July 14, 2010



Beleaguered Republicans in Cook County have a recurring, perverse and preposterous dream: The San Andreas Fault is discovered to exist not in California, but along Mannheim Road. An earthquake ensues. All the eastern landmass inhabited by blacks, Hispanics, white liberals and white ethnic Daley Democrats suddenly becomes Atlantis on the bottom of Lake Michigan.

In what's left -- Cook County's northwest, west and southwest suburbs -- the Republicans are suddenly competitive. With two-thirds of the county, including all of Chicago, under water, how can the Republicans lose?

Answer: They can and they have. In the Board of Review's 1st District, which covers the area west of Mannheim Road, comprising the one-third of Cook County largely devoid of minorities and white liberal enclaves and designed to elect a Republican, Democrat Brendan Houlihan won the commissioner's race in 2006.

How can a Republican not amass half the vote in the one-third of the county with the fewest Democratic voters? That's just one-sixth the countywide vote. But the obscure Houlihan, bearing the same surname as county Assessor Jim Houlihan, upset inept Republican incumbent Maureen Murphy by 14,076 votes, getting 51.4 percent of the votes cast.

Never underestimate the ability of Cook County Republicans to be utterly irrelevant. In 2006 the party's six countywide candidates averaged 23.6 percent of the vote, and in 2008 the three candidates averaged 24.7 percent of the vote.

This is looming as a banner Republican year, nationwide as well a locally, but in a county that Barack Obama won in 2008 by a margin of 1,141,288 votes, with 76.9 percent of the votes cast, a Republican resurrection is a fantasy. In the Board of Review's 1st District, however, it's a possibility. The Republican nominee, Wheeling Township Assessor Dan Patlak, is poised to ride this year's generic Republican "wave," as Houlihan's rode the Democratic landslide in 2006.

The Board of Review is obscure but powerful. It consists of three commissioners, who are paid $100,000 annually and have a staff of 20: Houlihan, Democrat Larry Rogers, who was elected from the South Side and south suburban 3rd District, and Democrat Joe Berrios, who was elected from the Northwest Side 2nd District and who is the 31st Ward Democratic committeeman, the county Democratic chairman and a candidate for county assessor.

The board has extraordinary power: the ability to adjust the assessor's assessed valuation on the county's 1.8 million property parcels, of which 1.2 million are residences. It can reduce property taxes. This year more than 400,000 complaints were filed with the board seeking reductions, a 30 percent increase over 2009. According to Patlak, more than 50 percent of the residential complainants got a tax reduction, but commercial owners, by hiring clout-heavy law firms (headed by Democrats such as Mike Madigan and Ed Burke), got more and bigger tax breaks.

In an era of declining property tax values, there is "an increasing shift of the tax burden from commercial to residential" property owners, Patlak said. "We must stop the practice of Democratic commissioners giving tax breaks to commercial property owners represented by Democratic lawyers. We must stop the practice of lawyers donating huge sums to the commissioners who give their clients the reductions. And we must have some balance in county government . . . not just Democrats everywhere."

"I've been a reformer," asserts Houlihan, who said that he has conducted "over 200" outreach sessions in the county's suburban townships, held in local government facilities, with he and his staff giving advice to home owners on the appeal process. "I do my utmost to help people reduce their taxes," he said. "I've done a good job."

In addition, Houlihan said that he has helped "modernize" the board, introducing computerization of appeal files, and that he expects that those appealing their taxes can soon do so online and not have to file physically at the board's office in the County Building or at the six suburban offices.

"What's he done in 4 years?" asked Patlak of Houlihan. "He's the 'Invisible Commissioner.' He spends more time at the Board of Trade than he does at the Board of Review. And," sniffs Patlak, "if he's 'done a good job,' then why can't complaints be filed online now?"

Houlihan said that he works part-time as a staffer for a Board of Trade brokerage firm, but he insists that his staff is present at all Board of Review hearings on tax reductions, that he attends every board meeting to approve the dispositions, and that he "spends countless evenings and weekends" at his outreach sessions. There are 27 suburban townships and two Chicago wards in Houlihan's 1st District. "I've had an outreach in every one in every year since 2007," which "totals more than 100" sessions, he said, adding that he adheres to the county's new ethics rules and limits contributions to $1,500 from lawyers who practice before the board.

