Cook County Board President John H. Stroger Jr., with his grand-nephew, Mario Williams, talks with Helen Crawley after a rally in Stroger's home base, the 8th Ward. Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Aurelia M. Pucinski thanks supporters, from left, William Plechota and Frank Dubiela, at a Polish National Alliance meeting. (Photo by Jerry Gholson)

It had all the makings of a classic Chicago political battle–”a war most visible in some of the city’s most racially segregated neighborhoods.

Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Aurelia M. Pucinski thanks supporters, from left, William Plechota and Frank Dubiela, at a Polish National Alliance meeting. (Photo by Olga Yolanda Lopez)

One candidate relies on support from white ethnics on the Northwest and Southwest sides. The other banks on a strong turnout among African American voters citywide. One boasts a $2 million war chest; the other takes in less than $500,000. One counts on the considerable political muscle of Mayor Richard M. Daley. The other represents the aspirations of a resurgent Republican Party trying to reach beyond its traditional suburban base. Sounds familiar.

But this fall’s battle for president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners has turned conventional wisdom about race and politics on its head. It is the board’s first black president, John H. Stroger Jr., who has the Democratic Machine’s unwavering support. And it is a white ethnic and longtime Democrat, Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Aurelia M. Pucinski, who has become the GOP’s newest member and entered the race as the underdog.

“John has been an ardent, dogmatic, vociferous, loyal, true supporter of Democratic Party candidates throughout his political career, and he has done so often to the criticism of many of his black constituents,” said former Appellate Court Justice R. Eugene Pincham, who made unsuccessful runs for county board president in 1990 and for Chicago mayor in 1991.

“Now he finds himself, or we find ourselves, being opposed by a former Democratic Party stalwart who has switched party allegiance to run against him, one of the most loyal Democratic candidates in the history of the party. That makes it unique.”

Stroger and Pucinski ran against each other in the 1994 Democratic primary for the same office. But the nature of their current contest suggests something beyond who will be county board president: A challenge to Chicago’s reputation as a town where politics hinge on race.

The Chicago Reporter’s analysis of the candidates’ campaign strategies, the votes they’ve won and the money they’ve raised help illustrate why.

At first glance, Pucinski and Stroger do seem to fit the stereotypes that long have characterized Chicago politics.

Stroger, 69, who lives in the affluent Pill Hill neighborhood on the South Side, has served as 8th Ward Democratic committeeman for 30 years. An African American, he has always drawn solid support from the city’s black voters.

Pucinski, 51, lives in Norwood Park on the Northwest Side, where she grew up in a political family that long had been a cog in the Democratic Machine. Her father, former 41st Ward Alderman Roman Pucinski, became a lightning rod for the city’s racial politics during the “Council Wars” of the mid-1980s.

When Pucinski defected to the Republican Party in December 1997 and announced her run for board president, she pointed to her own “moderate” identity and desire to seek higher office. But some supporters suggested the switch stemmed from growing discontent among traditionally Democratic white Chicagoans:

“Across Illinois and across the nation, the Democratic Party has lost touch with the very people it claims to represent,” Illinois GOP Chairman Harold Smith said in an Illinois Republican Party press release when Pucinski changed parties. “By continuing to advocate a philosophy of higher taxes and bigger government, the Democratic Party has moved so far to the left that it has alienated many of its most loyal members.”

Pucinski’s switch could signify the continuing defection of the city’s white ethnics to the GOP. Alderman Brian G. Doherty (41st), a Northwest Sider and the Chicago City Council’s only Republican, said the party has attracted more support in his area than at any time since the 1950s and 1960s. And it could signal that Democrats have grown even more dependent on minority voters, whom South Side Alderman William M. Beavers (7th) calls the key to the party’s entire ticket.

But both candidates are more than what they seem.

