Interview: Cook County Commisioner Forrest Claypool
By Kevin Robinson in Miscellaneous on Jan 5, 2007 5:30PM
Forrest Claypool represents the 12th District of Cook County on the County Board of Commissioners. He has a law degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and well over a decade of experience in local government. He was actively involved in Harold Washington's campaigns for mayor, and he later served as Daley's Chief of Staff. He made his name as a reformer as the former Superintendent and CEO of the Chicago Park District, where he restructured and cleaned up a park district crippled by years of neglect and patronage. Known not only locally but nationally for his challenge against former Cook County Board President John Stroger, he lost narrowly in the last week after Stroger suffered a serious stroke. His son, Todd Stroger, was hand-picked to replace his father on the ballot, and he beat Republican challenger Tony Peraica in November.
Chicagoist caught up with Claypool one evening to ask him about how he got his start in county politics, what was needed to create true reform, and his thoughts on the future of Cook County.
Chicagoist: How did you get involved in Cook County politics?
Forrest Claypool: I first got interested in it when the first wave of scandal that hit the county was involving the Forest Preserve District back in 2000 or 2001, and I got a lot of press inquires about it because I had run the Chicago Park District and there were some parallels between the patronage dumping ground and the poor service oriented system and the park district that I had inherited at the park district in the ’90s, and that got me interested in the county and following the county because of the forest preserve debacle, and got me angry about what was going on there. I noticed that it had been remapped, the county had been remapped, the districts, and that I was now going to be represented by Ted Lechowicz, a notorious double-dipper, and sort of an insider’s insider on the county board, and I made a decision to run for that seat in 2002, and that’s kind of the beginning.
In the campaign we called him taxman Ted. The county was raising taxes every single year on people, and to do nothing but to sustain this big patronage empire, and Lechowicz was kind of Exhibit A in this, and Stroger’s right-hand guy on the county board. It was really an anger thing. We’ve made some dents in it. It’s still standing, but I think we are going to tear out the foundations at some point, so that that old corrupt system collapses and we can build something new that really protects taxpayers, but also the most vulnerable people in our midst, the people that don’t have healthcare because of this system.
C: What do you think was the impetus that brought you into office, then? Was it a difficult race?
FC: Oh yeah. I won with 51.5% of the vote, so it was a close race. And the ward committeeman in the district, the mayor of Chicago, and every county elected official was against me. Rich Daley and the rest of the county were endorsing Lechowicz. So it was a tough race.
C: It sounds like you’re used to running close races and being the underdog.
FC: Oh yeah.
C: You get cited in the press a lot as sort of part of the minority opposition in Cook County. Do you agree with that assessment?
FC: Yeah, I think that’s probably about right. You know we have had some major successes, but we’ve always been in the minority. For example by one vote we were able to stop two years in a row a $150 million sales tax increase. John Stroger tried, in back-to-back years, to raise that tax, and each time we were able, by organizing public opinion and voter anger, to put together by the slimmest of margins a bi-partisan coalition that blocked those tax increases. I think the work of the County Board, and some of the other reform-minded commissioners, and we have some other successes as well, such as forcing the resignation of the director of the Forest Preserve District, who had presided over these financial problems and scandals, over the objections of the President. These aren’t minor victories, and we’ve had some mixed success, but yeah, most of the time on the bigger issues we’re probably in the minority on a lot of these issues.
C: What do you think would be needed to change that, to get out of the minority and into the majority on the board?
FC: Well, I think we have a test of that coming up here in the budget cycle. There is a little bit more independence on the board now than there was even as far as the last election. In 2002 I was part of a group; a couple more commissioners have come on board and have made it a little more democratic. I think we’ll see in this budget process how that plays out. I think the key obviously is what it means to the voters, and how many independents they elect to the board. Ultimately if voters get angry enough, they’ll throw the rascals out. We’ve seen some of that. This year was a little weird, and I’m not sure voters really got the chance to make a real clear choice in a lot of these county contests. But it remains to be seen. I think we’ve got four years of hard work here, and I’m hoping that the work we do plus the next election brings about the kinds of changes we have been fighting for. You know every year for 12 consecutive years the county has raised sales and property taxes. We’ve already had some success. For a couple of years there, we were able to stop that pattern for a couple of years, so it’s some progress there. You saw the FBI raids on the county building, you saw the kids at the juvenile center being subjected to violence with the approval of the staff there. The forest preserves are filthy and dirty so that families can’t use them and the health care system is broken, so there’s a lot of important structural reforms there that need to be changed.
C: You actually sound pretty optimistic about change. It doesn’t sound like you would agree that Tony Peraica was our last and only hope for real reform in Cook County government.
FC: No, not at all. It was an unusual election in a lot of ways, and I don’t think that voters got the real clear-cut choice in this last election.
C: What would it take to make real change in county government?
FC: Well I think the voters have to rise up, they have to actually come out and vote. It’s hard to get voters to care about a government that doesn’t deal with a lot of their problems. The county deals a lot more with poor people and criminal justice issues than it does with middle-class concerns, and for that reason voters haven’t paid as close attention, and there’s been lower turnout in elections involving Cook County government than there was in my primary in spring, and that of course gives a huge advantage to the Machine. The people at the public trough will always come out to vote, and they’ll bring their friends, relatives and associates to come out and vote. And the people that pay for the system and the victims of the system, people without healthcare, people with kids in the juvenile center, so often those families don’t vote, and I think that is what we have to change. The good thing, I think about the last year in particular, is that there has been a enormous increase in public awareness about the county, who actually runs the county, the chicanery and shenanigans behind the scenes, the politicians rigging the system for their own benefit at the expense of average people, because it lays the foundation for that sort of voter revolt that we need to clean house.
C: If you were in Todd Stroger’s place, what would be your top priority for the county?
FC: To reorganize and streamline the government. I would do the same thing we did for the Chicago Park District, which is to reorganize and streamline it to eliminate needless layers of bureaucracy and the do-nothing patronage jobs and the give-away contracts to the insiders, and then use that money to rebuild the system for people that really need help. In the park district we put that money into rebuilding neighborhood parks, we doubled programs for kids, and we quadrupled capital spending to rebuild these dilapidated inner-city parks. In the county I think we need to rebuild the health system so that it’s comprehensive and we fill in the gaps in the safety net. We need to clean up cesspool institutions like the juvenile center, where kids are being given, instead of a second chance at life, are being given routine beatings by government employees and live in rat-infested cockroach-infested filth. We need to clean up the forest preserves and make them family-friendly so that people can take their kids there and enjoy the feeling of being secure, instead of having to deal with used condoms on the ground and the stench of garbage.
C: Would you run for County Board President again, and if so, under what circumstances?
FC: [laughs] Well, I’m just going to represent my constituents on the county board for the next three years and fight for the things that I ran on initially, and we’ll see what happens. If there is a vehicle where I feel like I can make a difference and achieve some of these goals, then yeah, I’ll do it. But it’s way too early to tell.