April 2, 2008


Like the racial animosities unleashed by their respective campaigns, neither Barack Obama nor Hillary Clinton will ride off into the proverbial sunset after the August Democratic presidential convention. One will be the nominee. One may be the president.

If it's not Clinton, she will return to New York and likely run for governor in 2010 and for president again in 2012. If it's not Obama, he will return to Illinois and run for re-election in 2010 or for governor, also as a prelude to a 2012 presidential bid. There may be another Obama-Clinton battle. However, if Obama loses to Republican John McCain, he'll get another nomination; if Clinton loses to McCain, she won't.

A lot of black voters and politicians will be infuriated and disappointed if Obama doesn't make it, but not Cook County Board President Todd Stroger. Having Barack back and on the 2010 primary ballot for some office, and not in the White House, looms as Stroger's salvation. After bloating the county bureaucracy, hiring every relative he can find and raising taxes, Stroger needs a racially tinged primary and Obama on the ballot to drive up black turnout.

      Racial politics and racial voting have typified Democratic primaries in Chicago and county races for almost three decades, and it will be deja vu in 2010, when five major county offices are up for election.

The incumbents are Stroger, Assessor Jim Houlihan, Clerk David Orr, Sheriff Tom Dart and Treasurer Maria Pappas. Of the "Big Five," two are vulnerable: The inept and clueless Stroger and the power-grabbing Houlihan, a white liberal with ties to the 19th Ward. All 17 county commissioners, elected from districts, and three Metropolitan Water Reclamation District commissioners, elected countywide, are up for election.

Locally, there are four Democratic "parties," or factions: (1) The blacks, who constitute upwards of 40 percent of the vote in Chicago and 30 to 35 percent countywide; (2) the surging Hispanics, led by Democratic county chairman Joe Berrios; (3) the white liberals and their gay and feminist allies, who hate George Bush, the Iraq War and police brutality; and (4) the white cultural conservatives, primarily from white ethnic areas on the Northwest and Southwest Sides, who count Mayor Rich Daley among their number.

The "fifth" party, and least relevant, is the Republicans, who win only if the Democrats nominate somebody detested by several of the Democratic factions. That means that if Stroger is inexplicably renominated in 2010, he could lose to a Republican, and if he faces two or more credible white or Hispanic foes in the primary, he will be nominated.

The 2008 primary for state's attorney, won in an upset by Anita Alvarez, highlighted Democratic divisions based on race, gender, ethnicity, ideology and geography. Howard Brookins was the only black candidate, Larry Suffredin was the white liberal "reformer," Tom Allen was the tough-on-crime working-class candidate, and Alvarez and Bob Milan were veteran prosecutors.

As the campaign progressed, Brookins' lack of stature and personal controversies caused his black base to erode, and many black women opted for Alvarez. Suffredin's liberal coalition was porous, as many white women also chose Alvarez. Hispanics produced solid majorities for Alvarez, and Allen got a large -- but not large enough -- vote in the white ethnic wards. The result was a 9,562-vote margin for Alvarez, who got 25.7 percent of the vote to Allen's 24.7 percent, with Suffredin at 22.1 percent, Brookins at 18.2 percent and Milan at 5.8 percent.

The black countywide vote is 30 to 35 percent, so Brookins underperformed in his base by at least 15 percent. Alvarez didn't run as a "Hispanic candidate," and the Hispanic base is under 10 percent, but women were 60 percent of Democratic primary voters. She won her ethnic base and got 40 to 45 percent of the female vote. The white liberal vote is about 35 percent, so Suffredin underperformed in his base by about 12 percent. The white ethnic vote is about a quarter, so Allen won his base, but few votes beyond it.

Going into 2010, the Democratic "parties" are roughly 25 percent white conservatives, 35 percent white liberals, 30 to 35 percent blacks and 7 to 10 percent Hispanics, and going into the 2010 county Democratic primary, the dynamics and candidates are as follows:

First, Todd Stroger is no Howard Brookins -- nor is he John Stroger. He has had no personal scandals, but he has demonstrated an ineptitude and duplicity that makes him repugnant to white conservatives, white liberals and Hispanics. In the 2006 primary, the elder Stroger, who had suffered a stroke a week before, won by just 41,952 votes (getting 53.5 percent of the votes cast) over Forrest Claypool, a white county commissioner. Claypool is set to run again in 2010, as are county Commissioners Mike Quigley and Roberto Maldonado. All three opposed Stroger's sales tax increase.

