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Assessing the Assessors Race

Russ Stewart 29 September 2010 One Comment

Elect Berrios in order to re-elect Obama. That, in a nutshell, is the incongruous premise of Joe Berrios’ campaign for Cook County assessor.

“My election,” said Berrios, the Cook County Democratic chairman and a Board of Review commissioner, “is important” to the president. “It will be humiliating” to Illinoisan Obama “if Democrats lose statewide contests for governor and U.S. Senator, and if I’m defeated for assessor.” Such a result, said Berrios, could portend Obama’s defeat in 2012, particularly if he loses Illinois.

That’s utter gibberish. A Republican will not be elected assessor. Instead, Berrios is facing fellow Democrat Forrest Claypool, a Cook County commissioner who is running as an “Independent Party” candidate for the office. In fact, Claypool, once Mayor Rich Daley’s chief-of-staff, is a longtime associate of David Axelrod, “senior advisor” in the Obama White House. Claypool supported Obama in 2008, and will do likewise in 2012.

“This election is about ‘reform’ in Cook County, and fair taxation,” said Tom Bowen, Claypool’s campaign manager. It’s not about 2012, he added.

There are four candidates, listed on the ballot as follows: Republican Sharon Strobeck-Eckersall, the Evanston Township assessor; Berrios; the Green Party’s Robert Grota; and Claypool. With an anticipated 2010 countywide turnout of 1.4 million, and about 1.3 million casting a ballot in the assessor’s race, the black vote (400,000), comprising 40 percent in Chicago and 25 percent in the suburbs, and the Republican vote, which will be around 20 percent, are critical.

Quite simply, Berrios wins if he gets two-thirds of the black vote (266,000); Claypool wins if he gets 40 percent of the black vote (160,000). Berrios wins if Strobeck-Eckersall gets 25 percent (325,000) or more of the vote; Claypool wins if her vote is 15 percent (195,000) or less. “Every Democratic vote we take away from Berrios is irreplaceable,” said Bowen. But every Republican and Green Party vote is at Claypool’s expense.

The hardcore countywide Democratic base is roughly 550,000, or just over 40 percent; that’s Berrios’ vote ceiling. Claypool must garner 75 percent (565,000) of the remaining 750,000 voters to triumph.

In 2006, incumbent Jim Houlihan (D) got 1,008,398 votes (75.6 percent), and the black Republican, Ralph Conner, 246,185 votes (24.4 percent). The total vote for assessor was 1,254,583, but the total countywide vote was 1,350,915, indicating a down-ballot dropoff of almost 100,000. Houlihan won the suburbs by 458,324-180,887 (71.7 percent), and won Chicago by 550,074-65,298 (89.4 percent).

In Chicago’s 20 black-majority wards, Houlihan got 253,630 votes, or 46 percent of his total city vote; in Chicago’s 9 Hispanic-majority wards, Houlihan got 56,202 votes, or 10.1 percent of his city total. Here’s an analysis:

Political bases. Claypool, county commissioner since 2002, is an outspoken critic of wasteful county spending, and ran a high-profile 2006 primary race against the late John Stroger for county board president. “He’s exceedingly well-known,” said Bowen of Claypool. “And he has high favorables.” Claypool fielded over 900 volunteers to gather 90,000 signatures to get on the ballot, and has been endorsed by a raft of liberal and independent politicians, but only two Democratic committeemen: Gene Schulter (47th) and Bob Fioretti (2nd).

Claypool expects to spend $2 million on TV and radio buys, and will get key newspaper endorsements. Barack Obama won Cook County in 2008 by a margin of 1,141,288 votes out of 2,162,240 cast, proving receptivity for a liberal, reform, pro-change candidate. But the assessor’s office is buried on the ballot. Claypool will garner the backing of the studious voter, but not necessarily the casual voter. To win, Claypool must demonize Berrios, portraying him as a corrupt political insider. It’s the “Sleazebag Strategy”: In a year when voters are repelled by any ethically-tarnished candidate, Claypool wins only if he goes negative on Berrios.

But Claypool has his own demons, especially in the black community. “To put it bluntly,” said one Democratic committeeman, with some exaggeration, “they (black voters) hate his guts. The question is: Will they vote for a Hispanic to beat him?”

In 2006, Claypool ran a belligerent race against Stroger, spending $2 million and barely losing. Stroger’s massive stroke, just days before the primary, precipitated a huge black turnout. Otherwise, Claypool would have won.

Countywide, Stroger prevailed by 41,952. Claypool won the suburbs by 46,978 votes (60.1 percent); Stroger won Chicago by 88,930 votes (61.8 percent). Stroger won the 20 black-majority wards by 148,686-28,801 (83.7 percent); Claypool won the 6 Lakefront wards by 26,352-11,293 (70 percent); Claypool won the 10 Northwest Side and 5 Southwest Side white ethnic wards by 72,232-53,286 (57.6 percent); and in the 8 Hispanic-majority wards, Stroger won 18,802-15,752 (54.4 percent).

