Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Cook County Wars

By Shawn Healy
Note: The McCormick Freedom Project is a nonpartisan organization that engages in educational activity and does not support or oppose any candidate for public office.

During the mid-1980's, Chicago's city council evolved from a "rubber stamp" on mayoral priorities to an open battle that all but stymied African-American Mayor Harold Washington's reform agenda. He later co-opted former remnants of the machine constructed by a string of Irish-American mayors hailing from Bridgeport, and also fought for allies in aldermanic races that tipped the Council majority in his favor, effectively ending the so-called "Council Wars."

Since February 2007, Cook County Board President Todd Stroger has presided over a "war" of his own as commissioners have battled over budgets, borrowing, and taxation. University of Illinois political scientists Dick Simpson, himself a former Chicago alderman, and Tom Kelly released a report last month titled "Cook County Wars" that details fourteen major divided roll call votes on the County Board since 2007. Their work is a great public service just 27 days removed from a primary where Stroger and others place their fate before voters in party primaries, as the Cook County Clerk does not post divided roll call votes on its web site.

While the Chicago City Council has returned to its "rubber stamp" style under Mayor Richard M. Daley, the Cook County Board has moved in the opposite direction. For example, 46% of aldermen voted with Daley 100% of the time and another 14% voted with him more than 90% of the time. In contrast, only 4 of the 17 commissioners on the County Board voted with Stroger 100% of the time, and 10 districts, represented by 11 commissioners, voted against him more than 50% of the time.

The center of controversy at the county level has been the elevated sales tax first proposed by Stroger in September 2007. By increasing the overall rate in some municipalities to 11%, it represented the highest sales tax in the nation. Stroger successfully eked through the increase the following March by a 9-8 through carrots and alleged sticks that included a threatened immigration crackdown. All Republicans joined the opposition, as did three Democrats. The latter chorus would grow in the intervening months.

Commissioner Tony Peraica, Stroger's 2006 Republican opponent, led the first call for the repeal of the tax increase in July 2008, dubbing it Stroger's "corruption tax." It failed 7-10, as Democratic Commissioner Robert Maldonado now stood in defense of the increase.

Gradually, evidence surfaced that the tax hike was harming business in suburban municipalities, and in March of last year the Board voted 12-3 to repeal a portion of the increase. Stroger vetoed the measure as state law at the time required an exceptional 14 out of 17 votes to override a veto. The first attempt failed 11-4, and the second 9-6 last June. Last July, the override sunk once more by an inflated 12-2 margin, with 1 member voting present and 2 absent. In September, the measure fell short by a single vote, 13-4.

Last October, the state legislature amended the statute to reduce the number of votes required to override a veto from 14 to 11, in line with other counties across Illinois on a percentage basis (65%). On cue, the County Board voted on November 16 to reduce the county portion of the sales tax from 1.75% to 1.25% by a 12-5 margin. On December 1, Stroger's veto was finally overriden, though he did question the constitutionality of the new law and claimed that county health care services will be severely crippled by this eventual reduction in revenues. The decrease is set to take effect on July 1, 2010.

This successful veto override was the first in the 179-year history of Cook County and stands as an ominous sign for Stroger and his dwindling supporters on the County Board. Polling data suggests that Stroger will not even win his party's primary next month, and Simpson and Kelly predict that "a number of commissioners who have steadfastly supported high county budgets and sales tax increases are likely to be defeated as well." The implications of the "county wars" transcend mere electoral politics, too: the reforms necessary to streamline county government and place it on a sustainable path lie in waiting.

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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

First Amendment journalism initiative

The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at

Dave Anderson
Vice President of Civic Programs
McCormick Foundation

Tim McNulty
Senior Journalist
McCormick Freedom Project

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