Larry Suffredin, incumbent Cook County Commissioner for the 13th District, and challenger John Michael Keefe squared off in a debate held on Jan. 10 by the League of Women Voters and the District 65/202 PTA Council. Among the topics were board governance, the Cook County budget and the likely repeal of a 1 percent sales tax increase approved by the Cook County Board in 2007. Mr. Suffredin, a long-time Evanston resident, cast the tie-breaking vote in favor of the tax. As part of that vote, he engineered the creation of an independent board to oversee Stroger Hospital, formerly Cook County Hospital.
Half of that sales tax increase has already been repealed, and both Mr. Suffredin and Mr. Keefe said they favored repealing the remaining ½ percent sales tax.
Mr. Keefe repeatedly praised the independent board that oversees Stroger Hospital, but criticized Mr. Suffredin for having voted for the sales tax increase, saying the tax had harmed businesses on the edge of Cook County. Mr. Suffredin cited a DePaul University study that shows that businesses in the core of Cook County held their own. “There has always been a sales-tax differential,” he said.
Mr. Keefe also criticized Mr. Suffredin for continuing to be a lobbyist while a member of the Cook County Board. Mr. Suffredin said he did not believe there is a conflict of interest in his holding both positions.
“I’m a lawyer; I have no ARDC [disciplinary] complaints. There is no conflict,” he said. He then asked why Mr. Keefe’s ethics statement was blank.
“It is blank because I have no conflicts of interest,” Mr. Keefe said.
Mr. Suffredin said he was one of three independents on the County Board, along with Forrest Claypool and Mike Quigley, working for reform.
To attract businesses to Cook County, Mr. Suffredin said, he would “put together a task force that deals with municipalities,” since the county does not have its own economic development plan.
Mr. Keefe said he would “listen to businesses. … Cook County has a hostile business environment – 367,000 jobs left Illinois in the last decade.”
Asked to recommend three improvements to county operations, each candidate said he would repeal the remainder of the income tax increase. Mr. Suffredin said he would support an independent audit of all Cook County departments, an ethics ordinance and an ordinance that banned “source of income” discrimination. He said it is discriminatory for a landlord to refuse to rent to people with housing certificates (formerly called Section 8 vouchers).
Mr. Keefe said he would “make the independent health board permanent and have a remap of the Cook County Board.” He also said he would “cut waste” and try to get the county to apply for federal grants. The county has not done this, he said, because the books are in disarray and county officials have been unwilling to have the books audited, a requirement for some grants.
“Cook County is at a crossroads,” Mr. Keefe said in his closing statement. “We need lower taxes, economic growth and a cleaner environment – we need to be lean, green and clean.”
Mr. Suffredin said the election “should be a referendum on my effectiveness as Commissioner.” He said he had helped create “non-taxing funding mechanisms” in several areas such as the mental health court, the drug court, children’s advocacy centers, foreclosure prevention and outreach and sex-abuse services for victims. He also said he, Mr. Quigley and Mr. Claypool have changed the culture on
the County Board.
“The change that you need will only happen if you elect competent commissioners. You need someone who has a passion for this government and is willing to challenge both Republicans and Democrats.”