Cook County Wars

During the mid-1980s, Chicago's city council evolved from a "rubber stamp" on mayoral priorities to an open battle that all but stymied African-American Mayor Harold Washington's reform agenda. He later co-opted former remnants of the machine constructed by a string of Irish-American mayors hailing from Bridgeport, and also fought for allies in aldermanic races that tipped the Council majority in his favor, effectively ending the so-called "Council Wars."

Since February 2007, Cook County Board President Todd Stroger has presided over a "war" of his own as commissioners have battled over budgets, borrowing, and taxation. University of Illinois political scientists Dick Simpson, himself a former Chicago alderman, and Tom Kelly released a report last month titled "Cook County Wars" that details fourteen major divided roll call votes on the County Board since 2007. Their work is a great public service just 27 days removed from a primary where Stroger and others place their fate before voters in party primaries, as the Cook County Clerk does not post divided roll call votes on its web site.

While the Chicago City Council has returned to its "rubber stamp" style under Mayor Richard M. Daley, the Cook County Board has moved in the opposite direction. For example, 46% of aldermen voted with Daley 100% of the time and another 14% voted with him more than 90% of the time. In contrast, only 4 of the 17 commissioners on the County Board voted with Stroger 100% of the time, and 10 districts, represented by 11 commissioners, voted against him more than 50% of the time.

The center of controversy at the county level has been the elevated sales tax first proposed by Stroger in September 2007. By increasing the overall rate in some municipalities to 11%, it represented the highest sales tax in the nation. Stroger successfully eked through the increase the following March by a 9-8 through carrots and alleged sticks that included a threatened immigration crackdown. All Republicans joined the opposition, as did three Democrats. The latter chorus would grow in the intervening months.

Commissioner Tony Peraica, Stroger's 2006 Republican opponent, led the first call for the repeal of the tax increase in July 2008, dubbing it Stroger's "corruption tax." It failed 7-10, as Democratic Commissioner Robert Maldonado now stood in defense of the increase.

Gradually, evidence surfaced that the tax hike was harming business in suburban municipalities, and in March of last year the Board voted 12-3 to repeal a portion of the increase. Stroger vetoed the measure as state law at the time required an exceptional 14 out of 17 votes to override a veto. The first attempt failed 11-4, and the second 9-6 last June. Last July, the override sunk once more by an inflated 12-2 margin, with 1 member voting present and 2 absent. In September, the measure fell short by a single vote, 13-4.

Last October, the state legislature amended the statute to reduce the number of votes required to override a veto from 14 to 11, in line with other counties across Illinois on a percentage basis (65%). On cue, the County Board voted on November 16 to reduce the county portion of the sales tax from 1.75% to 1.25% by a 12-5 margin. On December 1, Stroger's veto was finally overriden, though he did question the constitutionality of the new law and claimed that county health care services will be severely crippled by this eventual reduction in revenues. The decrease is set to take effect on July 1, 2010.

This successful veto override was the first in the 179-year history of Cook County and stands as an ominous sign for Stroger and his dwindling supporters on the County Board. Polling data suggests that Stroger will not even win his party's primary next month, and Simpson and Kelly predict that "a number of commissioners who have steadfastly supported high county budgets and sales tax increases are likely to be defeated as well." The implications of the "county wars" transcend mere electoral politics, too: the reforms necessary to streamline county government and place it on a sustainable path lie in waiting.