If you’re a news reporter in Chicago, you get used to “the map.” Whether it’s unemployment, evictions, crime, police brutality, school closures, food deserts, or public health, the map looks the same. Sad and unjust things happen at higher rates in poor, black neighborhoods on the South and West Sides. The map shows that half of black census tracts are highly impoverished, compared with two percent of white areas; that nine in ten black and Latinx students attend schools with predominantly low-income peers; that people in West Garfield Park have a life expectancy sixteen years shorter than residents of the downtown Loop. 1 Many people are outraged by these facts, but almost no one is surprised. When the map shows up so often, in so many guises, you start to internalize its logic, and you become inured to the inequality it describes. 2
When the map shows up so often, in so many guises, you start to internalize its logic, and you become inured to the inequality it describes.
Here I want to trace a different sort of geography. Not where are the problems? But where are the people with the power and incentive to fix them? Experience says we shouldn’t look to Chicago’s elected officials. For most of the last century the mayor and aldermen were gatekeepers in a corrupt patronage system — the machine — which kept the schools and housing segregated and the wards racially divided. 3 The machine may not have the pull it used to, but the aldermen have no interest in redrawing that map. We can’t trust the institutions run by the mayor’s appointees, either. The Chicago Housing Authority’s “fix” for dilapidated public housing was to demolish 18,000 apartments and displace thousands of families, while building a seemingly indefinite waiting list for vouchers; Chicago Public Schools responded to declining enrollment in black neighborhoods by closing campuses rather than directing resources to the students who need them most; and the Chicago Police Department has an abysmal record of solving crimes and a long history of racial discrimination and brutality. 4
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When a city’s public systems fail — when communities lose housing, schools, jobs, healthcare, and safe streets — a rift opens in the social fabric and people go into freefall. They sometimes land in the vicinity of Ogden and Damen Avenues, on Chicago’s Near West Side. Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin calls this area the “Bermuda Triangle” — a frank admission that some people will never make it out. At one corner is Stroger Hospital, a county facility which has the busiest emergency room in the Midwest. Chicago had more than 3,500 gunshot victims last year, and about 30 percent ended up at Stroger. The trauma center receives so many patients, with so many complex injuries, that Navy medics train here before entering combat. In fact, Stroger’s trauma surgeons have gotten so good they may be responsible for the city’s decline in homicides. 5
But, as Suffredin observes, not everyone survives. The dead are moved a couple blocks west to the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office. It’s a squat, beige, brutalist building, redeemed by an atrium skylight that casts an otherworldly glow on leafy tropical plants whose vitality is strangely comforting. Last year, for the first time, accidental deaths — mostly overdoses — surpassed deaths from natural causes among cases handled by the office. 6 The security guard plays the role of bereavement counselor, directing grief-stricken families to brochures with helpful resources.
At the third corner of this triangle is the Cook County Juvenile Center, which looks like a five-story crate, its plain white façade broken up by rows of horizontal windows. Behind those windows, on any given day, more than 200 children await trial, sentencing, or transfer to prison. Adults are held a couple miles down the road, in the nation’s largest single-site jail. The juvie building doubles as a muster point for deputy sheriffs who head out every morning in teams to evict a couple dozen families from their homes. 7
County officials don’t make decisions about Chicago’s housing, schools, or police; but they are the ones who enforce the evictions, process the criminal cases, and count the dead bodies.
It all ends up here somehow. The hospital, the morgue, the courts and jails: public buildings in the middle of Chicago but — here’s the crucial point — operated by the county. “Anything that other governments fail on, we’re expected to pick up,” Suffredin says. To understand the geography of inequality, then, you have to peel apart the jurisdictional layers. Look past the flashiness of Chicago politics and get to know Cook County government. It’s not boring! This is the second largest county in the nation. About half of its five million people live within Chicago city limits, the rest in suburbs that range from fabulously wealthy to virtually bankrupt. The county’s $5.2 billion budget is two-thirds the size of Chicago’s, and most of those funds are spent on public health and law enforcement. 8 That’s a tough mandate. County officials don’t make decisions about Chicago housing or schools, and they have no formal control over city police, but they are the ones who have to enforce the evictions and process the criminal cases and count the dead bodies.
Chicago’s a union town. The voters here are relatively liberal — they like to say they’re progressive, even — and they support a strong social safety net. 9 But the power to address inequality through public spending is undercut by obscure laws that force the county to pass a balanced budget while limiting its revenue. This is a huge problem that no one has found a way to deal with. In the decade since the last recession, the county has repeatedly faced annual budget shortfalls in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Every year brings more cuts to staff and services. That’s not just a “structurally unsound” tax system, as the think tanks like to say; it’s a crisis. 10 Yet despite those fiscal handcuffs — because of them, even — Cook County has become one of the best places in the nation for thinking creatively about the role of government in people’s lives. Progressive reformers run several of the county agencies. Without the money (or the mandate) to build out social programs, they are trying to make public systems more fair and just with the tools they have at hand.
2418 W. Division St., West Town, Chicago
First let me take you to a cramped, windowless space on Chicago’s West Side, where five men wearing ankle bracelets arrive for group therapy at the Cook County Strength and Wellness Center. Established in 2016, this is an outpost of the sheriff’s office: three beige rooms with mismatched furniture and awkwardly hung amateur nature paintings, which the county rents from the city for $1. A small staff provides job counseling, medical checkups, and therapy to defendants on pre-trial house arrest.
On a gray morning in early spring, Tony Gardner is attending group for the first time. 11 Like most people in the program, he’s facing a low-level drug charge. A couple of years ago, the county jail was dangerously overcrowded with defendants like Gardner, held for months (sometimes years) without trial on minor charges, simply because they couldn’t afford bail. Now, thanks to community pressure for bond reform, more people are being placed on house arrest. On any given day, there are more than 2,000 defendants in the county’s electronic monitoring program. 12 Charles Thompson, a professional counselor, runs groups and meets one-on-one with a couple dozen of them at the tiny Strength and Wellness Center.
