All in the Family in Cook County

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It takes a lot to shock or digust the voters of Chicago, where nepotism and corruption have long been such an ingrained part of municipal government. But this week Cook County, Illinois, which covers the Windy City and its surrounding suburbs, may have found that its already low bar for ethical government is actually scraping the dirt.

"If you took out the facts, it looks like we're talking about a Third World dictatorship," says Jay Stewart, executive director of Chicago's Better Government Association, a nonpartisan watchdog group formed in the 1920s out of concern for the rising influence of mobster Al Capone.

Indeed, the facts would be hard to fathom in just about any place outside Chicago. The government of Cook County, with a population of 5.5 million, has an operating budget over $3 billion, the prospect of a $100 million budget deficit and unanswered questions about possible tax increases and service cuts. But since Cook County Board President John Stroger, 77, suffered a stroke on March 14, a week before easily winning the primary election, he hasn't been seen in public since. For all practical purposes, no one has been running the county for the past three months.

Still, Stroger has refused to step down nor turn over his duties to anyone else. In a clear sign of the robust health of the county's political machine, few of Stroger's colleagues on the Cook County Board of Commissioners will even dare to publicly hint that he should resign. Stroger's office says that the president's chief of staff is making day-to-day decisions after receiving guidance from the ailing President, who's been in and out of the hospital since the stroke. Stroger was first elected to the Cook County Board of Commissioners in 1970, and has served three terms as President since 1994.

In response to questions about Stroger's condition and prospects for recovery, the family has refused to comment, apart from saying they'll make an announcement in July. But press reports on Wednesday indicated that the backroom jockeying has been fast and furious during the President's convalesence.

Stroger is expected to announce by week's end that he'll endorse his son Todd, a 43-year-old Chicago alderman, to replace him on the November ballot for the presidency, while recommending a close friend William Beavers, who also serves on the Chicago city council, to run for his seat on the Cook County Board. Currently, Stroger holds both positions himself, but under county rules, they may be occupied by two separate officeholders. "Todd Stroger has never been any kind of major player in the city council," noted Stewart. "It is essentially feudal law. The primogeniture system is alive and well here," he said.

With all the attention on succession issues, it's easy to forget that there's other business at hand. Cook County's government overseas the largest unified criminal and civil justice system in the country, and operates the nation's largest jail. It runs three hospitals, numerous health clinics and is responsible for maintaining 1,474 miles of pavement. But none of these responsibilities, nor the county's faltering fiscal health, is apparently enough to keep Stroger from finishing his term and anointing his successor.

"If he resigns before the election, Stroger and his allies would be afraid that the Board would pick someone who might like the job and outmaneuver to beat Todd in November," says University of Illinois -Chicago political scientist Dick Simpson, who himself is a former Chicago alderman. That temporary replacement would likely have a familiar name himself: John Daley, the No. 2 most powerful member of the County Board and the brother of Mayor Richard Daley. "No one is breaking the rules as they're written here, but they are breaking faith with the Democratic process," Simpson says.

Still, Chicago's patronage patriarchy has been taking more than its usual share of knocks lately. No doubt the Cook County power brokers are sneaking peeks at the week's other big local headline: the winding down of the seven-week corruption trial of Mayor's Daley's former patronage chief Robert Sorich and three Co-defendants. The group is accused of engaging in a complicated scheme to ensure that politically connected job applicants received favorable treatment in city hiring and promotions. The federal investigation, led by U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald (the same one overseeing the Valerie Plame CIA leak case in Washington) has already led the city clerk to resign in disgrace and to 35 public corruption convictions.

"Chicago and Cook County are prime examples of how not to run local government," says Stewart. "It's a cautionary tale that shows what happens when there is no transparency or accountability." And, as it has seemed lately, no functioning government at all.