Chicago Clout Cook County Assessor Race Video with Russ Stewart
2010 "BATTLE OF TITANS": HOULIHAN VS. BERRIOS ANALYSIS & OPINION BY RUSS STEWART It's a prospective "Battle of Titans." It's the past versus the future. It's the 19th Ward Irish versus Chicago Hispanics. It's Hynes versus Madigan. And it's Round Three in the blood feud between Cook County Assessor Jim Houlihan and Board of Review Commissioner Joe Berrios. According to party sources, Berrios, who is also the county Democratic chairman, 31st Ward Democratic committeeman, and arguably the most powerful Hispanic in Chicago politics, is seriously contemplating a primary challenge to Houlihan in 2010. Houlihan is a protégé of Tom Hynes, the former assessor and 19th Ward boss. Berrios is a close ally of Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, the state Democratic chairman and 13th Ward committeeman. Both Hynes and Madigan are working assiduously to elevate their legacies - state Comptroller Dan Hynes and state Attorney General Lisa Madigan - to higher office in 2010 The Board of Review, formerly known as the Board of Tax Appeals, is empowered to consider complaints from commercial and residential property owners contesting assessed valuations, which are set by the assessor's office. Three commissioners are elected, each from a district encompassing a third of Cook County: Berrios from the Northwest Side 2nd District, Larry Rogers from the black-majority South Side 3rd District, and Brendan Houlihan from the suburban 1st District. All are Democrats. Round One, in 2006, went to the assessor, who stealthily backed Democrat Brendan Houlihan (no relation) against Republican incumbent Maureen Murphy, who was Berrios' ally on the Board. With Murphy's vote, Berrios was chairman, controlled hiring, and set the agenda. In an upset, Murphy lost by 14,076 votes (51.4 percent), in a turnout of 476,378. Brendan Houlihan then promptly allied himself with Rogers, ousting Berrios as chairman and demoting his staff. Round Two, in 2008, went to Berrios, who was challenged in the primary by Jay Paul Deratany, a liberal Lakefront lawyer who blasted county "corruption," tied Berrios to Todd Stroger, and tried to piggyback on the Barack Obama wave. Berrios, with huge margins in the Hispanic wards, triumphed by 153,053-107,889 (58.6 percent). The assessor donated $305,000 to Deratany's campaign, which spent $861,938. To defend his job, Berrios spent $226,312. Round Three is the 2010 primary. According to recent financial disclosures, Houlihan has $545,168 in his campaign fund, and Berrios has $735,233 in FOUR accounts. Since Berrios was re-elected to a four-year term in 2008, he is now in a win-win-win situation: He has the money, he doesn't have to give up his Board post, and he will burst onto the citywide scene, emerging as the Great Hispanic Hope. Plus, with Madigan's backing, Berrios will get s share of the Southwest Side white vote. If Berrios loses, he will be well-positioned for a future city or county race, having eclipsed his Hispanic rivals, U.S. Representative Luis Gutierrez (D-4) and city clerk Miguel del Valle, in visibility; if he wins, he'll be able to raise $1 million-plus, and could be mayor. There is a possibility that Houlihan could opt to run for Cook County Board president, which would clear a path for Berrios. But that seems unlikely, now that County Commissioner Forrest Claypool and Clerk of Circuit Court Dorothy Brown have emerged as the principal contenders for Todd Stroger's job. Should Houlihan enter the fray, he would fracture the white vote and insure Brown's nomination. Only in a four-way race - Claypool-Houlihan-Brown-Stroger - would the assessor have a chance. If voters want "change" in 2010, they will elect an outsider like Claypool or Brown, not an obscure insider like Houlihan. The assessor's task is to assign a market value to the county's 1.8 million parcels, calculate the assessed valuation, factor in spending by local government units, and then issue bi-annual tax bills. The office yearly reassesses 600,000 parcels, based on appraisals and sales. But the critical function -- which is why the assessor is known as the Democratic Machine's "breadbasket" - is to internally handle appeals after notices of proposed assessed valuations are mailed in early January. Then, commercial and industrial property owners engage their clout-heavy lawyers, submit a contrary appraisal, and get their assessed valuation slashed, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars. And, thereafter, they and their attorneys make the appropriate contribution. Since the assessor's office was created in 1932, only six men have held the