Gardner admits he was skeptical when he got the invitation, but he was going stir-crazy at home so he decided to give it a shot. “I’ve been debating cutting this off,” he says, pointing to the ankle monitor. “I can’t feed my family, I can’t get movement. I came really, really close.” He turns to Thompson. “And then you called me,” he says, which “was mind-blowing because at least I’m gonna get out the house.” 13
Thompson has worked in correctional institutions for more than two decades. He’s a big guy with a relaxed manner and an easy smile. Leaning back in his chair, with his free ankle on his knee, he affirms Gardner’s frustration with the monitor. “Probably not a person in this room hasn’t thought about cutting it off,” he says. He reminds the men that they can get help applying for schools or jobs, and if they are successful, they can petition for more freedom of movement. A few minutes later, the men pull up their pant legs to compare the size of their own monitors. Thompson shares a bit of trivia, that the technology originated on Colorado livestock ranches. “So we cattle basically,” Gardner says. Another man chimes in: “Nah, the jail just got too crowded.”
After cuts to the city’s mental health programs, getting arrested is one of the few ways people from Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods can access the therapy they need.
The conversation flows naturally over the course of two hours. Some guys talk a lot and veer into personal stories; others are silent the whole time. Periodically, Thompson interjects a few words to prompt reflection, but he is careful not to be judgmental or prescriptive. He wants the men to feel at ease here, to feel that the space is for them, so that they’ll open up. “A lot of these guys don’t ever find a place to comfortably talk about their trauma,” he says. Many have suffered or witnessed physical or sexual violence. After major cuts to the city’s mental health programs, getting arrested is one of the few ways people from Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods can access the therapy they need. 14
One experience they all have in common is being harassed by police. “Everybody a gangbanger to them!” protests one of the younger men in the room. The oldest guy, a black man in his forties, says the police slapped him with a gang label decades ago, and he still can’t shake it off. Thompson, who is also black, builds solidarity by sharing his own experience; as a teenager, he was photographed and entered in a “gang book” by police in a nearby suburb. 15 But he is careful not to encourage fatalism. “There isn’t a person in this room that when I called you didn’t say ‘the system is fucked up,’” he says. “The huge thing is changing what you can control.”
Around noon, the conversation is broken up by the arrival of a familiar face, a man who likes to come to group even though he’s no longer on house arrest. He’s just finished a shift at the city’s animal shelter, where he works six days a week for $12 an hour. Some of the guys want to know more about the job. “All you’re doing is cleaning up after the dogs and feeding them,” he grins. “Simple.” He likes working the early shift and having the rest of the day to himself, but now he’s eyeing a better-paying job with the Chicago Transit Authority.
Thompson laments that it’s hard to get reliable information about job placement programs for people with criminal records. County staff don’t talk much about city programs, and the city doesn’t advertise that the waiting list for good jobs can be a thousand people long. The state has re-entry specialists that can hook up ex-offenders with federal bonds that function like insurance for employers, but few people know about it. 16 “You kind of wind up working through it blindly,” Thompson says, “researching a lot of things yourself.” He’s been around long enough to have a “personal rolodex” of resources he can share with clients — but if he leaves this job, that knowledge will go with him.
So even this small patch of safety net is fragile. The county’s two wellness centers are open only part-time, and the staff can reach just a small number of people cycling through the system. “From what we hear there’s going to be some more cuts” to the sheriff’s budget, Thompson confides. “I hope they don’t close the center down. Sometimes I get a sense we might not be here.”
1401 Maybrook Dr., Maywood, Illinois
For Sheriff Tom Dart, there’s a bigger agenda. When we meet, he’s keen to share stories about what he’s doing to help the “hollowed out” black communities in southern Cook County. He’s building a baseball field, he’s demolishing abandoned homes, he’s dealing with water management. His lawyers are helping small towns write their ordinances. More than two dozen of Cook County’s smaller municipalities are on the brink of financial ruin, with a tax base so thin that they’re underwater on their pension obligations; some can no longer afford basic public services. 17 Dart picks up their policing, naturally, but he also gets involved in economic development. Maybe it’s not in the sheriff’s job description, he says, but “if you’re going to address crime issues and not address the economics, then you’re a fool.”
Maybe it’s not in his job description, says the Sheriff. But ‘if you’re going to address crime issues and not address the economics, then you’re a fool.’
Dart is famous for talking like this. When he was elected in 2007, the Cook County Jail had been under federal monitoring for nearly four decades and had been sued repeatedly for violating inmates’ constitutional rights. Over the last ten years, the sheriff cleaned things up enough to end federal oversight (with help and pressure from other public officials and community groups). 18 Along the way, he’s cultivated a national reputation as a progressive reformer, a sort of anti-Joe Arpaio. When the foreclosure crisis hit, Dart refused to enforce evictions. He spoke out against the criminalization of mental illness, installed a psychologist as the head of the jail, and transformed an old boot camp into a mental health, job training, and education facility. He offered mental health screening to every defendant in central bond court, to help public defenders make a stronger case for their clients’ pre-trial release. His office gives out cell phones to seniors and naloxone to drug users, runs a prescription pill disposal program, and provides recycling services. And he’s always angling to do more. His “Justice Institute” collects data on judicial decisions and develops policy proposals, spinning off ideas for new programs. 19
It’s effective, but controversial. Some people see this work as a progressive interpretation of the sheriff’s mandate to uphold public safety. Others see it as inappropriate meddling in business that isn’t his. “I actually get pushback from the county board on a regular basis,” Dart says. He switches to a petulant whine, mimicking the commissioners: “‘Well, that’s not really your job.’ And I’m always like, ‘Well, who else will do it’?” At 55, he has spent almost his entire adult life in public office; he was a state legislator before he ran for sheriff. His demeanor is unexpectedly informal, and his rambling, unscripted speech is punctuated by sighs, eye rolling, and sarcastic asides. Instead of a tie, he accessorizes with colorful bracelets woven by his five kids. But he’s a shrewd political operator. Dart sidesteps perennial rumors that he’ll run for mayor with dad-speak: “If the last office I’ve ever held is this one, I’m a happy, happy camper.”