Stroger has proven a loyal party man–”passing the ultimate test when he backed Daley’s first run for mayor in 1983 over eventual winner Harold Washington. And Pucinski was Washington’s choice for court clerk when, shortly before his death in November 1987, he assembled his “dream ticket” for the 1988 general election. Washington hoped his slate would overcome racial and ethnic animosities and reunite the Democratic Party in a strong countywide coalition.

Racial issues have taken a back seat in this election, said Robert T. Starks, associate professor of political science and inner-city studies at Northeastern Illinois University. While he acknowledges white Democrats have their own reasons for backing Stroger, their support is refreshing, Starks said. “It’s encouraging,” he said, “even though we understand what the motive is.”

Base Building

Both candidates have their core constituencies.

You can sense Pucinski’s drawing power just by walking around the 23rd Ward’s Archer Heights neighborhood on the Southwest Side, where a handful of Mexican restaurants operate among the Polish delis and bakeries. Her burgundy signs crop up in front yards, alongside those of Democratic U.S. Rep. William O. Lipinski, who represents the area, and the party’s gubernatorial candidate, U.S. Rep. Glenn Poshard of downstate Marion.

Sales representative Linda Mazer, 45, who lives in the neighborhood, said she didn’t realize the longtime Democrat had switched parties. Mazer is backing Pucinski not because she’s Polish, she said, but because as court clerk Pucinski helped her collect child support from her ex-husband.

Nearby, longtime resident Ludwik Dolata said he knew about Pucinski’s party switch, and it didn’t matter. “I’m not exactly a Democrat,” said Dolata, 72, a Polish immigrant and retired mechanic. “I’m 50-50. I don’t go for the party ticket. If I like someone, I vote for her. I don’t care what party she belongs to.”

From the looks of it, neither do many members of the Polish National Alliance. At the group’s monthly senior citizens’ meeting, more than 200 members found small bags of candy from Pucinski on their tables. Pucinski literature lined the table near the entrance of The Mayfield, a banquet hall at 6072 S. Archer Ave. in the Garfield Ridge neighborhood, along with brochures from Democrats, such as Cook County Clerk David Orr, and Republicans, including Secretary of State candidate Al Salvi.

Cook County Republican Central Committee Chairman Manny Hoffman points to Pucinski’s ability to deliver the white ethnic vote as proof of her vote-getting potential in the city. As a Democrat, she swept all 50 Chicago wards in her 1992 and 1996 bids for clerk, never polling less than 63 percent of the ballots cast. She racked up 760,315 city votes in 1992 and 655,174 in 1996.

But even as a Democrat, Pucinski proved a capable suburban draw, carrying all but one of 30 townships–”northwest suburban Barrington–”in the 1992 race. In 1996, she won the race in all but Palatine and Elk Grove townships.

And since 1987, when Washington decided to slate her, Pucinski has won support (and valuable name recognition) among voters in the city’s black and Latino wards. In 1996, she won a greater share of the votes cast in the mostly black 27th Ward on the West Side than in the 41st.

All told, Pucinski won more than 80 percent of the votes in black and Latino wards, compared with roughly 73 percent in white wards. In fact, she won her lowest share of the vote–”60 to 70 percent–”in three white wards: the 41st, and the 42nd and 43rd on the North Lakefront.

She’s counting on some of those minority votes to help her defeat Stroger.

“Black voters understand the issues,” she said. “Black voters are just like everybody else–”they know that they want lower taxes, better neighborhoods, better health care.”

David R. Reed, a building and development consultant and the former chairman of the Harold Washington Party, is backing Pucinski. Stroger’s ties to the Democratic Machine have turned off many black voters, he said, predicting that Pucinski would win between 10 percent and 15 percent of the ballots cast in black wards. She has also won the endorsement of the United Front, a group of 30 black ministers from Chicago and the south suburbs.

“The real problem that I have with John is that John does not take any positions in his life that are not the positions of the Democratic Party, and more specifically, Richard M. Daley,” said Reed, whose Washington Party backed Republican Gov. Jim Edgar in 1990.