      Unlike Brookins, Stroger will have plenty of campaign cash, and he can portray himself as the victim of white "racism." If Obama loses in 2008, blacks will be angry and disinclined to support any white candidate. If Obama wins, black anger will dissipate, Obama won't be on the Illinois ticket in 2010, Claypool, a close associate of Obama strategist David Alexrod, will be off to Washington and end up as a top White House staffer, and Stroger could face just one white foe -- and lose. So Obama's 2008 success is Stroger's 2010 catastrophe.

      Second, Daley's term as mayor expires in 2011. Stroger is a close Daley ally, as was his father. Three the county's "Big Eight" office holders are black: Stroger, Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown and Recorder of Deeds Gene Moore; seven of the eight are Chicagoans. If Obama loses in 2008 and Stroger gets bounced by a white opponent in 2010, black anger will be transformed into fury.

      U.S. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-2) could use that racial rage to propel himself into City Hall. If Daley wants another term as mayor, he cannot let Stroger lose.

Third, if Obama wins and Claypool splits, then Houlihan would certainly run for county board president. Houlihan has boyhood roots in the Far Southwest Side 19th Ward, but he served a few terms as a state representative from the Lakefront. When longtime assessor Tom Hynes resigned in 1997, he and John Stroger engineered Houlihan's appointment.

Houlihan's power to set commercial and residential property assessments means he can raise vast amounts of campaign dollars from appreciative property owners. He currently has $1.2 million in his campaign account. But Houlihan made a vast error in judgment when he tried to defeat Berrios as a Board of Review commissioner in the February primary. He endorsed Jay Paul Deratany and contributed $305,000 to his campaign.

Had Deratany won, Houlihan would have had total vertical control of the county's assessment process. His office sets them. His office has veto authority over municipalities that appeal to the Board of Review. The board, with three commissioners, hears assessment appeals, and the state Property Tax Appeal Board hears appeals from the Board of Review. Longtime Houlihan aide Ron Messina was appointed chairman of the appeals board in 2006, and Brendan Houlihan (no relation), with the assessor's backing, beat Republican Board of Review Commissioner Maureen Murphy.

A Deratany victory would have given Houlihan control of two of three board commissioners. It also would have put Houlihan on track to raise $5 million to $10 million and then run for mayor, county board president or even governor. But Berrios spent more than $2 million, spurred a huge turnout in Hispanic precincts, beat Deratany with 58.7 percent of the vote, and burst Houlihan's bubble.

Would the party back Houlihan against Stroger in 2010? "We'll see what happens," chuckled Berrios. What he really means is, "No way in hell."

Of course, if Houlihan did vacate his current post, Berrios definitely would run, as would Alderman Bill Banks (36th), setting up a nasty, big-spending primary between a Hispanic candidate and a Northwest Side white ethnic candidate. Berrios would be slated, and he would be backed by the mayor and Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan. If Banks ran and lost, a lot of Northwest Side Democratic politicians, already unhappy over mayoral non-support for Allen, would be infuriated.

As for board president, if Claypool runs, he wins in a one-on-one contest. He is a Northwest Sider, a former Daley chief of staff, an advocate of "reform," and a fiscal conservative and opponent of Stroger's spending. He appeals to white liberals and white conservatives. In 2006 he won 20 of 50 city wards and most suburban townships, but Quigley, who backed Deratany, is a Lakefront liberal with strong support from gays. Maldonado would get a solid Hispanic support.

The outlook: The combined 2008 Allen-Suffredin-Milan vote was 52.8 percent. That's the core 2010 Claypool-Quigley vote. If Quigley gets 15 percent of the vote and Stroger just over 35 percent, the "Toddler" wins.