His biggest frustration is the lack of cooperation between the city and county. In his first term, Dart worked closely with the former Chicago mayor, Richard M. Daley. But Rahm Emanuel, he says, “never calls.” Dart’s still fuming about Chicago’s decision to shut down six of its twelve mental health clinics in 2012. 20 For years afterward, he kept a pie chart on the front page of his website showing the share of people in his custody who self-reported mental illness. It was usually at least a third of the jail population.
Dart also wishes the city would invest in more public and affordable housing. He echoes a belief you hear often in lower-income Chicago neighborhoods and in southern Cook County, that the demolition of the city’s housing projects, starting in 2000, sent thousands of poor people and their problems into communities that already had enough of their own. Which is partly true: under the Plan for Transformation, the CHA privatized much of the public housing supply. The number of households with vouchers doubled from 25,000 to 48,000, and those families overwhelmingly live in the poorest, most segregated neighborhoods. 21 Yet there’s not much evidence for the theory that the displacement of public housing residents is driving crime, or that it accounts for the exodus of poor families out of Chicago. Alden Loury, a journalist and demographer, says high unemployment in distressed communities and generally high housing costs are far more important causes of outmigration. 22
Like most county officials, Dart complains that his office is unduly burdened by the fallout of failed city policies. He’s tried to fill the gaps by creatively interpreting the sheriff’s role, but now he has to figure out a way to do it with less money. Last year his budget was slashed by $60 million — about a tenth of his operating funds — to help close the county’s deficit. As the jail population dropped to a 15-year low, commissioners argued that the sheriff’s staff should be downsized accordingly. 23 Dart says that’s backwards; that his office is being penalized for its successes. Just because bond reform led to fewer people in jail doesn’t mean the case for public safety is any smaller. Well-staffed jails are safer jails, and more people on electronic monitoring means a greater need for programs like the Strength and Wellness Center.
“What these folks on the county board did to me,” Dart says, “there was no thought, there was no plan — which is not unusual.” Then he decides that folks is too kind a word for the commissioners: “There was a constant refrain from some of these idiots on the county board: ‘With your population down, why isn’t your head count down?’”
4926 W. Cermak Rd., Cicero, Illinois
Last December, four of those county commissioners assembled before a cadre of reporters to celebrate their victory in a short-lived tax war — a story almost too silly to recount, except for its outsize effect on Cook County’s future. A year earlier, facing a $174 million budget shortfall, the county board had narrowly passed a penny-per-ounce tax on sweetened beverages, which was projected to close the gap and stabilize county finances for three years. Board President Toni Preckwinkle offered a dual rationale: “I make no apologies for this. I think it’s an effective way to raise revenues, and it has real good health consequences.” But public opinion quickly soured. First a lawsuit delayed implementation; then Big Soda teamed up with outraged consumers and aggrieved small business to lobby commissioners for repeal. Two months after the tax took effect, the board reversed itself and voted 15-2 to strike it down. 24
Lobbyists and politicians gathered to celebrate the soda tax repeal: ‘We’re gonna party like it’s 1933. It is the end of our own Prohibition!’
Which is how I ended up at a press conference at Supermercado La Chiquita, in the near-west suburb of Cicero, a few blocks from the Chicago city limits. Martin Sandoval, the owner of the small grocery chain, wore a striped rugby shirt and jeans as he spoke in front of a fully stocked shelf of soda, juices, and energy drinks. A sign taped to the podium read, “Cook County Open for Business.” He thanked the commissioners for repealing the tax, which he faulted for months of depressed sales. Then the politicians and lobbyists took over the mic.
“Today represents Independence Day,” declared county commissioner Richard Boykin, who was running for re-election in a district that spans impoverished areas of Chicago’s black West Side and middle-class suburbs north of Cicero. Boykin opposed the tax as a regressive measure that would hurt his constituents (and, not incidentally, the soda lobbyists who donated to his campaign). The “people,” he said, in a deliberate, somewhat pedantic tone, “rose up to defy taxation without representation.” He described the tax as an unfair burden on working families and small businesses. Then he proceeded to call out each lobby in turn: “I’m proud to stand with my colleagues, people in the restaurant industry, and the grocery industry, and the food industry, and say to the people: Happy Independence Day!”
Sam Toia, the head of the Illinois Restaurant Association, went for a different historical analogy. “Today we’re gonna party like it’s 1933,” he said. “It is the end of our own Prohibition!” He asked everyone in the audience to grab a sweetened beverage and raise it high. “Power to the people! Let’s toast the restaurants, retailers, vendors, and employees who spoke up and fought for their customers. Let’s toast to the eight commissioners who were with us since day one, and the seven others who listened to the people of Cook County and changed their vote.” Echoing the sign on the podium, he said, “Cook County indeed is open for business. Cheers!” Then, after a tepid response: “C’mon, let’s hear it, cheers!”
If the toast flopped, it may have been because the air was filled with reporters’ questions about the lost revenue. The tax repeal blew a $220 million hole in the budget, which Preckwinkle planned to fill by laying off 300 employees, eliminating 1,000 vacant positions (out of a 22,000-person workforce), and imposing mandatory furloughs across the agencies. She anticipated cuts to worthy programs like mortgage foreclosure mediation and drug school, which diverted people charged with narcotics possession out of the criminal justice system. 25
For his part, Boykin welcomed the fiscal austerity, which he said reflected “the success that we’ve had in criminal justice reform.” 26 But there was a circular logic to his claim. Just the day before this exuberant celebration of free soda refills, Chief Judge Timothy Evans had sued the county, claiming that layoffs in his office would make it hard to maintain the programs that kept people out of pre-trial detention. 27
As the presser fizzled out, I spoke directly with Boykin. “Anybody who suggests that you can’t shed folk in county government is not being honest,” he told me. Then he paused to cheese with the other commissioners and lobbyists — “let me just get in this picture” — before returning to his talking point. “You have to make sure that every person in county government is [performing] an essential function for the taxpayers,” he said. “Otherwise it just becomes a charity kind of situation.” Boykin favored privatization and outsourcing of county services. He even floated the idea of selling the hospital system’s $170 million outstanding debt for $20 or $30 million. That’s equivalent to less than two months of soda tax revenue, and it would mean aggressive debt collectors going after patients too poor to pay their medical bills. 28
As we parted ways, he gave me his card and a firm handshake, then asked in a low voice: “Did you like my Independence Day thing? Happy Independence Day?” He lost his bid for re-election a few months later.
