December 23, 2009


There are mixed metaphors, lame metaphors, apt metaphors, absurd metaphors and scatological metaphors.

This column consistently eschews metaphors. Why use irrelevant generic words or phrases to describe relevant political activity?

However, in analyzing the 2010 Democratic primary for Cook County Board president, the metaphoric temptation is irresistible. How about "breaking wind"?

Without question, incumbent Todd Stroger's performance has been both odious and odorous, and it has precipitated serious intestinal distress among much of the county's electorate, particularly white voters. To coin a phrase, "Toddlessness is happiness." Stroger has come to represent nepotism, incompetence and cluelessness run amok, as well as needlessly high taxes. The prospect of ousting the "Toddler" is, to many voters, cathartic, and a cure for chronic, governmental-induced flatulence.

With the Feb. 2 primary just weeks away, those in the ABT ("Anybody But Todd") field -- Cook County Clerk Dorothy Brown, Alderman Toni Preckwinkle (5th) and Metropolitan Water Reclamation District President Terry O'Brien -- have all positioned themselves upwind from Stroger.

"It's all about Todd, and the winner will be the candidate who is least like Todd," said one Northwest Side Democratic committeeman, hinting that the three black contenders will fractionalize their base and hand the nomination to O'Brien, who is white.

Not so fast! There is pervasive anti-Todd hostility regarding his 1 percentage point sales tax hike and his three vetoes of a reduction in the increase, but in this election fiscal issues are eclipsed by imagery and political reality. The bulk of Cook County's Democratic primary voters, which will number about 600,000, are blacks and white liberals. The magic words are "competent progressive independent reformer." Reducing the sales tax further is a nonstarter. So is cutting the county's $3.1 billion budget. But the palpable stench of corruption and favoritism assaults the nostrils.

Ousting Stroger. Separating county government from the yoke of Mayor Daley. Reforming and governing competently. Eliminating cronyism and extirpating corruption. That's the essence of the race. And Preckwinkle, who is building a liberal white/black/Hispanic coalition, is the emerging favorite. "She is selling what the voters are buying," said another Democratic committeeman. "Nobody else is."

There also is political reality. If Daley runs for reelection in 2011, he does not need an angry and motivated black electorate. An O'Brien win would accomplish precisely that, with no upside. Black voters would be incensed, since they now perceive that they have "ownership" of the county board presidency, which has been occupied by an African American since 1994. Daley's brother John runs the county board and sets the budget, but the president controls hiring and contracts. Preckwinkle, not O'Brien, is the mayor's secret choice to replace Stroger.

A Chicago Tribune-WGN poll taken in late November put Brown ahead with 29 percent support, to 20 percent for Preckwinkle, 14 percent for Stroger and a singularly unimpressive 11 percent for O'Brien. Still 26 percent of voters were undecided. Stroger had near-universal name identification (99 percent), while Brown was known by 91 percent, Preckwinkle by 62 percent and O'Brien by 50 percent. However, of white voters, 4 percent had a "favorable" opinion and 81 percent had an "unfavorable" opinion of Stroger, while 35 percent of black voters had a "favorable" view and an equal number had an "unfavorable" view. Overall, 62 percent of those polled disagreed with Stroger's sales tax rollback vetoes, but 38 percent backed him.

 Among black respondents, Brown and Stroger had 30 percent support and Preckwinkle had 17 percent; among white voters, Brown and Preckwinkle each had 25 percent support, with O'Brien at 17 percent. Clearly, O'Brien is not getting traction, simply because he has not intimately and vociferously identified himself with the key motivational issue among white voters: rolling back taxes.

"Terry's no reformer," said the Northwest Side committeeman. "He's spent his entire life on the public payroll. The issue in 2010 is not about who is the better manager. It's about who is the better reformer."

An interesting sidelight to the poll is the fact that 83 percent of the respondents didn't consider race important in their choice. The implication: Many voters are so nauseated by Stroger that they will vote for anybody, regardless of race, to get rid of him, and O'Brien's racial appeal, as the sole white candidate, is limited.

The "magic number," said Scott Sisek, Preckwinkle's campaign manager, is 37 percent if the vote. That amounts to 222,000 votes in a turnout of 600,000, with Preckwinkle getting 35 percent of the black vote (70,000), 50 percent of the Hispanic vote (30,000) and 35 percent of the white vote (122,000).