job, the most enduring being John Clark (1934-54), P.J. Cullerton (1958-74), and Hynes (1978-97). In 1974, enmeshed in scandal, Cullerton, from the Northwest Side 38th Ward, successfully passed the office on to his protégé, Tom Tully, who withstood a vigorous challenge from Ed Vrdolyak. But Tully retired after just one term, and Hynes, then the Illinois Senate president, with unified South Side support, mustered enough votes to edge Northwest Sider Ted Lechowicz at slatemaking. "There's no way the 19th Ward will ever give up that job" of assessor, said one Democratic politician, who noted that Tom Dart, the county sheriff, comes from that ward, as did former Sheriff (1990-2006) Mike Sheahan. "It's all about Danny," added the politician, referring to Dan Hynes. Controlling the assessor's job, he said, enables Hynes' ward organization to raise money, and the sheriff's job enables them to field precinct workers. "They'll hang on" to those posts "until Danny is governor or senator." Tom Hynes, it should be remembered, was one of the few Chicago committeemen to back Rich Daley for mayor in 1983. They served in the state senate together, and are ancient allies. The mayor will surely intervene to save Houlihan, as he did in 1998, when he pressured Alderman Bill Banks (36th) not to mount a primary challenge. But some Democratic insiders think that Madigan is simply using a Berrios candidacy as a bargaining chip to insure Tom Hynes' support of Lisa Madigan for governor. In other words, Houlihan gets a free pass, Tom backs Lisa, and Mike supports Dan for attorney general. But the opposite may be true: Berrios would energize Hispanic voters, spur a huge turnout, run in tandem with Lisa on a "change" platform, and make Hynes focus his money and workers on salvaging Houlihan and Dan Hynes, ignoring the governor's race. * Houlihan, age 66, born in the 19th Ward, has had a curious odyssey in Chicago politics since the 1970s: He was an independent-minded Lakefront state representative, but lost his seat in the 1978 primary. He was an aide to Mayor Harold Washington. And he then returned to his far Southwest Side 19th Ward roots, and became deputy assessor in Tom Hynes' office. When Hynes resigned in March 1997, the county board, at Hynes' behest, chose Houlihan as his replacement. Houlihan's advocacy of property tax caps, which limit residential assessment increases to seven percent a year for three years, reached fruition in 2004, when it passed the legislature. It ranks as his major accomplishment. But it is now being phased out, and Houlihan is searching for alternatives to future hikes, such as raiding "excess" TIF funds or using a portion of the one percent sales tax hike to establish a "tax relief" fund to subsidize distressed owners. But real estate, since 2006, has decreased in value, not increased. And voters, already besieged by increases in the county sales tax and possibly the state income tax, are not going to tolerate paying higher property taxes when their homes' value is plummeting. Only one-third of the county is reassessed annually, which means owners will be taxed on 2007 and 2008 values through 2010 and 2011. And, since home sales have diminished to a trickle, there is scant evidence to support a lessened value. Last month, Houlihan promised that he would lower suburban property tax assessments by 4-15 percent, effective in 2010. The second installment of the 2008 property tax bills will be mailed in September and due in October. Expect substantial increases. Anticipate a palpable uproar. Envision a plethora of finger-pointing and scapegoating, as politicians try to pin the blame elsewhere. And, unless Houlihan has a plan or program in place to reduce property taxes commensurate with reduced property values, he is a tempting scapegoat. But much depends on how Berrios, age 57, packages himself. The Board of Review has the power to arbitrarily cut assessed commercial valuations, based on such criterion as vacancies, business losses, or obsolescence. Berrios raises his money from the businesses and their lawyers who appear before him. It's not pay-to-play; it's play-first-and-then-pay - just like Houlihan. To term Berrios a "reformer" is like calling George Bush loveable. If Berrios wins, it just means the 19th Ward boss is out, and the Hispanic boss is in. Berrios does not want to change how the assessor's office works; he just wants to make it work for him. Voters are, however, gullible. Here's my prediction: The next assessor will be the guy who spends $2-3 million on media ads, sternly promising to "reduce" property taxes. E-mail Russ@russstewart.com or visit his website at www.russstewart.com.