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Zerlina Smith-Members and Tara Stamps running for Cook County Commissioner

Zerlina Smith-Members (left) is challenging incumbent Cook County Commissioner Tara Stamps, who was appointed to fill the seat vacated by Mayor Brandon Johnson.

Manuel Martinez / WBEZ and Rich Hein / Chicago Sun-Times

CTU staffer fights to keep Chicago Mayor Johnson’s former seat on the Cook County Board

Cook County Board Commissioner Tara Stamps may have less money in her campaign coffers than her Democratic challenger, but she has some powerful support trying to help her keep her seat.

Stamps works for the Chicago Teachers Union, which helped fuel CTU organizer Brandon Johnson’s meteoric rise to become Chicago mayor last year. Stamps and Johnson go way back to their days at Jenner Elementary, where Stamps was the mayor’s mentor during his early years as a teacher.

Stamps also has the backing of County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who doubles as head of the Cook County Democratic Party.

Stamps’s Democratic challenger in the March 19 primary is Zerlina Smith-Members — a perennial candidate, victim advocate and political consultant. She alleges that because of the CTU’s support, Stamps could be beholden to the “new machine.”

Stamps called the allegation insulting and belittling.

“When people are deliberate and intentional and fight for their power, that somehow or another they become equated with something untoward,” Stamps said. “We fought for power. This city knows this because this city watched us take to the streets in thousands. The city watched us negotiate contracts in public. This city watched as public schools in Black communities were decimated. … We, as the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, say we demand more.”

Stamps was appointed to replace Johnson on the county board last summer after he was elected mayor. The 1st District she represents covers part of Chicago’s West Side stretching into the western suburbs, including Oak Park and Maywood. Stamps and Smith-Members are running in the March 19 primary to fill the remainder of Johnson’s term through 2026.

The 17-member, majority-Democratic Cook County Board oversees a roughly $9 billion budget that funds the county’s vast circuit court system, jail and public health system. The county has been the main health care provider for the thousands of migrants who have made their way to Chicago since August 2022, and recently Preckwinkle pledged to ask commissioners for another $70 million to help migrants.

Stamps and Smith-Members have a personal history. Stamps said she was a guest at Smith-Members’s wedding. Both live in the Austin neighborhood on the West Side. Smith-Members lost out to Stamps to fill Johnson’s seat last summer.

If elected, Smith-Members said she would advocate for the county to open a medical clinic in Michele Clark Academic Prep High School on the West Side and would boost the presence of law enforcement around the county. She said that could include hiring more officers and building better relationships with Chicago police.

Some of her ideas go against Preckwinkle’s key platforms. Smith-Members said she doesn’t support guaranteed income, which the county has heavily invested in for low-income residents. The idea is to help bring people out of poverty. Smith-Members said she doesn’t think the program is sustainable and that it should be available to everyone. During a recent county board meeting, Smith-Members said she opened her home to some migrants, hosting a family for about a week, but called on President Joe Biden to close the border.

“We have been compassionate to the migrants, but we have reached our limits,” Smith-Members told a packed county board room.

She named other groups of people who could use help, from taxpayers to victims of gun violence and the opioid crisis. She called for reparations for Black residents.

Stamps, who helps develop early-career teachers, said she is taking lessons learned from helping Johnson campaign for mayor and unsuccessfully running herself for Chicago alderperson. She is plugging into her organizing roots and being among commissioners who are more visible in the community, touting the county’s efforts.

As a West Sider, Stamps said she’s watched people lose their homes, and seniors pay $1,200 a month for rent. She said she’s interested in supporting legislation for a countywide program that could be similar to Bring Chicago Home if that effort is successful. That’s a Johnson-backed proposal that would raise a one-time tax when properties valued at more than $1 million are sold, and lower the tax when less expensive properties are sold. The city’s money would be used to fund homelessness prevention.

The Bring Chicago Home referendum is on the March 19 ballot, though a Cook County judge on Friday invalidated the measure. Judge Kathleen Burke sided with real estate and construction groups that sued to block the question from appearing on the ballot.

“It’s time that we started asking the rich to do their fair share. It’s past time,” Stamps said. “The idea of asking the rich to be accountable is scary to people. It just so happens that it could be scary, but that’s what courage is. I think this moment requires and calls for radical courage.”

Stamps said she also wants to work on more programming for incarcerated youth.

Smith-Members said she is against Bring Chicago Home because she wants more details on how the money generated would be spent.

Stamps had about $17,000 in her campaign fund available at the end of December, and some more has come in since then. Smith-Members is largely self-funding her campaign with $160,000 from herself, records show. She had about $145,000 in her fund at the end of December.

James Humay is also running, as a libertarian.

Kristen Schorsch covers public health and Cook County for WBEZ.

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