Here’s a better question: How did this important debate about the role of government descend into farce? Why is the second most populous county in the United States so desperate for revenue that a penny-per-ounce, regressive soda tax is seen as a budgetary lifeline?
By not letting property taxes rise with inflation, the county has forfeited $5 billion in revenue over the last 22 years.
To answer that, you need to go back to 1994, when the county commissioners tied their own hands by capping property taxes. Back then, the county board had ten members elected at large from the city and seven from the suburbs. The suburban seats fell mostly to Republicans, but the city seats were essential to the Democratic machine — a convenient place to park former aldermen and ward bosses (white ones) who were no longer electable in districts that had changed demographically. (One of these seats was handed to the mayor’s brother, John Daley, who still occupies it today.) For the 1994 election, the lines were redrawn to create 17 single-member districts — a political reform designed to make the board more accountable. 29 Many of the commissioners had to actually campaign for their seats for the first time. So they spent that spring relentlessly pandering to voters in the freshly-drawn and fabulously gerrymandered districts. And just two weeks before the primary, they sweetened the deal by unanimously passing a property tax cap, which stated that the levy could never be raised by more than the rate of inflation. 30
It was, of course, incredibly popular. Property taxes were being cut all over the country, as the Reagan Revolution morphed into Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America. But here’s the crazy thing: even though this self-imposed cap allowed the county to collect an inflation-adjusted increase every year, the commissioners never took that so-called “natural growth” option. So the base levy today is the same as when the cap went into effect, back in the Clinton era. 31 As a result, the county has forfeited a cumulative $5 billion in property tax revenue over the last 22 years. If taxes had kept up with inflation all this time, property owners would have contributed an extra $400 million toward the 2017 budget, which would easily have plugged the hole, with money left over for new programs and better services. 32
What does this have to do with inequality? Well, by state law, local governments can’t collect income tax, so property taxes are the easiest way to raise progressive revenue. Yet because of the cap they make up a shrinking portion of Cook County’s budget — this year, less than 15 percent. 33 Primarily, the county raises revenue from consumption taxes, on everything from gas to groceries to gambling machines, and from fees and fines imposed by the many siloed agencies. 34 That tax structure hits lower-income people especially hard.
Since Preckwinkle was elected board president in the aftermath of the last recession, she’s been working around this problem. Remember — again, one of those wonky but incredibly consequential rules — the county legislators have to pass a balanced budget. In 2011, Preckwinkle had to close a $478 million shortfall, and nearly every year since then she’s had to close a gap of at least a hundred million dollars. Funds from the Affordable Care Act have helped shore up the hospitals and clinics, and the county saved money by outsourcing functions like janitorial services. 35 But the math has become increasingly challenging. The public workforce has already shrunk by 14 percent in Preckwinkle’s two terms, and county executives say it can’t easily get any smaller. That might seem like self-interested alarmism from bureaucrats who want to maintain a patronage army, but their claims look real to me. The courts have a dire shortage of interpreters; there aren’t enough clerks to hunt down vital documents; the prosecutor’s office has only five attorneys to examine hundreds of wrongful conviction claims; and the county’s property records are dilapidated. 36 Every year costs rise with inflation, but the property tax revenue is the same as it was a quarter century ago.
So that’s how Cook County ended up with a soda tax. And when that blew up, Preckwinkle said she had no choice but to make further cuts. I asked whether she’d consider dismantling the budgetary trap set back in 1994. She acknowledged that shifting the revenue stream toward property taxes would allow the county to “more fairly address the fiscal challenges that we face.” But she didn’t see any political will for it. “I need nine votes for that,” she said, “and last fall there were not nine votes for any revenue at all. So, who knows?” 37
Bureaucratic overlap takes an especially baroque form in Illinois, which has nearly 7,000 units of local government — more than any other state.
But here’s the stickiest part of this structural problem: Everyone thinks they are paying too much in property taxes anyway! News headlines constantly shout that Illinois property owners pay the highest taxes in the nation. What the voters don’t seem to realize is that hardly any of the money goes to Cook County — notwithstanding the county treasurer’s seal on their semi-annual tax bill.
So now we have to scratch again at those jurisdictional layers. Across the United States, local governments are entangled in a mess of conflicting municipalities and obscure special districts that can make it hard to deliver basic public services, let alone address inequality at a societal scale. The problem takes an especially baroque form in Illinois, which has nearly 7,000 units of local government — more than any other state. 38 And all those jurisdictions, from the 102 counties to the 21 mosquito abatement districts, rely heavily on property taxes. 39 Wherever you live in Cook County, you may be within grasp of a dozen or more taxing bodies. But chances are you don’t know anything about them, since the newspapers rarely cover special districts, and your particular constellation changes every time you move. Then there is the all-important divide between Cook County and the City of Chicago.
118 N. Clark St., The Loop, Chicago
One of the world’s strangest monuments to bureaucratic overlap is in downtown Chicago, where a stately, gray building with Corinthian columns rises to eleven stories on a full city block. Pierced on the ground floor by a Greek cross of vaulted hallways adorned with marble and brass, this is actually two buildings in one. Enter from LaSalle Street on the west side, and you’re in Chicago’s City Hall. You walk in past bas reliefs that illustrate key municipal functions: schools, recreation, parks, and water supply. Use the opposite entrance, on Clark Street, and you’re in the Cook County Building, where even the artwork is ambiguous. Elaborate representations of the county seal and figures depicting “labor on land” and “labor on water” suggest how hard it is to fathom what the county government really does. Past the golden elevator bays, you can find a small framed certificate: “Since 1853 the governments of Chicago and Cook County have shared three buildings on this site. The monumental, Classical Revival-style exterior of the present structure, which was designed to be a functional and efficient office building, symbolizes the strength, dignity, and vigor of the governmental functions it contains.” I have no doubt that most of the county’s five million residents would like to cross out the lofty words and replace them with “corruption, patronage, and politicking.”
