It is an eternal conflict in Chicago politics -- the genteel reformers versus the regulars from the streets. It’s playing out again in the Cook County Assessor’s race between WASP goo-goo Forrest Claypool and Latino Machine lifer Joe Berrios.
In an unusual twist, though, it’s the Machine guy who’s accusing the reformer of playing dirty.
Last month, Berrios was the subject of a Chicago magazine expose that accused him of using his position at the Board of Review to give tax breaks to big political contributors. The article was co-reported by the Better Government Association, which is headed by former ABC-7 reporter Andy Shaw.
Now, Berrios is accusing the BGA of acting as a front for Claypool, and is asking the Internal Revenue Service to revoke its non-profit status.
He’s also making a race and class issue out of the conflict. Claypool and the BGA, he says, are funded by an interlocking conspiracy of “eccentric” lakefront liberal millionaires, who have the kind of cash that’s unavailable to minority candidates.
“I don’t see too many people from the minority community at the Better Government Association,” Berrios told Ward Room. “This is the first time in the history of the county that a minority is running for assessor. What they’re saying is minorities should not apply for the office.”
Berrios was born to Puerto Rican immigrants in the Cabrini-Green Housing Project, raised in Humboldt Park, and started off as a precinct worker in the 31st Ward organization of Ald. Thomas Keane, Richard J. Daley’s floor leader on the City Council. At age 30, he became the first Latino elected to the Illinois General Assembly. Elected chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party in 2007, Berrios has coveted the assessor’s office for years, and thought it was all his after he won the Democratic primary in February. He is said to be furious that Claypool stepped out of line to challenge him as an independent.
Berrios named J.B. Pritzker, John Canning and Marge Benton as millionaires who have donated to both Claypool and the BGA. The quixotic reform group raised its profile immensely by bringing in Shaw, who has raised over $1.5 million and recently hired some of Chicago’s best investigative reporters, including John Conroy, who exposed the Jon Burge torture scandal for the Chicago Reader. Shaw is pretty well-connected himself: his daughter, Kate, works in the White House Counsel's office, and his son-in-law, Christopher Hayes, is Washington editor of The Nation.
“They’re starting to turn more political than investigative,” Berrios charged. “They’re out to help Claypool as much as they can. The BGA’s supposed to be a reform organization. All of a sudden, they’ve got one target and one target only -- me.”
The Better Government Association is answering all of Berrios’s charges with this statement from Dave Lundy, president of its Board of Directors:
“Rather than responding to the disturbing conflicts of interest identified by our extensive investigation, Joe Berrios has now joined a rogues’ gallery of distinguished critics like Rod Blagojevich, George Ryan and Dan Walker with this lame attack on the BGA. The BGA began its fight against waste, fraud and corruption 87 years ago by battling public officials who coddled the likes of Al Capone. We didn’t back down then and we’re not going to back down now from our mission to investigate and expose questionable conduct by public officials. This is never about partisan politics. It’s always about better government.”
Claypool had this to say, through spokesman Thomas C. Bowen: “Joe Berrios needs to respond to the serious allegations against him, not try to shoot the messenger. His woe-is-me poor-mouthing is a joke. This is the same public official who has collected millions in campaign donations from property tax appeal lawyers and then handed out hundreds of millions of questionable tax breaks to their clients. He is pay-to-play personified.”
Berrios also lashed out at the Cook County Board for passing a Claypool-sponsored ethics bill that requires candidates for assessor to return contributions over $1,500 from lawyers who do business with the Board of Review. To Berrios, campaign finance reform is a lakefront liberal plot to cripple fundraising by minority politicians who don’t have access to North Shore mansions. The late Mayor Daley used to say that the Machine gave a man of humble circumstances the opportunity to work his way to the top of the political heap, without having to buy his way into office. Berrios, who has risen from project dweller to party boss, certainly sees it that way.
“If you look at the Cook County Democratic Party, two-thirds of the people on this slate could not run countywide without sharing costs,” he said. “I don’t have millionaires behind me. That’s my problem."