Given the results of the 2006 and 1994 county board president primaries, a Preckwinkle upset is not implausible. In 1994, in a turnout of 626,457, John Stroger, as the Daley-backed black candidate, won with 47.1 percent of the vote, getting more than 30 percent of the vote in the white wards and suburbs and beating Aurie Pucinski and Maria Pappas. In 2006 Stroger's pre-primary stroke engendered a huge sympathy vote, and in a turnout of 595,316 he barely beat Forrest Claypool, getting a 25 percent of the white vote and 39 percent of the vote in the suburbs.

But the son is not the father. The "Daley Machine" will produce no votes in white wards for Stroger, and the "Toddler" cannot win unless he gets 90 percent of the black vote -- which will not occur.

Of the anticipated 600,000 Feb. 2 turnout, 200,000 votes will be cast by blacks, 60,000 will be cast by Hispanics, and 340,000 will be cast by whites.

Here's an assessment of each candidate:

Stroger: Detested and mocked by both liberal and conservative white voters, Stroger has adopted a bunker mentality - "us" against "them." He insists that the sales tax rollback "puts lives at risk" through cuts in health-care services. That's nonsense, since almost $1 billion of the county budget is already allocated to hospitals and clinics.

Playing the "race card" might have been effective had O'Brien launched a blistering attack on Stroger, who could then have demonized O'Brien as a "racist," or had Stroger been the only black candidate running. With Stroger snaring barely a third of the black vote, he's programmed to finish with, at best, 75,000 votes, and perhaps as few as 60,000.

Stroger's firewall is the prodigious number of county payrollers hired over the past 15 years who are still loyal to the Stroger family. They will ensure that Todd leads the field in the 8th Ward and in some of the southwest suburbs.

Brown: As the court clerk since 2000, Brown has considerable name identification, but not all positive. She lost embarrassingly for mayor in 2007. She has no reputation as a reformer. She is generating support from black voters who reject Stroger but have not yet bonded with Preckwinkle. If Preckwinkle breaks out of the pack and is perceived at the frontrunner, Brown's vote will shift quickly to the alderman. Nevertheless, she will get a third of the black vote.

In outlying white areas, where O'Brien has yet to catch fire, Brown may capture up to a quarter of the vote simply because she is the best known alternative to Stroger. Brown will finish with 100,000 to 125,000 votes.

Preckwinkle: The Hyde Park alderman, representing Barack Obama's ward, is assembling an impressive coalition. She has been endorsed by suburban Democratic organizations in Evanston, Northfield, New Trier, Wheeling, Barrington, Oak Park and Norwood Park townships, plus the 49th Ward.

Preckwinkle is backed by several female aldermen, including Leslie Hairston (5th), Pat Dowell (3rd), Toni Foulkes (15th) and Latasha Thomas (16th), and she anticipates support from Carrie Austin (34th) and Freddrenna Lyle (6th). Ed Smith (28th), on the West Side, has endorsed her. Among Hispanics, Preckwinkle is backed by U.S. Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-4), Alderman Manny Flores (1st) and former 26th Ward alderman Billy Ocasio.

Preckwinkle is cementing a coalition of black women, white liberals, suburbanites and Hispanics. A vote of 240,000 (40 percent) is attainable.

O'Brien: Absent a Daley endorsement, the floundering O'Brien campaign is fading as rapidly as the Chicago Bears. The Democratic primary is a referendum on Stroger, and at least 80 percent of Democrats will vote against him, but O'Brien has failed to articulate a message or a rationale to vote for him. To win, he needs to blanket television during January with a "Say No To Todd" assault, cloaking himself as the "reform" candidate. Otherwise, O'Brien will finish in the range of 150,000 to 175,000 votes.

My prediction: In a low-turnout primary, perhaps dipping to 525,000, Preckwinkle has a hard core of support and a salient message. Expect Daley forces to back her. Preckwinkle will win with 42 percent of the vote. To use a metaphor, the "broken wind" in Cook County will have shifted.

Republicans: Against anybody but Preckwinkle, a Republican contender for board president could win. Competing for the nod are Roger Keats, a former North Shore state senator, and John Garrido, a Chicago police lieutenant from the Northwest Side. Keats has been endorsed by every suburban Republican organization and most city ward organizations. Turnout will be less than 100,000. Keats is favored.