The black vote was monstrous for Stroger, but it was the white pro-Daley committeemen who propelled Stroger to victory, delivering a sizeable Stroger vote – an overall 42.4 percent — in their wards.

Compare 2006 to 2010, when Berrios faced Robert Shaw, who is black, and fellow Hispanic Ray Figueroa in the Democratic primary, and won by an anemic 39.1 percent, spending over $1.5 million. Shaw won 19 of 20 black wards, carrying them by 82,646-36,657 over Berrios. Of Berrios’ 120,179 votes in Chicago, a mere 12,725 emanated from Hispanic wards, and 70,797 came from white ethnic wards. But even on the Northwest Side, where Figueroa was perceived as the “reform” candidate, Berrios won by a tepid 27,059-19,505, with Shaw well behind. Berrios averaged 35.1 percent in the Lakefront wards.

Why such weakness? Over the past several years, the major media have relentlessly hammered Berrios for his “pay-to-play” practices as a Board of Review commissioner, a perch where he has the power to reduce assessed valuations on residential and commercial property. He has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from lawyers who practice before the Board, and commercial property owners, represented by law firms headed by Ed Burke and Mike Madigan, among others, get hefty tax reductions. Being a Springfield lobbyist for the video gaming industry, and Democratic county chairman, further contribute to his odious reputation.

In the wake of Daley’s retirement, the Democratic Machine is kaput. “It doesn’t exist anymore,” said Ed Kelly, former 47th Ward Democratic committeeman and onetime party powerhouse. The workers don’t work, he said, and the voters no longer vote as they’re told. That’s horrific news for Berrios, who became the party’s first Hispanic chairman just when it became meaningless.

The bottom line: Berrios is on black radio ripping Claypool for cutting budgets when he was Chicago Park District superintendent, for imposing fees on all kids’ sport teams, and for opposing John Stroger. “I’d be the first minority assessor,” said Berrios, who is Puerto Rican. “He (Claypool) is a superficial politician. He just criticizes. He offers no solutions,” said Berrios.

But black committeemen have no stake in a Berrios victory. They’re already squabbling over a 2011 mayoral contender. If they are energized for any 2010 non-black candidate, it will be Pat Quinn and Alexi Giannoulias, and their priority will be electing black Toni Preckwinkle as county board president.

Among Hispanics, who cast barely 8 percent (90,000) of the countywide vote, Berrios claims “95 percent of the Hispanic elected officials” are behind him. But with four Hispanics (Luis Gutierrez, Miguel del Valle, Manny Flores and Gery Chico) angling to run for mayor, Berrios’ election is not an urgent priority among Hispanics or among the candidates. “If 4 Hispanics run, they all lose,” predicted Berrios.

And white committeemen, already scrambling to find a horse in the 2011 mayoral sweepstakes, are not about to expend energy or resources to rescue Berrio

Issues: Both candidates face a thorny situation. Property values are declining precipitously, but property taxes aren’t. The reason: Government spending is rising. Berrios promises that the assessed valuation, set by the assessor’s office, will reflect that decline; but he can’t promise a tax reduction. Claypool points to Berrios’ role at the Board of Appeals, and asserts that tax reductions on commercial property shift the burden onto residential taxpayers. “Berrios’ record proves he is a friend of the big corporations, not the average homeowner,” said Bowen.

But even if assessed valuations are sliced, the county’s tax rate, based on what local governments need to operate, will continue to rise. So property taxes will not decline.

Berrios, according to Claypool’s polling, is not well-known. He does not have the iconic status of John Stroger, and Claypool’s task is to define him as another Todd Stroger-like paragon of ineptitude and idiocy. Berrios will spend over $1 million in targeted TV ads demonizing Claypool.

It boils down to this: Are voters going to make an effort to find Claypool on the ballot? And are they going to remember the anti-Berrios negativity?

My prediction: In a turnout of 1.3 million, it will be Claypool with 560,000, to Berrios’ 550,000, Strobeck-Eckersall’s 180,000, and Grota’s 10,000. Claypool will get enough of the black vote to eke out a win.


Russ Stewart is a political analyst for The Chicago Daily Observer.

One Comment »

  • Anonymous said:

    So Berrios’s attacks add up to “he raised fees for sports teams”?

    Joe Berrios, you dramatically raised property taxes on millions of homeowners throughout the county by shifting the tax burden so you could give tax breaks to people who donated to your campaign.

    A few bucks in fees or a few hundred million bucks in increased property taxes… Thanks for that enlightening attack Joe, but it just won’t cut it.

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