Cook County Presidential Race

by  Editor-in-Chief

As the two Democratic frontrunners for the Cook County Board President were prepping for primary race elections in March, Residents’ Journal spoke to incumbent Cook County Board President John Stroger and to his contender, Cook County Commissioner Forrest Claypool, about their plans for the poor. In in-depth interviews at their offices in January, both were asked about housing, health care and ex-offender services as well as recent juvenile detention center scandals. RJ also questioned both about the ethics of campaign contributions from employees and contractors.

The Contender
Claypool, Mayor Richard M. Daley’s former chief of staff, said he was “running on a comprehensive health care campaign platform to create…a safety net without holes that would make health care accessible, convenient, more comprehensive, and…create more health care provisions by redirecting money from a wasteful and bloated bureaucracy.”

Cook County Commissioner and Candidate for Board Presidency Forrest Claypool. Photo by Mary C. Johns

Claypool, an attorney, said he was running as a reformer, which he defined as changing the way things are done in politics.

“The choice this election is between… the old ways of doing business…where ward committeeman and politicians view the county as a place to place their precinct captains and their relatives and friends [and] a modern government that understands that our first priority is service to people,” he said.

Claypool, first elected in 2002, said the poor should vote for him because he would break down barriers to medical care. Despite the opening of the John Stroger Hospital, people report long delays seeing the physician and getting pharmacy medication. He said he would slash the budget and use the savings for direct medical services, to hire nurses and lab technicians, to provide increased clinical care and subsidies for doctor’s services for uninsured patients in their neighborhoods.

Claypool said he would partner with private hospitals and clinics in low-income neighborhoods “where patients can see specialists close to where they live,” he said.

Claypool, a committee member of Provident Hospital, said Stroger was mismanaging that hospital.

“Provident Hospital is a good example. Earlier this year the State of Illinois threatened to cut off funding at Provident Hospital because of what the Tribune called a catalog of horrors…and President Stroger’s response to that was to bring in a new CEO… [John] Fairman, [who] had been fired as the head of public hospitals in Denver, Houston, and Washington D.C. – each time under allegations of fraud and mismanagement,” Claypool declared.

Recently, the media also reported chronic problems with Cook County’s Juvenile Detention Center. There had been reports of sexual abuse and physical assaults by staff member towards detainees.

If elected Claypool said he would, “fire the entire top management of the juvenile center and replace them with professionals who are trained in youth development” and “also institutionalize clear monitoring systems to prevent abuse of the children.”

Recent news sources also reported that Stroger had been accused of unethical practices in his methods of receiving campaign contributions from county contractors and employees by civic watchdog group the Better Government Association.

Claypool said those contributions aren’t wrong by law but can be unethical, and accused Stroger of breaking the ethics ordinance, which limits and restricts the amount of money that contractors can give to an elected official in the form of campaign contributions.

“No, not by law…but it is wrong if, then, you turn around and award no-bid contracts to those same people in a pay to play system which is what President Stroger has perfected. That’s something the Better Government [Association] revealed … with their reports.”

Claypool added that the ethics ordinance needs to be enforced.

“But it’s not enforced, and we saw that in the BGA story…So I think we’ve got to put teeth in that ordinance and strengthen it as a first step.”

As to whether he had accepted any campaign donations from employees or contractors, Claypool said, “I’ve not accepted contributions from employees, but I have from a handful of contractors…it probably amounts to no more than a few thousand dollars.”

Claypool said he would “have to think hard” about accepting contributions from employees.

”Every individual has a first amendment right to participate in the political process and that includes making contributions, but there can be reasonable limits on those contributions and they need to be enforced,” he said.

The Incumbent
Stroger said he was in favor of public and other federally subsidized housing. But he didn’t comment on what was going on at the Cook County Housing Authority in detail because “I have no authority over the Cook County Department of Housing,” he said during a interview with RJ.

John Stroger, President of the Cook County Board of Commissioners. Photo by Mary C. Johns

“I am in favor of low-income and moderate housing, and I’m also in favor of Section 8 type vouchers to help people who need financial support in obtaining decent housing,” he said.

Thousands of ex-offenders were expected to be released from Illinois prisons this year. Many will not find housing or jobs. They will end up back in prison because of that housing shortage and joblessness and little moral support from family and friends, Stroger said.

“I’m opposed to the fact that they’re prohibited from getting public housing. I think public housing should be available for any poor, financially disabled people,” he declared.

“Truthfully, I am very glad people are getting out of jail. But I’m sorry that so many people are getting out of jail without any proper training,” he said.

Stroger said the jail system was Cook County Sheriff Michael Sheehan’s responsibility. He said millions are spent on substance abuse programs for inmates in Cook County Correction facilities but there should also be social service programs in jail to help the inmates become productive citizens upon release.

“I think that every state penitentiary should have training programs to make certain that [they] reenter our communities with some marketable skills,” he said.

Stroger has direct control over 30 clinics and all of the health facilities of Cook County, which include John Stroger Hospital, Provident Hospital, Oak Forest Hospital and Cermak Hospital. He said that people wait long periods of time to get medical treatment and their prescriptions filled because of staffing shortfalls and because people come to the hospital needing multiple prescriptions filled.

“The county didn’t have enough money to hire a lot of extra pharmacists,” he said.

Claypool told RJ that he would “redirect” the Cook County dollars and hire more nurses and more lab technicians. But according to Stroger, Claypool, along with other board members, cut the hospitals’ budget in the face of this need.

“Mr. Claypool, Mr. [Mike] Quigley, Mr. [Larry] Suffredin and [Carl R.] Hanson and those sorts of men, who knew that we were having problems…decided…to cut back on the money…to those hospitals,” Stroger said. “They have been insensitive to the change and the demand on that hospital.”

Stroger said he agreed with Attorney General Lisa Madigan’s recent proposal to make nonprofit hospitals contribute at least six percent of their earnings to the poor for charity care.

Stroger said the poor and needy should vote for him because “I have tried to commit my life to helping…the medically indigent people of the county,” he said.

In response to the recent news reports of inappropriate conduct of the staff and alleged sexual abuse at the youth detention center, Stroger said it was politically contrived by an unnamed person.

“[T]hat was political propaganda…some people…may have hit a kid…but, our people have always went in there, checked it out, prosecuted those officers who had allegedly committed those offenses, and our office does not tolerate abuse of our program,” he declared.

In answer to Claypool’s allegations of political patronage, Stroger hinted that Claypool may be a bigot.

“Well I can tell you if he’s talking about that, I hire a lot of people who may be African Americans. I’ve hired a lot of people who are African Americans but they all must have qualifications…I think he may feel like that any Black that is hired is my close friend,” he said.

Stroger said that he makes recommendations for every top person in certain Cook County administrations. But he said they must all go through the proper procedures of hiring.

Stroger, a 76 year old former lawyer and school teacher, said there are people, including contractors. that may make campaign contributions to him that he may know.

“But, ain’t no way in the world… Don’t you know that they will put me in jail if I did things like that? I don’t know most of these people.” He said they would have to follow the proper bidding procedures.

Stroger defended campaign donations from employees.

“I’d hope that if you were working for me, and I had a social affair that you would probably make a contribution…But, most of the people who come to work for me, work under what is called the Shakman Decree,” Stroger said.

Stroger’s recent accomplishments include the opening of the Domestic Violence Court House, the New Stroger Hospital that opened in 2002, and the Ruth Rothstein Core Center for the treatment of individuals with HIV/AIDS.

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