bill Pascoe, stalwart conservative Peraica himself dropped in to see me following a fund-raising luncheon in Washington and discussed the ongoing political drama that one Democratic county commissioner calls “a Shakespearean work.”

What Happens Next?

“Our state constitution has an article providing for succession to the governor and the U.S. Constitution has the 25th Amendment governing presidential succession,” said Peraica, “But we have nothing like that in Cook County.” Therefore, the GOP nominee against Stroger recently introduced a measure before the county board providing for a hearing to be scheduled in no fewer than 10 days and no more than 20 days to determine whether the incumbent is able to serve in office and then to vote on his continued tenure. Under Peraica’s motion, if the vote holds that Stoger is no longer able to serve, the 17-member board would then select a replacement until the fall election. (Should Stroger’s family finally say he is unable to continue as a candidate and do so before September 7, the county party’s Democratic state central committee, which includes 50 ward leaders from Chicago and 30 from the surrounding townships, would choose a replacement for the ballot. But if the family sends no signal until after September 7, Stroger’s name would remain on the ballot.)

“My motion was voted down on party lines [10 Democrats “no”, five Republicans voting “aye”, two abstentions],” recalled Peraica, who quickly added that many of the same Democrats who denounced him for demanding confirmation that Stroger is “alive and well enough to function” are now beginning to maneuver for the board presidency—although the process for choosing a successor remains murky. John Daley, brother of the mayor and chairman of the county board’s Finance Committee, has been mentioned as a successor, but the idea of two brothers in the two most powerful offices in Chicago could be perceived as “over the top.” Former Stroger opponent Claypool is also mentioned, as is County Commissioner Bobbie Steele, who led the fight to defeat Peraica’s succession motion and now proclaims herself “the best man for the job.”

Not frequently discussed publicly, but very much on the minds of local pols, is how replacing the highest-elected African-American office-holder in Cook County with a white Democrat would sit with black voters. Thus, two black Democrats—Stroger’s son, Chicago Alderman Todd Stroger, and Bill Beavers, chairman of the Chicago City Council’s Budget Committee—are now being discussed as heirs to the ailing board president.

For his part, Tony Peraica continues to call for strong two-party leadership in his county that would roll back the patronage-heavy county bureaucracy, and introduce vouchers to the public school system. With the blessing of State Republican Chairman Andy McKenna, Peraica recently became the only Republican candidate for major office in the state to address the prestigious Union League Club in Chicago.(Tony Peraica for County Board President, 5130 South Archer Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60632; 773-735-1700;

Short Takes

Return of Ron: Oakland, Calif., seems to be a breeding ground for political “comeback kids.” Former Gov. (1974-82) Edmund “Jerry” Brown, just finishing a four-year-term as mayor, is now the Democratic nominee for state attorney general. Also, the new mayor of Oakland will be Ron Dellums, former far-left Democratic U.S. representative (1970-98), whose “world view,” as the Almanac of American Politics once put it, “is very much that of the protestors of the 1960s.” Dellums, one of the early members of the congressional Black Caucus and a vigorous opponent of the U.S. invasion of Grenada in 1983, roared back into politics by winning a majority of the votes in the race to succeed Brown as mayor.

Two weeks after the June 6 balloting, a count of absentee ballots put the 70-year-old Dellums just over the 50% of the vote needed to avoid a run-off. The former congressman’s closest opponent in the three-candidate race was City Council President and fellow liberal Democrat Ignacio De La Fuente.

Thomas’s Successor: For all the complaints from his state’s Republicans and many of his House colleagues about California GOP Rep. Bill Thomas’s terrible temper and prickly personality, the retiring House Ways and Means Committee chairman nevertheless got his way in terms of anointing his successor in the House. Moderate State Assemblyman Kevin McCarthy, a former Thomas aide whom the retiring congressman had strongly endorsed, won a hands-down victory in the all-important Republican primary in the 15th District (Bakersfield) June 6. McCarthy’s win was assured when conservative State Sen. Roy Ashburn, a protégé of late conservative Rep. (1970-78) William Ketchum (R.-Calif.), whom Thomas succeeded in 1978, decided not to challenge Thomas’s hand-picked choice.