Interview with Tom Tresser
I first met up with Tom Tresser when I went to my first Olympics town hall event in the summer. Tresser lead the citizen activist group, No Games Chicago. They opposed the bid, as most have probably figured out. Tresser represented No Games, and their position, in the forum. Here’s how I described Tresser’s best argument that night.
Tresser, on at least five occasions, referred to Daley by the moniker corrupt. No one
supporting the bid ever challenged this characterization. Instead, their defense was that the bid was a private non profit effort that is separate from the mayor’s office
The corruption in Chicago’s City Hall was the number one reason to oppose the Olympics coming to this city. While the Olympics aren’t going to be here, the corruption is a major reason, the corruption hasn’t gone away with it. In fact, it’s a part of daily political life in the city of Chicago, the County of Cook, and the state of Illinois in its entirety.
Tresser announced his candidacy for Cook County Board President back in October. With several scandals hanging over the head of Todd Stroger, the issue of corruption was going to be a major part of the campaign. It is, however, the central part of Tresser’s campaign. In fact, Tresser first made a name for himself, politically, here in Chicago fighting against privatization. Privatization and corruption are now mentioned in the same breath here in Chicago ever since the parking meter debacle. It was this debacle that gave all Chicagoans a first hand taste of the corrosive power of government privatization. Back in 2007, privatization was still being done at the margins. That was when the Chicago Park District tried to give away one of its parks to the private Latin High School. Tresser lead a group of citizen activists to stop this and he succeeded. He also got a first hand taste of Chicago corruption.
As such, I sat down with Tom Tresser this morning for a sweeping interview all about Cook County corruption, its roots, and what a politician dedicated to ending it could do. To understand how serious Tresser, who’s running under the Green Party ticket, takes corruption, you only needed to look at the table we had the interview on. On this table lay three manilla folders stuffed with paper work: folder 1) Chicago corruption folder two 2)Cook County corruption and folder 3) Illinois corruption.
I first asked Tresser how Chicago’s city hall machine is connected to the machine at the County level. Tresser first pointed out that John Stroger, the father of current Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, got his own political muscle when he supported then candidate Richard M. Daley for mayor over then Mayor Harold Washington in the mid 1980’s. That would have been something near scandalous then since both Stroger and Washington are African American and Daley is white. Second, Tresser pointed out that the most powerful Cook County Commissioner is John Daley, the brother of Richard M. Daley. Daley heads the finance committee on the Cook County Board. Through this chairmanship, John Daley is able to wield all sorts of power.
The connection between the Chicago machine and the machine of Cook County needs to be viewed through much of the levers of both its powers: patronage and contracts. Patronage refers to the cushy jobs that those in the machine get. Contracts are doled out by the billions and tens of billions by the city, county and state government in Chicago, Cook, and Springfield. So, if you’re a patronage worker, you can count on a cushy job not only with the city, but with the county if an opportunity arises. Furthermore, a business ally of Mayor Daley can not only count on the city getting them a sweetheart contract, but one with the county. As an example, Tresser showed me this article from the Sun Times earlier in the week.
A consulting firm headed by former Illinois Senate President Emil Jones Jr.’s stepson John Sterling has been paid more than $787,000 under a Cook County contract funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, despite failing to provide required weekly reports — for 21 months.
That’s the key finding of a Chicago Sun-Times and NBC5 News investigation of the contract for the troubled Project Shield program, a $40 million federal initiative born of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Sterling’s company, Synch-Solutions, was hired by Cook County in March 2008 to maintain quality assurance for the program, which aims to place enough video cameras in police cars and at stationary locations throughout the county to be able to provide a web of live video to a central command in case of disaster, attack or other emergency.
Emil Jones is the former President of the Illinois Senate. This story details how his step son got a sweetheart contract from the County and the step son’s, John Sterling, company appears to have done no work. Jones was a part of the state government in Springfield. Yet, he’s able to use his clout to give his stepson a sweetheart deal with the County government. That’s how all three operate because all three are littered with corruption.
The other reality is patronage. That’s the process by which machine activists, cronies if you will, get cushy jobs. Tresser told me that he volunteered for Dick Simpson’s campaign in the early 1990’s when he ran against Dan Rostonkowski for the U.S. Congress. Tresser visited a handful of polling stations as part of his volunteer work. At each station there were a handful of Rostonkowski “volunteers”. In fact, they weren’t volunteers at all. These were government workers be it from Chicago’s city hall or some County office that were out campaigning for Rostonkowski. So, county workers are often asked to help out the campaigns of the machine on any level of government. (Rostonkowski later went to prison on corruption charges)
To put the corruption on the county level into context, Tresser next opened up the minutes to the last Cook County Board meeting held on December 2nd. The major news out of this meeting was the roll back of sales tax increase. What was of interest to Tresser was found in the first fifteen minutes of the meeting. According to the minutes, there was an approval of settlements of no less than eleven different court cases against the county.
Five of these settlements had to do with Shakman suits. What are Shakman suits? They’re named after Michael Shakman. Shakman fought a vicious battle in the 1960’s to make sure that city hiring and firing wasn’t politically motivated. There was little explanation of the settlements in these five cases but we can assume that someone was passed over for a crony of the machine, they sued, and this is the settlement. The other six settlements were suit settled to injuries that were job related. In one case, an individual received $1000 for spilling coffee on himself. Because John Daley runs the Finance Committee, he has great power in authorizing these settlements. When Cook County Commissioners Tony Peraica and Bridget Gainor each asked for explanations of these settlements, they were quickly summarized in two minutes and the meeting moved on.
