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Move over Chicago: political
limelight on county board

Paul M. Green


Seven come eleven. A gambling term that also represents the number of Republicans and Democrats who have served as president of the Cook County board in the 20th century. Once considered a sleepy kid brother to the bully of all local governments — Chicago and its city council — the Cook County Board of Commissioners and its new president, Democrat Richard Phelan, have generated more heat and public attention in the last few months than generations of past boards. In short, Cook County board politics has become a real crapshoot.

County board politics and its president have never been high profile. The board's unique electoral procedure of dual at-large elections (city only and suburban only) was a complicated compromise crafted as part of the 1870 Illinois Constitution. It gave Chicago, where the overwhelming number of county residents lived at the time, political control of the board, while the numerous but sparsely populated suburban townships were thrown in together as a political unit which had no unity. That system will change. In a 1990 referendum Cook County residents voted to abolish the dual at-large elections and replace them with a single-member district electoral system, beginning in 1994.

A survey of 20th century county board presidents is basically a list of unknowns. To be sure, the boss of bosses, Anton Cermak, former Chicago mayor and Democratic machine builder, was elected board president three times, serving from 1922 to 1931, before his election as mayor in 1931; former Illinois Supreme Court Justice Seymour Simon (elected justice in 1980) served little more than one term as board president in the early 1960s; and Republican Richard B. Ogilvie used his 1966 board presidency as a stepping-stone to the governorship in 1968. These heavy hitters have been the exception rather than the rule.

The board presidency is usually a dead-end job. In all fairness, the Cook County board has not had all that much to do. While its combined budget is over $1.5 billion, most of these dollars are earmarked for other county offices and operations. The board has little financial and policy flexibility.

The board's two basic responsibilites are oversight of the county health system and the county jail, and for most of this century, both the Cook County hospital and jail have dominated board attention. Both are vital but politically volatile, and both are in crisis. Changing demographics, a growing county underclass and fantastic cost increases are factors, and solutions elude the board and almost everyone else who has looked at them closely.

In 1990 political outsider Phelan won hotly contested races in the Democratic primary and general election. He also won a seat as a suburban member of the county board, giving the Democrats an overall 11-6 board margin. Another nightmare aspect of county board elections and government is that the candidate for president must also run for a regular board seat.

In winning the county presidency, Phelan antagonized a sizable segment of the political establishment in both parties, Many Democratic and Republican "regulars" viewed Phelan as a new Dan Walk-

34/March 1991/Illinois Issues

er, who thrived on a combination of confrontation and insult as governor. In his first meeting as board president, Phelan seemed to justify these assertions with a performance best described as amateurish. The board organized 9-to-8 against him with three Democrats (Commissioners Ted Lechowicz, Maria Pappas and John Stroger) joining the board's six Republicans in a victorious coalition. It was an event that would have made former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley shudder and former machine chronicler Milton Rakove retitle his famous book to Don't Make No Waves —Unless You Know How To Count.

Pundits claimed that Phelan was finished as an effective administrator and that his promising political future had suffered an irreversible setback. Phelan, however, fought back with kindness, compromise, restraint and a singularly shrewd political move. Seeing himself badly outmaneuvered, he pursuaded respected political operative Bill Filan to leave House Speaker Michael J. Madigan's staff and become his chief administrative assistant.

Phelan then submitted his 1991 budget message with style and grace, and though it did not win over his critics, it did go down well with the media and the public. Finally, Phelan, the wealthy and successful political outsider, has discovered the joys of old-fashioned political organization, and he has been seen recently at fundraisers, rubbing elbows with regular Democrats. According to Filan, "The president will try to run the board by consensus [since] he views the commissioners as equal partners."

Will it be peace in our time once again at the Cook County board? Maybe. Richard Siebel, suburban Republican commissioner and GOP county party leader, believes that unlike former Cook County Board President George Dunne, who was county Democratic party chairman, Phelan has little political power standing behind him. The issues will not go away, and Siebel warns that' 'unless the board president can get Springfield and Chicago to come together in some coordinated planning agreement to save the county health care system, county hospital will come down around Phelan's ankles."

Move over, Chicago. It's the county's turn to roll the political dice.

Paul M. Green is director of the Institute for Public Policy and Administration, Governors State University.

March 1991/Illinois Issues/35

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