A removable partition on the fifth floor separates City Hall from the County Building — like two lobes of one brain, belonging to the sentient machine of the Democratic party.
On the fifth floor, a removable partition separates the mayor’s office from the county board president’s suite. The architecture is appropriate because for generations, City Hall and the County Building functioned like two lobes of one brain, belonging to the sentient machine of the local Democratic party. Consolidated in the 1930s, the machine ran on political loyalty secured through the generous dispensations of a patronage network. 40 If you needed a job, a jail bond, or a Thanksgiving turkey, there was a guy from the Democratic party you could call. That guy — a precinct captain or committeeman or alderman from your ward — would expect the favor to be returned on election day. To keep its hold on power through the 20th century, the machine fiercely enforced segregation and made sure that the spoils of patronage went primarily to Chicago’s white communities. Black and brown leaders were allowed into politics and received some rewards, but only so long as they stuck to the play: keep the city’s wards racially homogenous and power consolidated within the party. And since counties were in charge of public health and criminal justice, the machine had to take over Cook County as well. There it thrived mostly out of sight, thanks to the byzantine executive structure and low profile of county government. While Chicago’s mayors have enjoyed national recognition, the second most powerful political figure in the area — the Cook County board president — is barely a local celebrity. When the current occupant of that office was spotted with Bill Clinton at the Democratic National Convention, Chicago Magazine cackled, “Noted Philanthropist, Saxophonist Scores Plum Seat Next to Toni Preckwinkle.” The joke was about her obscurity, but also her power. 41
With her blunt manner, sensible footwear, and total disinterest in personality games, Preckwinkle has been leading the county about as long as Emanuel has been mayor. A former high school history teacher and longtime alderwoman, she represented the 4th Ward when Barack Obama began dabbling in local politics, and she helped smooth his rise to political office. 42 As board president, she is the first county executive anyone can remember who has dared put the blame for Chicago’s inequities on city leaders. Early in her first term, she called out aggressive and discriminatory policing in a powerful speech: “Clearly, this mayor and this police chief have decided the way in which they are going to deal with the terrible violence that faces our community is just arrest everybody.” 43 All those arrests, you’ll recall, end up in the county court system, which means the county inherits (and perpetuates) the city’s racist dysfunction. West Garfield Park, for instance, has an incarceration rate 42 times higher than the white neighborhood with the highest incarceration rate. 44
Preckwinkle shepherds two public hospitals and 17 clinics, and she prepares the county budget, which means she’s at the center of the scrum as the county’s separately elected officials maneuver for the funds they need to keep their private fiefdoms running. 45 You’ve already met Sheriff Dart, who runs the jail, serves court orders, and provides policing in areas not covered by municipal departments. Soon I’ll introduce you to State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, whose office prosecutes criminal cases and represents the county in civil litigation. Then there are the fiefdoms that belong to the County Clerk, the Clerk of the Circuit Court, the Chief Judge, the Treasurer, and the Recorder of Deeds. 46 And finally, Cook County elects its own tax Assessor, who determines the taxable value of more than 1.8 million parcels across the county’s 1,635 square miles. If you’re starting to nod off, well, that suits the machine just fine! That way we can skip quickly past Joseph Berrios — who, until recently, was not just the tax assessor but the chair of the Cook County Democratic Party. (Spoiler: he’s been running a vastly unfair system which imposes substantially higher taxes on homeowners and businesses in poor neighborhoods.)
In the old days, when Berrios’s seat as party head was filled by Mayor Richard J. Daley (from 1953 to 1976), the city and county executives were all part of the same syndicate. The tax assessor played an especially crucial role in the “Crook County” machine, since his office could dole out tax breaks to wealthy donors. 47 Machine politics started to crack in 1983 with the election of Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor, who signed federal consent decrees that made it illegal to hire and fire workers based on political loyalty. 48 And in the 1990s, both the city and county budgets were gutted by industrial decline and anti-tax sentiment. Since officials were no longer able to deal out favors, the old political alliances fractured. Richard M. Daley, son of the original boss, reinvented the machine for a more corporate, developer-friendly era, and Emanuel has continued that legacy.
Since Preckwinkle took over the county government, many people have wanted her to challenge the mayor for his seat, and when Emanuel announced recently that he would not seek re-election, she quickly emerged as the leading contender to succeed him. For now, the mayor and the board president still share the fifth floor of that building downtown. Most of the time, the partition stays shut. 49
A House off Armitage Ave., Hermosa, Chicago
So … if you’ve been paying attention, you probably think the biggest problem in Cook County government is the property tax it doesn’t collect. The solution seems pretty straightforward, right? Raise the levy, tie it to inflation, call it a modest tax hike on the rich, put the money into social programs, inequality solved. We can wrap this article right here.
But not so fast. I haven’t told you about the property tax the county does collect.
Humberto Lozada is a homeowner in Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood whose tax bill comes with separate lines for public schools and parks, community colleges, libraries, the water reclamation district, and the forest preserve, in addition to the city and county governments. In 2016, it added up to more than $3,000 on a house he bought that year for $90,000. And since property taxes are due in two lump sums, they hit him harder than the incremental taxes deducted from his paycheck or added to his grocery bill.
The lawyer who helped Humberto Lozada buy his home said he could expect a $700 to $800 tax bill. Lozada was shocked when he found out the real sum was four times that.
At twenty years old, Lozada is not a typical homeowner. As a kid he was hit by a moving truck while crossing the street and fell into a coma for three months. His family filed a lawsuit, which settled for $220,000. Much of that went to legal and medical expenses, and the rest was put into a trust. When he came of age he had enough to pay cash for the small, two-bedroom house where he lives with his mother. Hermosa is a rough area, he says, but more affordable than Avondale and Logan Square, the nearby Latinx neighborhoods where they used to rent, which are now rapidly gentrifying.
