This morning I strolled into Truman College to witness the open meeting to select the replacement to Mike Quigley (now a U.S. Congressman elect replacing Rahm Emanuel in the 5th district) to the Cook County Board of Commissioners. The entire spectacle was a study in the inner workings of government, irony and dichotomy. The meetin was open and easy to find and as the chosen head, Tom Tunney (my alderman in Chicago), to maximize transparency. Of course, the selection of a new board member won't be voted on by the public. Instead, a committee of 8 committee men will select the replacement. In fact, their votes won't even be equal. Here is the breakdown.
44 - Tom Tunney - 20.5%48 - Carol Ronen - 19.9%46 - Tom Sharpe - 19.1%43 - Michele Smith - 17.1%40 - Pat O'Connor - 8.8%39 - Randy Barnette - 5.8%50 - Ira
Silverstein - 3.8%49 - David Fagus - 2.3%32 - John Fritchey - 1.9%45 - Patrick Levar - 0.3%41 - Mary O'Connor - 0.3%
This breakdown is based on the weight of the vote for Quigley in his last election for Commissioner. For most of the rest of the country, this selection is a non issue. Here in Illinois this is of utmost importance. That's because Quigley was genuine agent of change, reform, and anti corruption, and unless he is replaced as such the County government will move towards the corrupt machine again.
The first candidate to speak was Committee Woman Michele Smith. If that name sounds familiar, it's because she is also on the committee to decide the candidate. She was also able to ask the other candidates questions. In the greatest bit of irony, she asked three questions of each including "what will you do to reduce the conflicts of interest in County government". (the county commissioners hold second jobs and often their private business comes in front of them as Commissioners). Now, I could state the obvious, but I will let my readers come up with their own thoughts about someone running for office, on the committee to decide said candidate for that office, and on the panel asking questions of said candidates asking questions abou CONFLICTS OF INTEREST.
The main themes of the meeting were: reform, the cook county sales tax, hospital funding, and efficient government. This happened for three reasons. First, again, Quigley has been a genuine agent of reform. Second, the indictment of Rod Blagojevich has made corruption the issue du jour. Third, Todd Stroger and his massive sales tax increase has made the issue of corruption especially relevant in Cook County itself. Furthermore, between the bloated budget and massive new sales tax, Todd Stroger did manage to cut the budget on Cook County Hospital also known as John Stroger Hospital.
Speaking of Todd Stroger...I decided to the some simple mathematics. At the beginning of the meeting, I decided to count the number of times that the name Todd Stroger was mentioned by either the candidates or the questionners. The exercise turned out to be easy because the number of times was ZERO. Stroger became the 800 pound gorilla in the room. Todd Stroger is the Cook County Board Commission President. He took over when he orchestrated a backroom deal in 2006 to replace his father, John, then President of Cook County, on the ballot when his father fell into a coma during his own run for re election. Since then, he has been the subject of so much corruption it is frankly to long to list here. (go here for a fairly full list)
With Stroger being the ghost, the candidates went through litany of promises for budget reform, consolidation of departments, and a series of boring and technical reforms of process. To me, much of this is pie in the sky. The reason the budget is bloated is because the County is run as a machine. To fix the budget, we need a commission ready to take on Stroger and the machine that runs it. Both the words CORRUPTION and PATRONAGE were also mentioned exactly ZERO times by both the commission candidates and questionners.
One of the easiest ways to get the budget under control is to cut some of the 25000 employees now employed by the County. That was one thing not suggested by anyone, though cutting employees takes real political courage because that means making an enemy of about 5000 very powerful and connected voters.
The favorite of both the Chicago Sun Times, Tribune, and the crowd at Truman College was Kimberly Walz. That's because for the last eight years Walz has been a top deputy to Commissioner Quigley, as both his budget director and most recently his chief of staff. His accomplishments have become her own. White male, Jim Madigan, pronounced that if he were elected it would be historic. That's because he would be the first openly gay politicians at the County and the state. (Tunney, it should be noted, is the only openly gay alderman in Chicago)
To truly understand the absurdity and irony of this "transparent" meeting, you had to stay till the end. The public was welcome to the speeches and to the question and answer session, though not allowed to ask questions themselves. Then, Tunney announced that the committee would retire in private where privately they would debate, horsetrade, and ultimately choose the next Commissioner. All right, he didn't characterize it as such, however this process would be in private. As such, the public was allowed to the dog and pony show of the speeches and the question and answers, however the public couldn't witness the process of voting for our new Commissioner. Transparency is alive and well, and Smith's curious view of conflict of interest, the whole spectacle smells much like corrupt politics as usual.
Bridget Gainer, a former park district and city hall employee (and currently an executive at Aon), won the private vote to replace Quigley.
Democratic committeemen bypassed Mike Quigley’s top aide as his replacement on the Cook County Board, instead choosing today to seat former City Hall and Chicago Park District official Bridget Gainer.
Gainer, 40, was one of eight candidates — including Quigley’s former chief of staff Kimberly Walz — vying to serve out the remainder of Quigley’s 10th District county board term.
“I’m very pleased with the outcome and I’m looking forward to getting to work,” said Gainer, who works for Aon Corp., but previously had worked for the park district and in the city’s budget office.
Gainer was mentioned in the Tribune's editorial which ultimately endorsed Walz. I wish her luck in her new endeavor.