"I will be a full-time commissioner," Patlak pledged, promising to quit as township assessor if elected. "I will devote all my time to helping my constituents reduce their taxes." Yet Houlihan is the norm, not an aberration. Rogers is a prominent attorney, and Berrios is a Springfield lobbyist for the video poker industry and the Democratic chairman. If 24/7 means all day every day, then the three board commissioners probably average 2/5 -- two hours a day, five days a week. With 20 staffers each, they can delegate plenty of responsibility.

The outlook: A Board of Review commissioner is more obscure than a county commissioner and at least as obscure as a Metropolitan Water Reclamation District commissioner. Despite 8 years of incumbency, Murphy failed to entrench herself.

As he completes his first term, Brendan Houlihan is no household name, and he is only slightly better known than in 2006. He benefits from the fact that Irish surnames always run well; that outgoing assessor Jim Houlihan is popular and voters may confuse the Houlihans; that Patlak is totally unknown and is relying heavily on the district's Republican organizations, which are, to be charitable, puny and powerless, especially in the southern townships; and that, geographically, Houlihan's southern base may generate a greater plurality than the Republicans' northern base.

 But Patlak ranks as the favorite, simply because in November the vote will be generic: More people will vote Republican than Democratic, and the 1st District has slightly more Republicans than Democrats.

The 1st District includes all or part of 27 townships, with 1,661 suburban precincts. In the north are the upscale, historically Republican townships of Barrington, Elk Grove, Hanover, Palatine, Schaumburg, Wheeling, Maine, New Trier and Northfield, plus slivers of Niles and Evanston. In 2006 those 11 townships cast 228,061 ballots, and Murphy carried them by 6,445 votes.

In the south are the upscale, mostly white townships of Bremen, Lemont, Lyons, Orland, Palos and Worth. Farther to the south are Thornton, Rich and Bloom townships, which have black majorities. In 2006 those nine townships cast 172,558 ballots, and Houlihan carried them by 12,800 votes. The key was Rich Township, which contains Olympia Fields, Flossmoor, Chicago Heights, Matteson, Richton Park and Park Forest -- an area with an exploding black population. Houlihan beat Murphy by 10,432 votes in that township.

 In the west are the Democratic-leaning townships of Berwyn, Cicero, Leyden, Norwood Park, Proviso, River Forest and Riverside. Those seven townships cast 47,201 ballots in 2006, and Houlihan carried them by 11,675 votes.

There also are parts of three Chicago wards: The Southwest Side 19th Ward (30 precincts) and the Northwest Side 41st Ward (37 precincts) and 45th Ward (one precinct), for a total of 68 precincts. Those wards cast 21,254 ballots in 2006, and Houlihan won them by 3,357 votes.

The turnout in the district was 447,820 in 2006, and Murphy got 231,151 votes, or 48.6 percent of the total cast. Murphy, of Oak Lawn in Worth Township, won just 12 of 27 townships, losing five of nine south suburban townships in her base. Murphy was unopposed in the 2002 election, and she got 380,624 votes. In 1998, when commissioners were first elected by districts, Murphy won by 199,647-173,940, a margin of 25,707 votes in a turnout of 373,587.

My prediction: In 2006 Republican Tony Peraica, running for Cook County Board president, got 336,443 votes (64.6 percent of the total) in the 1st District, securing 105,292 more votes than Murphy. Of course, Peraica was running against the flawed incumbent, Todd Stroger. Houlihan doesn't evoke the repugnance that Stroger did, and Patlak lacks Peraica's combativeness and visibility.

Demographics in the district's west and south areas favor the Democrats, but the Republican vote will rebound dramatically in the north. To triumph, Patlak needs to win by 22,000 votes in the north, or triple Murphy's margin, and he can't lose by more than 10,000 votes each in the west and south. That's doable. Patlak will beat Houlihan by 4,000 votes.