“John has never, as an African American, stood up on issues when they are clearly important to the African American community,” Reed said.

Coming Home

You won’t hear that kind of dissent in Stroger’s home base–”the middle-class black neighborhoods of the 8th Ward.

He had barely made it through the door of Haven of Rest Missionary Baptist Church, 7925 S. South Chicago Ave., when a room full of Democratic precinct captains and voters jumped to their feet applauding and shouting his name.

Earlier in the late October rally, one supporter referred to him as the group’s hero. He has historically earned his highest vote totals here, in what is widely known as one of the city’s most effective black political organizations, with more than 13,000 turning out to vote for him each time.

While Stroger said his strength lies in his quiet, behind-the-scenes management skills, he really shines when he’s addressing the troops. “Boy, I am so happy to be home,” he told the smiling crowd. “I have been to a very good ward organization meeting, very well attended, people were real warm to me, but there’s nothin’ like walkin’ into your own house.”

His blue-and-white signs in the small, neatly kept yards far outnumbered those of any other candidates, even other African Americans running for office.

It has been that way as long as 8th Ward resident Jerald Cosey, 30, can remember. As a child, Cosey, now a sales representative, attended skating parties and other neighborhood events sponsored by Stroger and his allies. Having grown up in an area where “people just always vote for Stroger,” Cosey said he had never even heard of Pucinski.

Timmy Pennington, 34, who lives on East 87th Street, said he wouldn’t consider voting against Stroger. Pennington, who is unemployed, said he doesn’t think Daley has done much to help the black community but that Stroger, Daley’s ally, shouldn’t be penalized for that.

“If you’ve been around that long, you must be doin’ somethin’ right,” Pennington said. “I think Stroger’s done a good job. I guess you can’t get the devil without gettin’ the fire.”

Stroger always has done well among African American voters. In 1994, during the Democratic face-off against Pucinski and Cook County Board Commissioner Maria Pappas, he drew 83 percent of the votes from black wards.

That jumped to nearly 94 percent last March, when he squared off against Commissioner Calvin R. Sutker of Skokie in the Democratic primary.

But the key to his victories–”and to his race against Pucinski–”comes from his support among white party regulars. Daley taped a commercial for Stroger this fall, and Stroger counts on white ethnic committeemen from the same wards where Pucinski hopes to gain city votes.

He takes pride, for instance, in his history as a protégé of one of the city’s best-known white Democrats, George W. Dunne, the former county party chairman who has served as 42nd Ward Democratic committeeman for 35 years.

In 1990, Stroger’s dependable, hard-working approach to government impressed then-County Board President Dunne enough to elevate Stroger to chairman of the board’s finance committee, positioning him to become its next president–”although Dunne and the party waited until 1994 to slate Stroger.

Dunne, 85, says neither Stroger’s race nor his low-key style matters to voters.

“I would disagree with the necessity of him being a rambunctious person,” Dunne said from his office at 42nd Ward Democratic Organization headquarters, 945 N. State St., sitting in his chair atop the brown and white linoleum floor. “People really want somebody who’s performed the job well. They’re not looking for a pugilist.”

Other white committeemen have proven their loyalty to Stroger in past elections, most recently in the challenge against Sutker, who presented himself as an alternative partly because he feared Stroger would be vulnerable to defeat by Pucinski. But Stroger won more of the city’s white vote than Sutker, bringing in nearly 60 percent of the ballots. He lost just two wards (by small margins) to the Niles Township committeeman: the far north 50th and the Northwest Side 41st; and he lost only three of the county’s 30 suburban townships: Maine, Norwood Park and Niles.

When Stroger and Pucinski faced one another in the suburbs in the 1994 Democratic primary for Cook County board president, it was a virtual tie. Pucinski ended with 35.1 percent, followed closely by Stroger with 34.8 percent. In the three-way race, Pappas received 30.1 percent. Pucinski won 17 of the 21 townships where the white population was more than 80 percent; Pappas won the remainder. But Stroger captured all the townships with black populations of at least 20 percent.

