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Stroger, O’Brien on the Defensive at Forum as Cook County Board President Candidates Debate

With the primary less than a month away, the Cook County Board president race is heating up, and the hot button issue of sales tax remains at the forefront. On Saturday, the four Democratic candidates were at each others’ throats in a sometimes contentious forum held at Columbia College Chicago.

After each candidate presented their resume and qualifications to guests in attendance and a live radio audience, the debate quickly shifted to the dominant issue of sales tax. Candidates spent over half of the allotted 90-minute time frame on the issue, with the three challengers attacking incumbent Cook County Board President Todd Stroger’s penny-on-the-dollar sales tax hike.

Stroger has defended the tax hike since it was approved in February 2008. He said the tax is necessary to accommodate a budget that hasn’t been increased since he took office three years ago.

“The sales tax increase is only one cent on the dollar in the county,” Stroger said. “This helps pay for what this county needs: safety and health care.”

South Side Ald. Toni Preckwinkle (4th) said she would repeal the tax within four years, but when asked after the debate how she would continue to pay for the three hospitals and 14 clinics in Cook County, she didn’t provide specifics in her answer.

“The county needs to look at how it can get non-county resources to do the things we are going to do anyway, like provide health care,” she said. “So there is a combination of looking for additional resources and then trying to figure out how you can reasonably cut waste and consolidate services and programs and offices.”

Terrence O’Brien, president of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, who spent much of the debate under attack by Preckwinkle and Stroger, said he would repeal the tax immediately if elected.

“If you wait four years to repeal the tax, you will become dependent and will never repeal the tax,” he said. “I have said from day one that I will repeal the tax immediately. The economy is in horrendous shape in Cook County, and this tax is driving businesses and consumers away.”

O’Brien said that retail sales are down 14 percent in Cook County because of the regressive tax, and we “have to roll it back.”

Stroger continued to defend the tax and said, “Retail sales are down across the country, this is not just a problem in Cook County, it is a problem everywhere.”

Dorothy Brown also said she would repeal the tax, but remained quiet for much of the debate as she couldn’t get a word in edgewise and rarely continued an argument after being interrupted.

“I brought $260 million new dollars in revenue without raising taxes,” Brown said. “I am going to raise revenue in the county without raising taxes. I believe in new ideas, not new taxes.”

But Brown, clerk of the Circuit Court of Cook County, like Preckwinkle and O’Brien, failed to list specifically how she would make up for the deficit that the tax rollback would create in the county, Stroger said.

And it was Stroger who spent much of the debate on the defensive, responding to attacks and addressing his concerns about the lack of support by Mayor Richard M. Daley and the negative portrayal of what he called the “bias media.”

“The mayor should say the county is running well,” Stroger said, saying that county finances are in good shape. “If you look at the history of politics when an incumbent has done what I have done, which is balance the budget and make sure the services are intact, they have always endorsed the candidate for re-election.”

Moderator Dick Kay then suggested to Stroger that Daley is not backing him because he pushed through the tax increase. Stroger’s response: Daley has significantly increased property taxes, something the county has not done for more than a decade.

But Stroger remained strong in defending the sales tax, saying it is vital to run Cook County.

“The sales tax is why we still have a health care system that has clinics across the county and three hospitals,” he said. “The one-cent-on-the-dollar tax is necessary to keep the health care system afloat, among many other programs like public safety.”

At one point, Preckwinkle defended Stroger by pointing out that the two of them, along with Brown, were full-time public servants, while she directly criticized O’Brien for being both the president of the water reclamation district and profiting from outside ventures.

“You make $80,000 a year to be chairman of the water district, plus you get a share of the profits and you are representing some of the biggest polluters in the state,” Preckwinkle said to O’Brien.

Providing programs to get non-violent criminals out of the jail systems and out of the taxpayers’ pockets was another issue that sparked tension between the candidates.

Preckwinkle said it is these types of programs that will reduce spending in the county and also rehabilitate and “give non-violent criminals an alternative to detention.”

“We need to take a look at non-violent offenders; these shouldn’t be programs for violent offenders. They should remain in jail, away from us,” she said. “We need to focus resources in dealing with them. Then we need to focus on putting non-violent offenders in a situation where they can turn their lives around.”

Brown and O’Brien both said they plan to look into diversion programs for non-violent offenders, as opposed to locking them up, but neither provided specific details as to what steps would be taken if elected.

Stroger said these “new ideas” and “tactics” for bettering Cook County have already been addressed and are in motion under his watchful eye as president.

“If you look at it, every alternative they are offering is something we have already done or have looked into,” he said. “All of the ideas I have heard here are ideas we have already put in place. We have made every change we could in three years, and I am ready to continue to make changes in the next four years.”

The event was sponsored by, along with WCPT-AM/FM, Chicago’s Progressive Talk Radio, Community Media Workshop, Columbia College Chicago Department of Journalism and Northwestern University Democrats.

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