Though he’s taken on adult responsibilities, Lozada still has a shy, boyish manner. He loves video games and animals, and he and his mom share the house with three cats and three dogs. After moving frequently as renters, they are grateful to finally have some stability, but the house has needed costly repairs: there were holes in the ceiling and walls, a drain pipe that needed replacing, a back door damaged when someone tried to break in. Lozada doesn’t pay rent or a mortgage, but now he worries about utility bills and property taxes. The lawyer who helped with the purchase said he could expect a $700 to $800 tax bill. Lozada was shocked when he found out the real sum was four times that.
He dropped out of high school in his junior year and works long hours at low-wage jobs to help his mom pay the bills. Until recently he rose at 4 a.m. to join a carpool to a suburban car parts manufacturer, where he sorted metal parts into boxes for distribution, for less than $9 an hour. “It’s kind of a dangerous job because it’s heavy stuff,” he told me. “They don’t give you gloves and you have to stick your hands into metal parts, and sometimes they’re sharp.” His mom works for a staffing company that sends her to pack meat into boxes in DuPage County. “It’s cold, like winter all year,” Lozada says. “She’s been coming home with pain. She has to pack meat and she stands all day, like me, ten to twelve hours standing up.” Since she works for a subcontractor, she doesn’t have the protection of a union. A few months ago, Lozada quit the factory job and now works in the deli at a grocery store closer to home, making $11.50 an hour.
When the next tax bill comes, he wants to be ready. Last year, he could afford to pay only a small bit at a time. He racked up 18 percent interest on the balance and tried to ignore the delinquency notices that arrived by mail. “It got to a point where I kept getting it every month,” Lozada recalls. “The envelope wasn’t white, it just said ‘URGENT.’ It was a stress for me.” He paid this year’s tax bills faster but still got hit with some interest on late payments.
The Cook County assessor’s office says the house is worth $152,000, about forty percent higher than the Redfin estimate. Lozada says that since he purchased his home two years ago, a new house was built on a vacant lot across the street, and a longtime owner down the block sold his bungalow, cashed out, and moved back to Puerto Rico. White people bought that place and immediately began remodeling. So you might assume that taxes are high because the neighborhood is gentrifying and property values are rising.
But here’s the real reason: it’s that outrageously corrupt scam by the tax assessor, Joseph Berrios. (Guess we should have been paying attention to that guy!) As detailed by the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica in a series of bombshell investigations, the longtime machine apparatchik supervised an office that has systematically undervalued commercial and residential properties in wealthy (white) neighborhoods and overvalued properties in poor (black and Latinx) communities. 50 Using formulas and calculations he refused to share publicly, Berrios shifted an unfair share of property taxes onto the people least able to pay it.
Using formulas and calculations he refused to share publicly, the County Assessor shifted an unfair share of property taxes onto the people least able to pay it.
The first round of investigative stories found that residential properties in the wealthy West Loop were assessed at 20 percent less than their true value, while homes in Lozada’s census tract were overvalued by 40 percent. 51 To make things worse, Berrios’s office was encouraging property owners to appeal their assessments — but the complex process is best navigated by a lawyer, so unsurprisingly the vast majority of appeals were granted to the same wealthy, white owners whose properties were already assessed too low. Under this scheme, Cook County had more property tax appeals than any other jurisdiction in the country (three times more than New York City, for example). 52 Berrios, meanwhile, was raking in campaign donations from property tax lawyers. 53 (A later investigation by the Sun-Times found that one of those lawyers, machine stalwart Ed Burke, helped Donald Trump get $14 million in property tax reductions on his downtown tower.) 54
These were not the first scandals to touch Berrios (who also runs a lobbying operation in the state legislature), but they were the ones to end his career as tax assessor. Preckwinkle stood by him, and Emanuel was quiet, but voters had seen enough. In March, the once-untouchable politician was defeated in a primary election by Fritz Kaegi, a financial manager whose campaign was largely self-funded. Berrios doesn’t formally leave office until December, but headlines like “Reasons to Fire Assessor Berrios,” “Democrats Strangely Mum on Berrios,” and “Joe Berrios’s Legacy Is Like a Trail Left by a Snail” have given way to “You, the Voter, Upset a Foul Cart of Corruption in the County Assessor’s Office” and “A Political Boss Goes Down.” 55
As Berrios heads out the door, his office is being sued by community groups who argue the racial disparities in the tax assessments are unconstitutional. They want the court to ensure that property taxes are not regressive or racially discriminatory by mandating new valuation methods, the public disclosure of assessment formulas and statistics, and independent monitoring of reforms. That won’t help owners like Lozada get back any taxes already paid. Joshua Karsh, a lead attorney for the community groups, said the lawsuit is about “system reform,” not tax clawbacks. 56
Though the assessor’s office is trying to get the lawsuit dismissed, observers speculate that if Kaegi wins the general election in November, he’ll settle with the community groups. He’s promised to make the exact reforms they are demanding. But then the hard work will begin: he’ll have to figure out how to transform the culture of the assessor’s office and motivate its 280 employees to fix the structural dysfunction. When I talked with Kaegi at his campaign quarters in May, he told me he wasn’t too concerned about property owners’ reaction to reforms. Paradoxically, he said, his strongest support came from areas where many owners had appealed and were underassessed as a result. Why would these apparently wealthier owners want to see their own rates go up? Kaegi thinks that people who have had personal experience with Berrios’s corrupt system — even benefiting from it — come away feeling “really dirty.” They say to themselves, “There are probably even dirtier things going on out there … and I don’t like that.”
Yet history offers a cautionary tale of how reform could go wrong. Back in the early 1970s, a strikingly similar scandal gripped the Cook County Assessor’s office, when the Citizens Action Program (a community organizing network founded by Saul Alinsky) revealed that commercial properties like steel mills, banks, and downtown office buildings were dramatically underassessed, thereby shifting the tax burden onto homeowners. And among homeowners, wealthy suburbanites on the North Shore were paying far less than working-class Chicagoans. Déjà vu, right? Nearly a dozen deputy assessors were indicted, and the head of the office abandoned his re-election campaign.