Stroger held his own in 1994 against Republican Joseph A. Morris, too, sweeping all 50 wards and winning eight townships. He won at least 30 percent of the vote in all but two of those townships: northwest suburban Barrington and west suburban Cicero.

Money Matters

Given the overlap in their campaign strategies, money could make the difference. If it does, Stroger has the edge, with four times the funds Pucinski has raised. But while she hasn’t received the $1 million she was reportedly promised from the GOP, those in her new party have helped bankroll her effort, according to the Reporter’s analysis of contributions of $1,000 or more to her campaign through Oct. 19.

Her largest single contribution this year, for instance, was the $50,000 from the National Republican Congressional Committee. Gubernatorial candidate and Secretary of State George Ryan’s campaign came in a close second, giving Pucinski a total of $35,000 for the period.

State Senate President James “Pate” Phillip (R-Wood Dale) added $6,500 to her coffers from his campaign fund. Pucinski increased her suburban strength, raising nearly 53 percent of her donations in the Chicago area, up from the roughly 16 percent she raised in large contributions there as a Democrat in 1994.

Just days before the election, Philip lent her $100,000 and the Illinois Republican Party gave her an additional $50,000.

But Pucinski has a history of support from white Chicago Democrats.

In 1994, House Speaker Michael J. Madigan gave her $58,000 from his ward and campaign funds, as well as $1,650 in in-kind donations. Former 35th Ward Alderman Joe Kotlarz’s committee gave $10,000; $2,500 came from Lipinski’s; and Democrats in the 33rd and 19th wards gave her $1,000 each that year.

Few of those prominent Democrats have given much to Stroger, with one notable exception: Daley. In the 1994 race against Pucinski, Daley’s campaign gave Stroger $100,000. That year, Stroger garnered $5,500 from Democrats in the Southwest Side 19th Ward; $5,200 from Dunne’s lakefront 2nd Ward and $1,000 from those in the North Side 47th Ward.

A handful of elected officials also contributed, including donations of $1,000 from 18th Ward Alderman Thomas W. Murphy, $2,500 from 14th Ward Alderman Edward M. Burke and $1,500 from Dunne. Besides Daley, Stroger’s biggest political supporters that year came from his own base: 8th Ward Democrats, who raised $61,000 for him.

According to an analysis of his donations of $1,000 or more, Stroger has raised even less from white Democrats since 1994, using much of his previous bankroll to fund his 1998 campaign. But he has picked up support in two key wards: the 44th, on the North Lakefront, where Democrats gave him $1,000; and the 11th, which contributed $1,250 to his reelection bid. Stroger also received donations from the campaign funds of county board colleagues Joseph Mario Moreno, Bobbie L. Steele and John P. Daley–”the mayor’s brother–”the finance committee chairman.

The fact that some of the city’s white Democrats were unwilling to contribute much to his campaign won’t hurt Stroger, said Paul Green, a professor and director of the Institute for Public Policy at Governors State University. “Mr. Stroger has got the man in his corner who supercedes all those individuals: Rich Daley,” Green said.

Pucinski said Stroger’s ties to his own contributors and those of the Democratic Party drove his decision to build a new Cook County Hospital, one of her main campaign issues. Hospital officials estimate the building will cost $551 million, while Pucinski, looking at its cost over time, puts it at $1 billion.

Debate over the hospital is also the dominant issue in which racial politics have entered the campaign.

Pucinski advocates a “decentralized” health care system, based on a network of clinics anchored by county-owned Provident Hospital, 500 E. 51st St., in the Grand Boulevard neighborhood, and the University of Illinois at Chicago on the Near West Side, along with contracts for patient care in several private hospitals. It doesn’t make sense, she argued, for all of the county’s poor residents to make the trek to Cook County, 1835 W. Harrison St.

