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Assessor Candidate Lets Loose with TV Ads

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In Tuesday's primary, three veteran Democrats are vying to replace retiring Cook County Assessor James Houlihan. The assessor sets the value of real estate across the county, which helps determine how much each property owner gets taxed. We report on 11th-hour maneuvers in this low-profile but important race.

Ambi: Berrios fundraiser applause.

At a swanky bar on Chicago's Northwest Side, Joe Berrios makes his way to the mic.

BERRIOS: I just want to say thank you to each and every one of you for coming out and helping us in this campaign.

Berrios has had an easy time finding donors and ground troops for his run to become Cook County assessor. He's a longtime ward committeeman. And he chairs the county Democratic Party, which means a lot of help from the county's 79 other committeemen.

BERRIOS: I would say 90 percent of them are on board.

Berrios is also a former state lawmaker. He's a Springfield lobbyist whose clients include video-poker interests.

And, for more than two decades now, he's served on the county's Board of Review. That's a three-member appeals panel for property owners who think the assessor's office has overvalued their holdings. Berrios has gotten a lot of campaign support from some of the property owners' attorneys, including an old friend, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Despite all this, Berrios says he can't take Tuesday's primary for granted.

BERRIOS: My polling is telling me we got to get the message out. We've got to let people know what we stand for and what we need to do.

That's why Berrios says he's spending about $400,000 on TV ads this week.

The figure may be low. On the ABC affiliate WLS alone, Berrios has ordered more than $110,000 in ads over 11 days.

SHAW: TV is just one medium.

That's Robert Shaw, a former longtime Chicago alderman who's now inspector general of Dolton, a village just south of the city. Shaw doesn't have much of a campaign fund. But he's putting a lot of miles on his Mercury.

SHAW: I've spoken to over 230 churches since August.

Most are on Chicago's South Side or in nearby suburbs. Here's what Shaw is telling them.

SHAW: I'm the only African-American running for this position. And we're going to make some history by electing the first African American assessor of Cook County.

Shaw spoke Sunday at Logos Baptist Assembly. On the way to another church, Shaw says he got to know Berrios while serving six years with him on the Board of Review.

SHAW: He's tied too closely with the big law firms downtown, in particular Mike Madigan.

Shaw says Berrios stood by Madigan as the speaker stalled legislation to extend a 7 percent cap on homeowner assessments, a claim Berrios denies.

As Shaw hammers at Berrios on the South Side, the primary's other candidate is pounding away on the North Side. Ray Figueroa says he's spending a lot of time in lakeshore high rises.

And he's giving Berrios a run for Latino voters. Figueroa accepted Ald. Roberto Maldonado's endorsement this month in a Puerto Rican meeting hall.

FIGUEROA: We can ill afford to have the kinds of clouds that exist at the Board of Review hover over the assessor's office.

Figueroa served a term on the Chicago City Council then 12 years as a Cook County circuit judge.

He's tangled with Berrios for decades, including a few years in the 1980s, when city politics polarized. Figueroa backed Mayor Harold Washington while Berrios worked in the other camp.

FIGUEROA: Berrios's history has been one to knock anything out that has to do with independence. ‘Regular organization! Regular organization!' The kinds of dealings and shenanigans that they pull.

Figueroa doesn't have Berrios's connections or campaign dollars, but he's doing well in the newspapers. They're criticizing Berrios for using his Board of Review seat to raise campaign funds.

Berrios, for his part, doesn't see any conflict of interest.

BERRIOS: No one gets a break at the board unless they deserve it.
MITCHELL: Why, then, do these real-estate tax attorneys bother contributing to your campaign?
BERRIOS: Because they like to see people that are willing work hard and listen and be able to analyze the information that is put in front of them -- that someone in government runs an office that all people are treated fairly.

Among the Cook County assessor candidates, Berrios says he's got the best experience and the most know-how to protect homeowners. On Tuesday, he'll see if voters agree.

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