The result was resounding and, for many of us, deeply satisfying.
Challenger Fritz Kaegi trounced incumbent Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios in Tuesday’s primary by nearly 12 percentage points, 45.5 percent to 33.9 percent with 98 percent of precincts reporting. Kaegi and his fellow challenger Andrea Raila, both of whom ran pledging reform and transparency, combined to give Berrios such an emphatic heave-ho that it inspired both the Tribune and Sun-Times to begin post-election editorials with the same three congratulatory words to voters, “You did it.”
Berrios, the chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party was so entrenched four years ago that he didn’t even have a primary opponent. He was backed this year by the party establishment, including Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and House Speaker Michael Madigan, the sort of boost which, for a generally low-profile office like assessor, is almost always enough for an easy victory.
Kaegi’s victory was a thumb in the eye to that establishment — to the men and women who slate candidates, coordinate with interest groups, raise money, direct foot-soldiers and so on in order to limit your choices at the ballot box (did you notice how many candidates were running unopposed for re-election?) and maintain a firm hold on the levers of power. But it was not a knife to the heart.
Three unusual factors contributed to Berrios’ defeat.
One was that high property taxes had become a particularly prominent issue as the state’s budget crisis deepened and politicians argued about freezing or otherwise limiting them. Illinois has the second highest effective rate in the nation and even though assessors don’t set the rates or overall levies — they just estimate property values — they become a target of anger when the bills arrive.
Three, and most important, journalism happened.
In June 2017, an unprecedented analysis by the Tribune’s Jason Grotto with John Chase and David Kidwell found “that for years the county’s property tax system created an unequal burden on residents, handing huge financial breaks to homeowners who are well-off while punishing those who have the least, particularly people living in minority communities.”
The three-part investigatory series hammered Berrios for overseeing an opaque, inaccurate and outmoded process. Then in December 2017, Grotto, who had moved to ProPublica Illinois, led a joint follow-up investigation with the Tribune that found “commercial and industrial property assessments throughout Cook County (have been) so riddled with errors that they created deep inequities, punishing small businesses while cutting a break to owners of high-value properties and helping fuel a cottage industry of politically powerful tax attorneys.”
In mid-February, an independent analysis by the Civic Consulting Alliance that had been commissioned by the county after the first round of investigatory reports concluded that, indeed, just as the reporters had found, Berrios had been overseeing “a very regressive system” causing “a wealth transfer from owners of lower-value homes to those of higher-value homes.”
Editorial writers and columnists from across the political spectrum took turns administering the rhetorical lash.
Yes, party bigwigs remained formally behind Berrios, but their support seemed tepid. Preckwinkle, when challenged to defend Berrios, faintly praised him for getting the tax bills out on time. Anecdotal reports said local operatives were leaving Berrios off their palm cards or even actively plumping for Kaegi.
A perfect storm took out Berrios, not a sea change.
The Democratic establishment took a few other small hits in Tuesday’s primaries — veteran state Rep. Dan Burke, brother of Chicago Ald. Ed Burke, 14th, for example, was defeated by Aaron Ortiz in a Southwest Side district that is 68 percent Hispanic. Incumbent state Sen. Ira Silverstein of Chicago also lost, even though he received financial support from Senate President John Cullerton. But that was almost certainly because a special legislative inspector general found earlier this year that Silverstein’s extended flirtation with a victims’ rights advocate constituted conduct “unbecoming of a legislator.”
In the other big races, however, insiders and chosen ones did fine. J.B. Pritzker, the party’s anointed candidate for governor, scored a surprisingly lopsided 19 percentage point victory over second-place finisher state Sen. Daniel Biss; state Sen. Kwame Raoul, the party’s anointed candidate for attorney general, squeaked past former Gov. Pat Quinn and Preckwinkle cruised to a 21 percentage point victory over former Ald. Bob Fioretti.
Democratic voters were not so much in the mood to throw the bums out as they were to throw a bum out — Joe Berrios.
And yes, huzzah, they did it.
Just don’t look for them to make a habit of it.