“If you have a child with asthma or a broken bone, you shouldn’t have to take two buses and an el to get to the West Side to see a doctor,” she said in one of her television commercials.

Stroger, however, says Pucinski is “against poor people.” He said the hospital’s construction includes plans to expand the services provided at the 25 clinics the county operates, seven of which are in public high schools.

Dr. Linda Rae Murray, co-chief of the Medical Office for the Ambulatory and Community Health Network, the county office that runs the clinics, said other hospitals, while closer to the clinics, can’t provide the same services as Cook County Hospital. Local hospitals are often reluctant to admit pregnant women, she said, because of the high infant mortality rates in far south suburbs such as Ford Heights, Phoenix and Robbins.

“Yes, you can take care of many problems in the community, but you can’t take care of every problem in the community,” Murray said.

Best Chance

Instead of current issues, however, Pucinski’s campaign makes Timothy P. Sheehan think back to 1966. Sheehan, then Cook County Republican chairman, helped put together a slate of GOP candidates for county races led by Richard Ogilvie, who went on to win the board presidency. Ogilvie was the last Republican to win.

“The jobs and the patronage on the county board [are

politically more important than the governor of the state of Illinois, to a party man.” –”Timothy P. Sheehan, Cook County GOP chairman (Photo by Jerry Gholson)] But Sheehan and Ogilvie parted company when Ogilvie gave up the seat to run for governor two years later.

“I had to oppose him when he ran for governor, to hang on to the jobs and the patronage on the county board, which politically is more important than the governor of the state of Illinois, to a party man,” said Sheehan, 89. “I had to oppose him on the basis we’d lose too much.”

Sheehan said Pucinski, whom he has known since she was a teen-ager, represented the GOP’s best chance to regain influence in county politics since that blow. Besides the party’s growing popularity among white ethnic voters, Cook County Republican Central Committee Chairman Hoffman offered another reason for optimism: the Illinois General Assembly’s ban of straight-party punches. The Illinois Supreme Court this fall chose not to hear an appeal of the ban.

“The Democrats cannot hang their hat on Punch 10 like they did two years ago, when Punch 10 brought them in all their suburban seats,” Hoffman said. “They’re going to have to educate their voters.”

That’s exactly what they’re doing, party leaders said.

Former Stroger opponents such as state Sen. Rickey R. Hendon (D-Chicago) says he and the city’s other black independents have put their past disagreements aside to back the longtime Democrat.

If victorious, Stroger wouldn’t be the only winner. The perception among many in the black community, Pincham said, is that Daley’s up-front support for Stroger and the other African Americans on the Democratic ticket, Secretary of State hopeful and Cook County Recorder of Deeds Jesse White and U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, were intended to set the stage for Daley’s re-election bid next spring. Demonstrating white Democrats could deliver a black candidate would send an important message to black voters, Pincham said.

“If John doesn’t win, the perception would be that it was a game they were playing on John and the black community as well, and we will look at the results when the election is over,” Pincham said. “I think it would be a good signal to the black community to see how the Democratic power structure supports a black candidate.”

But if he realizes the symbolism behind his bid, Stroger doesn’t talk about it much. Instead, he continues to push his party’s ticket and stick to his own record. He has no interest in stepping up to the soap boxes occupied by the black Chicago politicians before him.

“My job is to run and manage a government for the benefit of the five-and-a-half million people in Cook County,” he said. “My job is not to get out and sell issues dealing with all aspects of life.

“Am I as charismatic as Harold Washington? No. But I would venture to match my performance as a government leader with his or anyone else who’s served in this particular county and city.”

Contributing: Danielle Gordon.

Sofia Javed, Rui Kaneya, Heather Kuipers, Nicolette L. McDavid, Michael Rohner, Karen Shields and Terris R. Tiller helped research this article.

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