Remember the $3,000 in property taxes Lozada paid because his home has been overvalued? Just seven percent of that bill — less than $230 — went to county government.
Tracy Steffes, a historian at Brown University, said that when she learned about the Berrios scandal she “couldn’t believe how similar the discussion was to the stuff in the early ’70s.” 57 And she has a warning for Chicagoans. In that earlier scandal, the assessor’s office was forced to modernize and professionalize its practices at the same time as other forces were coalescing to drive up property taxes. Inflation was extremely high and home values skyrocketed, while local governments were pushing for larger levies to fund schools. When property owners in tony neighborhoods who had been paying less than their fair share for decades got their new tax bills, some saw annual increases as high as 63 percent. A couple hundred pissed-off homeowners in Evanston launched a tax revolt in 1977, taking out their rage on any government spending they could control. “Schools took a tremendous hit in the five years afterwards,” Steffes says. “There was a year or two where not a single school referendum passed in the Chicago metropolitan area.” California passed its Proposition 13 the next year, and the idea of a hard cap on property taxes gained nationwide momentum.
Inflation is lower today, and it’s possible the righting of the inequitable tax assessment system will go more smoothly this time around. But still, Cook County is full of wealthy homeowners and corporations who’ve been paying comparatively low property taxes and have the power to fight back if they don’t like the adjustments. Steffes advised tax reformers to be “clear about how and why things are being assessed the way they are. Some people will probably be disgruntled, but if they can be clear that no one is being discriminated against maybe it’ll help.” In response, Kaegi assured me that his entire campaign is premised on transparency. He thinks that public awareness is higher now, too. “People have seen the damage that system has done in a much more vivid way,” he said. If elected, he plans to immediately “amp up what we’re showing to people about how their assessments are being calculated.”
So, let’s say there’s no tax revolt. Imagine Kaegi is elected and successfully reforms the assessment system so that bringing in revenue for local government doesn’t simultaneously impoverish and hollow out the tax base. A great injustice has been righted. Now what? Well, we still have the problem that property taxes in Cook County have been frozen since the debut season of Friends. Which means we’re right back where we started this discussion, at Humberto Lozada’s kitchen table. Remember the $3,000 he paid in 2016 because his home has been overvalued? Almost all of it went to schools, parks, the city, and so forth. Just seven percent of that bill — less than $230 — went to county government, to fund the public hospitals, the courts and jails, and Dart’s economic development programs.
Since the soda tax fiasco, Preckwinkle has frequently said there’s no “appetite” for new taxes on the county board. When I asked Commissioner John Daley, chair of the finance committee, if that was a fair characterization of his colleagues’ mood, he confirmed. What about taking that inflationary “natural growth” on property taxes? “That’s something that could be looked at,” he said vaguely, “but I’ve always thought we should live within that amount.” He should know. As the son of one party boss and the brother of another, he has been on the county board ever since the cap was first passed.
So the only way forward seems to be more austerity. No one is mounting a campaign to sell a big tax hike to pay for better court services, a more humane jail, or efficient county record handling. Daley laid the blame at the feet of the eight elected county executives. None fought for the soda tax, he said, but they all were up in arms about the consequences of its repeal. “I believe the electeds who benefit from revenue should be able to support it,” Daley said. “You have an obligation to go out and explain your role and tell [the voters] what it means to your offices.”
69 W. Washington St., The Loop, Chicago
Sitting in a corner office with sweeping views of the Chicago skyline and Lake Michigan, Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx pauses to consider Daley’s challenge. It doesn’t take her long to write it off as political gamesmanship from a legislator who’s shrinking from his job — that is, figuring out how to finance the government we all need.
Foxx isn’t here to appease the machine. This week, Chicagoans will mark the fourth anniversary of October 20, 2014, the night when police officer Jason Van Dyke shot black teenager Laquan McDonald sixteen times — first as he was walking away holding a small folding knife, then as he lay dying on the ground. It took more than a year for Van Dyke to be charged with murder, after the release of a police dash-cam video that exposed a cover-up. In the wake of that scandal, voters ousted the state’s attorney who was slow to bring charges, and in her place they elected Foxx — Preckwinkle’s former chief of staff — who promised to crack down on police misconduct and roll back mass incarceration. 58 Earlier this month, Van Dyke was convicted of second-degree murder and sixteen counts of aggravated battery.
Ironically, budget cuts have made it easier to sell progressive reforms that decriminalize poverty.
In her time at Preckwinkle’s side, Foxx witnessed the perpetual budget crisis that constrains county government from solving the problems it helped create. She says that every year at budget time, people on Preckwinkle’s team wanted to consider taking the inflation on property taxes, but it was always a non-starter with the commissioners. One problem is that voters “don’t even know what part of the property tax bill comes from the county,” she complains. “The bills are still going up, but they don’t even realize that our piece of it hasn’t moved.” She says she paid $16,000 in property taxes on her home in south-suburban Flossmoor last year. “It absolutely pisses me off that, of all of that, it’s not funding the things here in the county to meet the need that we have.”
By now it should be evident that there will be no Marshall Plan formulated on the fifth floor of the County Building. There is no new New Deal or greater Great Society on the horizon. After all the drama, there will not even be a penny-ante soda tax. Though Foxx would support raising taxes on those who can afford it, she is focused on what she can do with the budget she has. “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” warned the activist Audre Lorde. But Foxx was elected to try to do just that.
Ironically, budget cuts have made it easier to sell progressive reforms that decriminalize poverty. In her first year, Foxx decided to stop prosecuting misdemeanor driver’s license suspensions for people who don’t pay traffic tickets and other municipal fines. “They can’t pay their tickets if they’re not working,” she tells me. “So we decided we’re not gonna do that anymore.” That freed up her staff to work on more serious crimes, rather than act as what she calls “glorified bill collectors” for cities whose racially discriminatory ticketing can drive poor people into financial ruin. (An investigation by ProPublica Illinois found that an astonishing seven percent of Chicago’s operating budget is financed by tickets, contributing to a personal bankruptcy rate that is highest in the nation.) 59 Foxx also raised the threshold for felony shoplifting from $300 to $1,000, and last year her office prosecuted 2,000 fewer cases of retail theft, a 68 percent annual decline in the county’s most common felony charge. 60 “These were clearly crimes of poverty,” she said, and aggressive prosecution only made a bad situation worse. “Once you’ve got that first conviction and your promise for gainful employment or housing is shot, there’s no incentive for you not to engage in this behavior.”
