December 8, 2004


To retire or not to retire? That is the question that many ambitious politicians are waiting for Cook County Board President John Stroger to answer.

Like the proverbial Dutch Boy, Stroger is standing with his finger in a hole in the dike, behind which is a bubbling cauldron of pent-up political ambition and racial antagonism. If Stroger retires and extracts his finger, the dam will burst, and the 2006 political landscape in both Cook County and Illinois will be transformed from tranquil to tumultuous.

The 2004 election is barely a month into history and the 2006 election is 23 months away, but 2006 candidates must begin circulating their nominating petitions in just 10 months, in September 2005, they must file their petitions in just 13 months, by December; and the March 2006 primary will occur in just 16 months.

But before any candidates can make a commitment to a 2006 race, they need to know what Stroger, age 75, will do. Stroger has been the South Side 8th Ward Democratic committeeman since 1968, a county commissioner since 1970 and County Board president since 1994. He is a staunch ally of Mayor Rich Daley who, due to his position and attendant patronage, exerts enormous influence over other black Chicago ward committeemen. Stroger has battled cancer and heart disease in recent years, but if he runs again in 2006, he likely will be unopposed in the Democratic primary.

The mayor needs Stroger, as there is no other black politician upon whom he can depend to deliver votes in black wards, especially if Daley runs for another term in 2007. According to Daley insiders, if Stroger is healthy, Daley will insist that he run in 2006.

However, a Stroger retirement would prompt a plethora of ambitious politicians to revise their 2006 plans. Here's an overview:

*If Stroger retires as board president, the consensus choice among Daley insiders to run for the job is Cook County Assessor Jim Houlihan. Also interested in the post would be Sheriff Mike Sheahan, who has been feuding with the County Board (and Stroger in particular) over budget and personnel matters in the sheriff's office and at the Cook County Jail. Two county commissioners, Mike Quigley (D-10) from the north Lakefront and Larry Suffredin (D-13) from the North Shore, both outspoken Stroger critics, also are poised to run if Stroger quits. At the last board meeting, Stroger challenged Suffredin to run against him. Both could run for president in the Democratic primary as well as for re-election to their board seats.

If Stroger retires, there definitely will be a black contender for the spot, with Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown the most obvious -- and electable -- choice. But Stroger may push his son, Alderman Todd Stroger (8th), and black county Commissioners Bobbie Steele, Jerry "Iceman" Butler and Earlean Collins would be interested if Brown didn't run.

There are 17 County Board districts, and all incumbents must stand for election in 2006. Of the 17 commissioners, five are Republicans, all elected from the suburbs. Of the 12 Democrats, five are black, of which one, Earlean Collins, is regarded as an anti-Stroger independent. Two are Hispanic, both usually pro-Stroger; and five are white, of which Quigley, Suffredin and Forrest Claypool are regarded as anti-Stroger independents, while John Daley, the mayor's brother and the board Finance Committee's chairman, and Joan Murphy usually back Stroger.

If he became board president, Houlihan, age 61, would be little more than a caretaker. He would let John Daley run county government, as Stroger has for the last decade. Houlihan would not run for commissioner in one of the districts, so he wouldn't have a vote at board meetings. Dick Phelan, who was elected only as president in 1990, did control spending and patronage. But that has changed, and now John Daley controls spending and patronage, and all Stroger has to be concerned about is keeping jobs for his family and for 8th Ward precinct captains.

*If Houlihan, who has been the assessor since 1997, retires to run for Stroger's job, the chief contender for his spot would be state Comptroller Dan Hynes, the son of former assessor Tom Hynes (1978-97), who is the 19th Ward Democratic committeeman, a long-time Daley ally and the Illinois Democratic national committeeman. Dan Hynes ran an embarrassingly poor race for U.S. senator in the March primary, finishing with just 23.7 percent of the vote. He won 80 of Illinois' 102 counties, but he lost Chicago to Barack Obama by 227,644 votes, lost the Cook County suburbs to Obama by 10,172 votes, and topped Obama in just five of 50 Chicago wards. His showing was distinctly underwhelming.

With Attorney General Lisa Madigan looming as the Democrats' next candidate for governor when Rod Blagojevich retires, Hynes, age 35, is looking for new opportunities -- and they lie in Cook County. Hynes reportedly has said that he will not challenge Blagojevich in the 2006 Democratic primary.

