MICHELE NORRIS, host:
On to Illinois now, where there's a big question hanging over Cook County. Who's running the government? Cook County is home to more than 5 million people. The county government there employs more than 25,000 workers and has a budget larger than 30 states. Its chief executive is up for reelection this year.
But as NPR's David Schaper reports, the leader of the Cook County Board, John Stroger, has not been seen or heard from publicly since he suffered a serious stroke back in March.
DAVID SCHAPER reporting:
John Stroger suffered a stroke March 14, just a week before a hotly contested primary election. His doctor said at the time that the 77-year-old, who also suffers from diabetes and underwent a quadruple bypass in 2001, would probably not be able to come back from the stroke and function normally. But Stroger's powerful campaign organization didn't skip a beat and the 12-year incumbent won the primary. In this overwhelmingly Democratic county, Stroger is almost a lock on reelection come November, if he can remain on the ballot.
But since March, Stroger's family and close political allies have said very little about his condition. They say things like, he's recuperating, making progress, he's alert and talking, but that no decision will be made about his future until July. News reports which the family would not confirm suggest Stroger is paralyzed on his left side and had needed a feeding tube.
A week ago, he was rushed back to the hospital. When cornered by reporters after a city council committee meeting this week, the board president's son, Chicago Alderman Todd Stroger, was no more revealing.
Mr. TODD STROGER (Chicago Alderman): I'm not making any more comments. There's new to say now. I think everyone knows when July comes, don't they?
Lack of information angered Stroger's critics, who call it Kremlin style secrecy and in a front to voters and tax and taxpayers. As one of the few Republicans on the county board, commissioner Tony Paraka has the office adjacent to the county buildings noisy air duct system. And he says, democratic machine political's are pulling the strings.
Mr. TONY PARAKA (Cook County Commissioner): What they are in fact doing is protecting their own political patronage and power. And, are using a very seriously ill man and his family to buy time to organize their political house.
SCHAPER: Paraka will appear on the November ballot opposite Stroger or whomever may replace him. And he's pushing for a vote next week on a resolution calling for a fitness hearing for Stroger. And the appointment of a interim Board President if Stroger isn't healthy enough to return to work. Some Democrats are also frustrated and say they will offer their own resolutions next week outlining a plan for succession.
Commissioner Mike Quigley, said this is a difficult time for county government to have such a glaring lack of leadership.
Mr. MIKE QUIGLEY (Cook County Commissioner): We're in a middle of difficult labor negotiations. County is in some serious financial situation. And, we're not doing anything about any of those actions, or anything else. So, I think it's a rudderless ship at a time when we really need help from the president's office.
SCHAPER: Even some of Stroger's board allies are breaking ranks and actively campaigning to succeed him. Commissioner Bobbie Steele held a news conference this week that had the look of feel of a political rally to offer her services if Stroger can't come back.
Ms. BOBBIE SEAL (Cook County Commissioner): The coalition group of citizens here today and many others are saying un-equivocally, beyond the shadow of a doubt that Bobbie Steele is the best man.
(Soundbite of cheers, clapping)
SCHAPER: Steele isn't the only one eager to take over. Stroger's son Todd proclaimed himself capable of succeeding his father, a move that roiled more veteran politicians who are also fiercely jockeying for the position.
Mr. DICK SIMPSON (University of Illinois): There is a power struggle going on.
SCHAPER: University of Illinois Chicago Political Scientist Dick Simpson says African-American leaders are split between Stroger's base on the south side and west siders like Steele, who, would like to gain control over the thousands of patronage jobs and millions in public contracts that the office controls.
Mr. SIMPSON: In many ways this is the last hurrah of old machine politics in Chicago.
SCHAPER: If Stroger steps down, Cook County Democratic Party would select his replacement on a November ballot. It's a process Dick Simpson says will likely be conducted in true Chicago fashion, out of public view in smoke filled back rooms.
David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.
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