Forrest Claypool is about to take the biggest risk of his political career. On Tuesday, this columnist has learned, he will declare war on his own Democratic Party and announce that he is running — as an independent — for assessor of Cook County in November against Joseph Berrios.
“I didn’t expect to be a candidate,” Claypool said by phone Thursday. “But I was angered and surprised someone like Joe Berrios with record low turnout could slip in with 39 percent of the vote . . . carried over the finish line by ward bosses.”
This will be the kind of contest where you’ll want to grab a bag of potato chips and a Coke, pull up a chair and watch like a marquee boxing match.
It will be ugly but meaningful.
Claypool has an established record of reform as the onetime head of the Chicago Park District who cut patronage jobs, bucking House Speaker Mike Madigan.
As a first-time candidate for the county board in 2002, he beat Ted Lechowicz, the triple-pension-dipping candidate endorsed by Claypool’s former boss, Mayor Daley. Claypool twice served as Daley’s chief of staff.
Joe Berrios is not a reform guy. A former legislator who did Madigan’s bidding in the House, he’s a lobbyist who pitches his clients’ special interests to old legislative pals such as Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton.
At the same time, as a commissioner on the county Board of Review, Berrios hears tax appeal cases brought by Madigan and Cullerton’s law firms, which specialize in reducing assessments for big-ticket clients.
Berrios, Madigan, Cullerton. What a perfect storm of personal and political self-interest.
All of this was well-known in February, when every newspaper on the planet editorialized against Berrios and another dismal candidate, Bob Shaw, in favor of reform-minded Raymond Figueroa.
Didn’t matter. Figueroa came in last.
Berrios won the primary. And he’s going to win again in November against nominal opposition from Republican Sharon Strobeck-Eckersall and Robert Grota, the Green Party candidate.
Unless Claypool can turn this train wreck of an election around. It’s a long shot.
First, he needs to gather at least 25,000 petition signatures. And he faces expensive challenges from the county and state Democratic Party — chaired by, guess who, Berrios and Madigan — to keep him off the ballot. Next, he’s going to have to convince skeptical voters that not only is he serious about this race but that they’d better be, too, if they care about who really decides their tax bills.
When the owner of a great big skyscraper on Michigan Avenue — often one of those Madigan or Cullerton law-firm clients — gets a super-size, multimillion-dollar tax break, you know who makes up the difference?
The rest of us.
Jim Houlihan, the retiring assessor, has done a good job of battling Madigan and Berrios.
Houlihan has fought them and tried to keep the 7 percent tax cap in place. But the cap is expiring, opening homeowners to a gobsmacking increase later this year.
That’s why, Houlihan alleged last week, Madigan and Berrios were trying to delay sending those property tax bills to voters until after the November election — so the voters wouldn’t take their fury to the polls.
You could argue that for Forrest Claypool, 52, this is one of those now-or-never scenarios. Last year, to the aggravation of his progressive supporters and funders, he decided at the 11th hour not to oppose Todd Stroger for president of the Cook County Board in the primary, opting for the private sector. Alderman Toni Preckwinkle won the nomination he had long hoped for.
But I would argue that the job of assessor — with the vast money and power that office commands — is every bit as crucial to the future, the reputation and the taxpayers of Cook County.
Welcome to the race, Commissioner Claypool.
It's the fight worth fighting.