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Run Forrest Run! Claypool in Race

Daniel J. Kelley 7 April 2010 2 Comments

The expected retirement of County Commissioner Forrest Claypool proved to be brief indeed. After declining to mount a second campaign for Cook County Board President or filing for another term as a commissioner on the board, Claypool has reconsidered his decision to leave the political arena. He will begin circulating petitions to run for the position of Assessor. He has already announced his decision.

Claypool will need to gather a minimum of 25,000 valid signatures on his nominating petitions to qualify as an independent candidate. The first day for independents to file petitions with the Cook County Clerk is June 14th. Claypool will need to gather tens of thousands of additional signatures since the Election Code rules on independent candidates were especially designed to frustrate such candidacies in Illinois and because his most formidable opponent, Joseph Berrios, has one of the ablest election law attorneys in the state, Thomas Jaconetty, waiting to file an objection to whatever paperwork that Claypool eventually files. Berrios and Jaconetty are long time allies from the 31st Ward, so Claypool must be prepared for a vigorous legal challenge. Another obstacle for Claypool to overcome is that he will need to recruit a team of petition circulators who did not collect petitions for candidates who participated in the recent partisan primary elections last February.

Why make the difficult race then? Claypool, who has been sometimes identified as a “reform” politician has been presented with a unique opportunity because the party regulars have exposed their flank by sponsoring Berrios for such an important position. The electorate is angry and with the perception of higher taxes on the horizon, the Democratic party’s stranglehold on the Assessor’s office, which dates back to the start of the Great Depression, may finally be at risk.

Consider the fact that Berrios secured the Democratic nomination for assessor with an unimpressive 39 percent of the primary vote in an exceptionally low turn-out. Facing a nominal Republican opponent, Sharon Strobeck-Eckersall, and an equally unknown Green Party candidate, Robert C. Grota, Joe Berrios looked to be a cinch to cruise to victory in November. Claypool’s candidacy could alter that victory lap scenario dramatically.

It is a measure of how far removed from reality politics have become in our one party state (a corrupt model that some say President Obama is trying to replicate on a national level if he could simply discard the Constitution as an anachronism), when one examines who is running the Cook County Democratic Organization. It is Joe Berrios, a political warhorse who has accumulated considerable baggage, wealth and weight during the course of his career as a politician and a lobbyist. Yes, that’s right, Berrios has continued to work as a lobbyist while simultaneously serving in public office. His most recent lobbying project was promoting the legalization of video poker machines in Illinois taverns.

Berrios served his political apprenticeship in the notorious 31st Ward Democratic Organization of the late Alderman Thomas Keane. Prior to his being sentenced to prison, Keane, who was himself the son of an alderman, served as Mayor Richard J. Daley’s floor leader in the City Council. Keane reportedly claimed that he went into politics for money while Daley wanted power and that they both got what they wanted. Allegedly, Berrios came to Keane’s attention when he visited the ward office to ask help to “fix” a ticket. Keane recognized the fact that the formerly blue collar 31st ward had been undergoing a demographic change on account of a large influx of Puerto Rican residents and promptly assigned Berrios to a position as a precinct captain more than thirty years ago.

In the wake of Keane’s imprisonment, the leadership of the ward organization was in a state of constant transition and upheaval. For a time, Keane’s wife, Adeline, served as his successor in the City Council. Afterwards, several other politicians connected with the ward, including State Senator Ed Nedza, Alderman Chester Kuta and a subsequent alderman, Joseph Martinez, all ended up following in Keane’s footsteps by becoming embroiled in a series of petty scandals (accepting bribes, tax fraud and ghost pay rolling) that resulted in their own visits to the federal penitentiary. Following his release from prison, Tom Keane was not entirely washed up. His skills were utilized by Mayor Jane Byrne to draw a redistricting map following the 1980 census that minimized minority representation in the City Council. After protracted litigation, the ward map was invalidated by a federal court judge and special elections were held in 1986 that resulted in Mayor Harold Washington finally obtaining a majority in the council. Some may argue that we are still paying a heavy price for the gerrymandering since the loudmouthed Congressman Luis Guitterez (D-4th) was one of the aldermanic candidates chosen in the special elections.

Joe Berrios managed to avoid the City Council controversies while serving three terms in the Illinois General Assembly. With the leaders of the 31st ward organization being fitted for orange jump suits at regular intervals, Berrios defaulted to a position of authority. Someone had to fill the vacancy. In 1988, Berrios left Springfield and was elected to a position on the Board of (Tax) Appeals following the death of an incumbent commissioner, Harry Semrow. Berrios had previously served in a patronage position as a clerk for the same governmental unit before being elected to the legislature.

Following the passage of legislation expanding the Board of Appeals to a three member board (the board formerly consisted of two commissioners) and creating single member districts to replace at large elections, the body was renamed the Board of Review. Despite its obscurity, it is a lucrative office since the board has the ability to reduce property tax assessments fixed by the assessor. Berrios fully appreciated the potential fundraising opportunities inherent in holding such a position and raked in millions in campaign contributions from tax attorneys. Many critics have condemned the practice to no avail.

Berrios even managed to survive some bruising missteps of his own when allegations concerning his conducting an affair with the wife of a former political ally, one time State Representative Edgar Lopez, became public. Berrios later filed suit against Lopez to recover a personal loan of $16,000.00. It was an ugly episode that might have derailed a politician in a more upscale district, but in the precincts of the 31st Ward everything was still business as usual.

Joe Berrios strengthened his hold on the ward organization by promoting his daughter, Maria Antonia Berrios (D-39th) into the General Assembly. Her youth and lack of prior work experience proved to be no impediment to her election. Rahm Emanuel even praised her as “a true advocate for her communities” whatever that means. Following the death of Thomas Lyons, the 45th Ward Democratic Committeeman, who claimed his residences in Glencoe and, later, in Wilmette were actually summer vacation homes, not to be confused with his legal voting residence on Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago, the position of Cook County Regular Democratic Party Chairman became vacant in 2007. Berrios once again stepped forward into the breach and assumed the chairmanship.

Berrios might have been vulnerable to a primary challenge in 2008, but the only opponent to emerge was Jay Paul Deratany, a lawyer with ties to US Representative Jan Schakowsky (D-9th) and her husband, the former felon, Robert Cremer. Deratany enjoyed financial support from the gay community, but his campaign money could not buy him love from the primary electors. A stronger opponent might have caused Berrios some sleepless nights, but the leftist Shakowsky endorsed a Board of Review candidate who could not play to the voters in the bungalow belt. Had a more conventional opponent filed against Berrios in 2008, he may have been retired already.

If Claypool qualifies for the November ballot, this may be the most interesting local contest in more than a decade. Claypool has a political resume that is enviable when contrasted with that of Berrios. For the time being, voters will have to wait and see what develops.

Daniel J. Kelley is a regular contributor to “The Chicago Daily Observer.”

2 Comments »

  • Pat Hickey said:

    Solid context, Brother Kelley, solid.

    Mr. Claypool has Andy Shaw and the BGA and that should make the petition volunteers tingle from thigh to thumb and hustle them clipboards.

  • rje said:

    I have voted for Claypool before when he should have won and didn’t. I’ll definitely consider him again.

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