Houlihan, who lives in Lincoln Park, is a longtime protege of Tom Hynes, and he has close ties to the Lakefront liberal community. Dan Hynes lives in Ravenswood. But one fact remains clear: The 19th Ward still controls the assessor's office, and with it the capacity to raise enormous campaign cash from those who benefit from assessment "adjustments." The ward wants to keep the job.

But Alderman Bill Banks (36th), another longtime ward committeeman (since 1981) and Daley ally, also wants the assessor's job. Banks has been chairman of the City Council Zoning Committee for many years and at age 55, he wants to move up . . . and he could well challenge Hynes in the primary.

Then there is the Stroger "Veto Factor." Stroger won't retire unless he can hand off his jobs, as both commissioner and board president, to his son, but Todd Stroger is not yet ready for prime time. So the Daleys, to secure John Stroger's consent to back Houlihan, probably would have to promise to slate Todd Stroger for assessor or to promise him some other patronage-rich office, such as Circuit Court clerk.

*If Republican state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka runs for governor in 2006, against Blagojevich, Brown likely will run for that job. Brown would be a formidable contender for Stroger's job, and she would have enormous support in the black community. In a multi-candidate field, against several white candidates, Brown would easily be nominated, and she would quickly become the Daleys' worst nightmare. Control of county government is a critical component of their political machine.

Brown, an attorney and a certified public accountant, was elected clerk in 2000 and was re-elected in 2004. She beat Alderman Pat Levar (45th) in her first primary race, and she beat former judge Jerry Orbach in 2004. So what better way for the Daleys to get rid of Brown than to boot her to Springfield? In 2000 Brown was quoted as saying that her ultimate ambition was to become a U.S. cabinet secretary. That goal is much more attainable if she is a state treasurer, rather than a court clerk.

Then the County Board could name her successor, an office which controls 2,800 jobs. And Todd Stroger would be a logical choice.

However, if Topinka vacates her job, the likely Republican candidate would be U.S. Representative John Shimkus (R-19), who has a solid political base in Madison and Saint Clair counties, in the area around East Saint Louis. As a black candidate from Chicago against a credible Downstater, Brown would have a tough race. So the Daley Machine would have to exert itself mightily to get her elected, meaning the generation of a huge vote for her in white wards.

*If Hynes vacates the comptroller's post, there is no shortage of Democrats who aspire to the job, chief among them being state Representative Lou Lang (D-16) of Skokie. Lang briefly ran for governor in 2001, campaigned vigorously around the state, but eventually folded his campaign. He could revive those contacts for a 2006 run. But a flock of Downstate Democratic legislators also will eye the job, so Lang must take a calculated risk: Does he give up his safe House seat for an iffy statewide bid, or does he stay in the House for the rest of his life, hoping to be speaker one day? State Senator Ira Silverstein (D-8) of West Rogers Park, who is in mid-term in 2006 and who wouldn't have to give up his seat, could run for comptroller if Lang doesn't.

*If Sheahan, sheriff since 1990, retires, a tough race will ensue. Democrats have controlled the patronage-rich Cook County Sheriff's Office (with more than 5,100 jobs) since 1970, when Dick Elrod first won, with a one-term interlude: Elrod lost in 1986 to Republican Jim O'Grady. But Sheahan, then the 19th Ward alderman, beat O'Grady in 1990, and he has easily kept the job since.

Sheahan has been embroiled in a dispute over his choice to run the County Jail, Callie Baird, and the Cook County Department of Corrections Board refused to confirm her. But the term of one of the board's members has expired, and Sheahan has named a replacement, Munir Muhammad. If the County Board approves Muhammad's appointment to the Corrections Board, it will surely reappoint Baird, who is the first black woman to run the jail. Sheahan's proposed 2005 budget is $388 million, $30 million more than in 2004, and he wants to hire 200 new jail guards. Stroger has called for cuts in the sheriff's budget, and he has resisted any new hires. The level of animosity between Sheahan, age 60, and Stroger is intense, but according to sources in the sheriff's office, Sheahan will not run against Stroger in 2006. However, if the board presidency opens, Sheahan would consider a bid.

If Sheahan retired, the leading candidate to replace him would be Tom Dart, a state representative from the 19th Ward who lost to Topinka in 2002. Dart wanted to be the state director of the Department of Corrections, but he was rebuffed by Blagojevich. He then got a job as a top aide to Sheahan. If Sheahan retires, expect Alderman Bill Beavers, age 69, a former city police officer, to run for his post.