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Race, Independence Early Factors in Board President Contest

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Race, Independence Early Factors in Board President Contest

Alderman Toni Preckwinkle and her campaign staff. (WBEZ/Sam Hudzik)

Democratic party officials in Cook County Thursday meet to talk about who to endorse in the 2010 race for county board president. Incumbent Todd Stroger captured the party’s nomination in 2006. Democratic officials picked him to fill the ballot spot left by his father, John, who had suffered a stroke. This time around, it’s less of a sure thing that Stroger will get the nod. We take a look at some key factors in the campaign to come.

Todd Stroger faces a lot of pressure - from other Democrats, and a county board increasingly hostile to his leadership. But last week he eked out just enough votes to keep intact the sales tax increase he championed. Surrounded by reporters after the vote, Stroger was asked what this means for his re-election prospects.

STROGER: I don’t know. You know? I always think I have a great chance. Because I tell you the truth. I do what I say I’m going to do. I don’t have to play politics.

Whether Stroger’s in the game or not, politics is getting played, and he faces serious competition in the upcoming Democratic primary.

MEEKS: Four African Americans who are running in an election, and one white candidate who runs, the four African Americans cancel each other out.

Those racial dynamics worry state Senator James Meeks, an influential African American pastor. A few weeks ago, Meeks organized a quiet, private meeting with the four African American Democrats: Clerk of courts Dorothy Brown, Congressman Danny Davis, Chicago Alderman Toni Preckwinkle and Stroger.

MEEKS: I just wanted them to make sure that they were dialoguing with each other, that they were not saying anything disparaging about each other, and that - at a certain date - they could come back together again and maybe determine who had front-runner status.

Meeks says he hopes one or more of the black candidates then drop out, making it less likely, he contends, that Terry O’Brien wins. O’Brien, chair of the water and sewage agency with that impossibly bureaucratic name...

O’BRIEN: Metropolitan Water Reclamation District.

...is that one white candidate Meeks was referring to.

O’BRIEN: I’m kind of disappointed, because I am a Democratic candidate, that I wasn’t invited to that meeting. I am going going to try to reach out for Reverend Meeks, Senator Meeks and talk to him.

Likewise, the black candidates seeking the board presidency are not interested in publicly embracing Meeks’ view of the racial politics at play. Clerk of courts Dorothy Brown.

BROWN: Based upon some 1980s analysis, you would look upon in that way. But I just believe our citizens are more intelligent than that. My campaign is about inclusion.

Also emphasizing this “big tent” approach: Congressman Danny Davis.

DAVIS: I can’t think of any particular reason that an African American voter wouldn’t vote for me, but I can’t think of many reasons that other voters wouldn’t vote for me either, if they’re looking for the best-run government that Cook County can have.

And here, Alderman Toni Preckwinkle.

PRECKWINKLE: We’ve gone all over the county, and - I think - that I’m a candidate who appeals across racial boundaries to progressive and independent-minded folks.

To help win those votes, Preckwinkle is seeking the endorsement of Forrest Claypool, the sometime leader of an opposition block of commissioners who often opposed John, and then Todd, Stroger. Claypool lost the 2006 Democratic primary, and recently decided to sit out the upcoming election, an announcement that Preckwinkle says led to a lot of cheering in her office.

But at least one Claypool ally is not ready to anoint Preckwinkle - or any candidate - as the candidate of reform.

QUIGLEY: It’s either in your DNA or it isn’t. They have to show you the independent streak and their ability to implement that before to convince you that they’re for real.

Before his election to Congress earlier this year, Mike Quigley served on the county board.

QUIGLEY: Look, I’m not saying there’s no one in the race who can’t do the job well. All I’m saying is they haven’t stepped up and talked about the details we tried to address for ten years at the county, and specifically discuss the changes that are necessary. Cook County is a government designed for - you know - 1909, not 2009.

Quigley is not a Democratic Party committeeman, so he won’t be at the meeting Thursday at the Hotel Allegro in downtown Chicago. Behind closed doors, party officials will debate which - if any - candidate should get the full backing and resources of the machine. And - black, white, incumbent or reformer - no candidate’s going to turn that offer down.

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