PI Original Adam Doster Friday August 28th, 2009, 12:22pm

Live From Last Night's Cook County Board Prez Forum (UPDATED)

The Cook County Board President's race kicked off with a bang last
night on Chicago's West Side.  Hundreds jammed into an auditorium at
Malcom X College to watch four of the five Democratic nominees duke it
out in a forum sponsored by WVON Radio (Metropolitan Water ...

The Cook County Board President's race kicked off with a bang last night on Chicago's West Side.  Hundreds jammed into an auditorium at Malcom X College to watch four of the five Democratic nominees duke it out in a forum sponsored by WVON Radio (Metropolitan Water Reclamation District President Terry O’Brien did not attend).

The main draw was incumbent Todd Stroger, whose introduction earned a standing ovation from portions of the crowd. Slightly defensive throughout the proceedings, Stroger joked that his biggest opponents this election cycle are the city's two daily newspapers. "As Cook County Board President, I've had to fight, and it's been a tough fight," he said at the outset. "But I have been taught by the best ... and I learned what is important about county government."

What accomplishments will Stroger tout on the trail? He noted that his office has passed three "balanced budgets" in three years (although last year's version was riddled with errors and relied on fearmongering to drum up support) and has kept the county's hospitals open in this tough economic climate. He also passionately defended his sales tax hike, arguing that the additional revenue is necessary to keep government services intact. And then there is his record of expanding contracting and other job opportunities for people of color, which he said in deflecting allegations of rampant patronage from critics on the board. He told the mostly African-American crowd that all the reformers want" is "your job."

The three other candidates on the stage offered competing visions for how county government should run.

Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown warned that the county is in a "financial and mismanagement crisis" and that her executive experience and financial background (she's a certified public accountant) set her apart from the field. "We don't need people with training wheels to be on this job!" she exalted during her opening statement. "We need new ideas, not new taxes." She said she hopes to replicate many of the initiatives she started in her current office, such as creating a Small Business Administration to draw in commerce. She also stressed the importance of upgrading the admissions policy to streamline care at the county health system.

Seventh District Congressman Danny Davis agreed with Brown that people in the county "are just looking for honest and open government" and for people to put in "a day's work for a day's pay." He said his "human relations experience" will improve the acrimonious relationship the current president has held with the board and emphasized that his knowledge of health care is more extensive than his opponents. Because the county has not collected all of the federal grant and entitlement money it's eligible for, Davis argued his connections on Capitol Hill would be an asset. He wouldn't guarantee a sales tax rollback, but said it's something he would analyze.

Ald. Toni Preckwinkle (4th Ward) also used her introductory statement to draw a contrast between her work in the City Council and the maligned Stroger administration. "It's my conviction that government has two obligations: the first is to provide quality service and the second is to do that as effectively and efficiently as possible," she said, "and I believe that the county is falling down on both sides of the equation." Throughout the forum, she consistently answered questions first and provided the most specific (and often, the most progressive) solutions to the county's woes. She said the board president must: empower the independent governing board that runs the health system; implement electronic medical records and a system to review quarterly hospital budgets; ensure the county applies for and receives all available federal resources; and take a two-pronged approach to reducing the prison population by both expanding electronic home monitoring and diversion programs for folks leaving the system. Preckwinkle's substantive comments were generally met with polite applause from the otherwise raucous crowd.

The line of the night probably went to Stroger. At one point, Rep. Davis delivered a muddled justification for why he is collecting petitions for both county board president and reelection to the House, citing the 1987 dispute over Harold Washington's successor. In response, Stroger endorsed his challenger -- for Congress, that is. "Danny Davis has been a champion for the county health system ... now that he is on the Ways and Means Committee, I think he can do even more for the county."

UPDATE (4:15 p.m.): Check out Carl Nyberg's dispatch from the event as well.

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