The county stopped prosecuting driver’s license suspensions for people with unpaid fines: ‘They can’t pay their tickets if they’re not working. So we decided we’re not gonna do that anymore.’
In defending these changes, Foxx doesn’t sound like an ideological reformer, but a pragmatist. “It started with limited resources and the rationalization of how we prioritize what we’re doing,” she says. Her office is the second largest in the country, staffed by more than 800 attorneys. They process some 33,000 felonies and 300,000 misdemeanors every year. Many cases get dismissed because the policework doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, or because by the time the trial begins, defendants who can’t afford bail have already spent more time in jail than any sentence they could receive. 61 Most defendants plead guilty to avoid that scenario, and Foxx says she hopes that will happen less as bail reform leads to fewer people incarcerated before trial.
She is also changing incentives for the people who run the criminal justice system. Under Foxx, convictions and trial wins no longer drive performance reviews. Attorneys who choose not to prosecute a case are held up as an example, “to reward sound judgement.” 62 Last year, she dropped prosecutions against 17 men who had spent years in prison because their convictions were tied to a ring of corrupt Chicago cops. 63 She wants to educate rank-and-file cops to avoid the petty drug possession cases and unconstitutional searches that clog up the courts. Some cops may be “uncomfortable” with the idea of letting people go, she says, but she backs up her argument by sharing statistics about all the cases that get dropped for lack of evidence or procedural problems. “We’re already letting these people go,” she tells them. “What have we accomplished by having the arrest?”
The grassroots groups who organized to get Foxx elected have pushed a range of criminal justice reforms — some even call for the outright abolition of prisons and police 64 — and they are keeping a close eye on her progress toward delivering on campaign promises. A recent watchdog report commended Foxx for releasing years of case-level data to the public and encouraging prosecutors to use their discretion in charging felonies. 65 Now reform groups want her to reestablish prosecutorial review of drug cases, which account for nearly half of all county felonies. They say revoking the police’s ability to directly charge drug-related felonies would limit the incarceration pipeline, but Foxx hasn’t committed to that step — she says her office can’t afford it.
Still, Foxx acknowledges that having the criminal justice system divided between city police and county courts produces high costs and bad outcomes: “When you don’t have to own the consequences of your policies, you get to shift down the road and then assign blame.” And those same dynamics extend to social services:
We don’t get to set how much money [city government is] going to give for mental health or trauma services. We don’t get to decide how you’re going to invest your education dollars in restorative justice programming. … What we then respond to is the person who’s in a mental health crisis and [the police] have nowhere to take them, so they take them either to the county hospital or to the Cook County Jail. When you have young people who don’t have those resources, and they wild out, they’re taking them to the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. We are the responders to failed systems.
Foxx is no prison abolitionist; she puts people in jail for a living. But compared to her acerbic, tough-on-crime, machine-connected predecessors, she is a vision of compassion. 66 She understands what desperation does to people, how good people can be driven to bad actions. On her desk she keeps a small chunk of concrete from the demolished Cabrini-Green public housing complex, a reminder that she grew up in the projects and later experienced homelessness when her mother lost her job and battled depression. Foxx also has spoken candidly about being molested by a teenage family member from the age of five and being raped by two older boys when she was seven. “I’ve been the victim of crime, and I know people who’ve been a victim of crime who have seen law enforcement as a force for good,” she tells me. But growing up in public housing, she also saw cops “as people who were feared.”
At last year’s budget hearings, she told commissioners that her office was near a “breaking point” and could not absorb additional cuts “without fundamentally changing the scope of the work that we currently perform.” 67 But, in a sense, changing that scope is part of her mission, and the low profile of county government is an advantage. Just as Dart has tried to redefine what it means to be a jailer, Foxx is trying to redefine the role of the prosecutor. She can do that even in a county government that is perpetually strapped for funding. “That obscurity allows for innovation,” she says. “You could try more things with less scrutiny and be able to test them out in ways that you couldn’t at the city or the state.”
It’s hard to get used to the idea that the movement to end inequality in America has advanced to the point that a big-city prosecutor and sheriff can find common ground with progressive activists. Kim Foxx and Tom Dart, and the hundreds of civil servants working alongside them, say they want the judicial system to treat everyone fairly, and they want to reverse the corrosive effects of mass incarceration on black and brown people, the poor, and people with mental illnesses. Their reforms are modest and their political motivations and ambitions unclear. And it’s fair to say that if we have a sheriff playing therapist because the mental health clinics are closed and a prosecutor abandoning racist policies because they happen to be too expensive, we haven’t addressed the real problems. Still, voters are seeing that county government can be an effective pressure point for social change.
The question that Chicagoans now face is the same all Americans confront. How do you do good work within a broken system?
Even as some corners of Cook County are bastions of efficiency and professionalism, others are riddled with corruption and mismanagement. 68 The low visibility of these positions is a source of power as well as vulnerability. The fact that it’s still relatively easy and inexpensive to get elected at the county level means that there is an avenue into government for ordinary people with progressive ideas (and not just special interests with bad intentions). The question that Chicagoans now face is the same all Americans confront. How do you do good work within a broken system? Democracy may be a rusty contraption, with some parts missing and others assembled upside down, but it turns out the keys were in the ignition this whole time. So how do we operate this thing?
In this strange political moment, when everything is up for grabs, I hesitate to make any predictions. Yet after holing up in the cozy chambers of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, sparring over the phone with the curmudgeonly Preckwinkle, listening to Dart hold forth about inmates’ mental health needs, and discussing with Foxx the latest bestsellers about how people in her position have exacerbated poverty and violence, I came away cautiously hopeful about the future of local government. For a news reporter in Chicago, that’s a rare feeling.