This too is symptomatic of Cook County. Because hiring is often done with patronage, Shakman suits are a part of political life. We can all assume that there’s exponentially more patronage hiring than there are suits to stop such hiring. So, if five were settled in this one meeting, we can all only imagine how much patronage hiring there is. In fact, just in the city of Chicago, the city settled $136 million worth of lawsuits last year.
What is the end result of having a series of patronage workers in the County government? Tresser showed me this report from the local Fox affiliate. (embed doesn’t work on all browsers so please go to the link if that’s the case)
In the report, one County worker was caught napping. Another roads supervisor was followed and for three hours the supervisor never actually stopped to inspect any of the highway workers he’s supposed to supervise. Who is the government worker caught napping? His name is Alex Moreno and his brother is Cook County Commissioner Joseph Mario Moreno. In fact, according to the report, there’s 137 employees of the highway department that are “pushing paper” in the downtown office.
Finally, there’s the issue of TIF’s, tax incremental financing. This is the method by which Mayor Daley especially is able to create a slush fund for his corruption. TIFs were originally meant for development in low and moderate income areas, but Daley has put in such places as the posh South Loop area of the city. They’re now simply a means of securing financing for contracts for friends of Daley and hide the money well.
So, that’s how the corrupt city, county and state governments function, in a nutshell. How does Tresser propose to fix things? He would start with a forensic audit of the entire county government to see where each and every penny is going. That’s the only way to root out each and every corrupt contract. Next, Tresser would order a desk audit. By this he means that he would order a review of all the employees of the Cook County government. He would start with the top level managers, those making six figures. In the second year, he would look at the middle managers and in the third year he’d look at the “line employees”, the plumbers, construction workers, and contractors. Only with such an audit, in Tresser’s estimation, can the government root out the cronies, waste, and inefficiencies in hiring. The cronies would be replaced, the fut cut, and the inefficiencies combined. That’s a process that would take up to three years.
From there, the County government would look at strategic planning for the future. Once the waste and corruption were rooted out, Tresser would look to set goals for the government so that it’s again functioning on behalf of the people. He would implement simple things like a suggestion box and the so called secret shopper. The secret shopper is used by business who send in spies to check out their retailers to see how the staff provides service. Tresser would do the same thing only these “secret shoppers” would attempt to get property tax information, stamps, and other county related services. Tresser would also beef up the Inspector General’s office and give that office more support. Tresser would also use the so called power of the purse to lean on other departments of the county government. For instance, Democratic nominee for Cook County Board President Dorothy Brown is currently the Clerk of the Circuit Court. The Cook County Board President can’t force the Clerk to do a similar audit of their department, but the President can withhold funds from any other lever of the county government that they believe isn’t functioning properly. That’s what Tresser told me he intends to do.
Finally, I asked him what an honest and truly anti corruption crusader Cook County Board President could do to disrupt the power of the Chicago machine. Tresser said that there would be no more sweetheart contracts to Daley’s friends. Furthermore, Daley wouldn’t have the county workers to count on to do campaign work. Not only would this starve the Daley machine of its power to line their friends pockets, but this could open up much of city hall to challenges from insurgent candidates. Furthermore, if Daley is no longer to be counted on to deliver the votes to an ally, his own power diminishes.
We talked about some of Tresser’s potential opponents in the general election. We didn’t speak about Stroger since Stroger’s reputation preceeds him. Dorothy Brown is the current leader in the Democratic primary polling. Brown has made a name for herself in opposing Stroger, but in Tresser’s view, she’s still a part of the machine. She’s had her own taints of corruption. Another individual making a name for themselves is Toni Preckwinkle. Preckwinkle has made a name for herself taking on Daley in the City Council. Tresser pointed out that Preckwinkle supported the Olympics after first opposing it. Furthermore, Tresser said that he knows of no TIF that Preckwinkle has opposed.
The candidate that Tresser thinks will come out of the Democratic primary is Terry O’Brien. O’Brien is currently head of Chicago’s Water Reclamation District. He also runs a private consulting on environmental issues. Here’s how Andy Shaw of the Better Government Association explained this conflict of interest.
“It’s an outrageous conflict of interest and a dereliction of duty for the head of an agency responsible for ensuring that we have clean water to drink and play in, to work for a company that protects the polluters,” Mr. Shaw said. “It’s ‘dirty’ politics, literally and figuratively.”
O’Brien has promised to divest if he’s elected Cook County Board President but doesn’t see his dual role now as a conflict. Tresser scoffed at this notion. Tresser said he didn’t know any of the Republican candidates and didn’t give them much chance to win. Given the Republicans track record in Cook County, that’s assessment has historical backing.
Tresser ended the interview by pointing out the inherent conflict of interest of Cook County politicians taking money from PACs and corporations. (you can look each one up on ilcampaign.org) For instance, Todd Stroger received several thousand dollars from Ariel Capital LLC. How much, Tresser asked rhetorically, did Ariel receive in contracts from the county? Tresser pledged to take money only from individuals. This puts him at a decided disadvantage compared to the other candidates. He also pointed out that refusing to take corporate and PAC contributions is also a platform of the Green Party. In Tresser’s view, the only way to serve the people and not the special interests is not to take money from the special interests.
cross posted at The Provocateur