Three candidates for Cook County assessor sparred over campaign financing during a forum Wednesday in Chicago.
Republican Sharon Strobeck-Eckersall and independent Forrest Claypool, a Democratic Cook County commissioner, both attacked Democratic Board of Review Commissioner Joseph Berrios for accepting contributions from property-tax attorneys who argue appeals before the board.
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Strobeck-Eckersall called it "a definite conflict of interest, and Claypool said Berrios nurtured an "insider culture at the Board of Review.
"People can allege whatever they want to allege, Berrios responded. "Guess what? Joe Berrios has never been charged with anything.
"Mr. Berrios' standard of ethics is 'I haven't been indicted,' Claypool replied, later calling him "an unrepentant practitioner of pay-to-play politics.
Claypool also pointed to how Berrios, chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, lobbies on behalf of clients before House Speaker and state Democratic Party Chairman Michael Madigan, whose law firm in turn argues appeals before the Board of Review.
Berrios countered that Claypool had received a total of $600,000 from 50 high-end donors, including $150,000 from two persons, adding, "I don't think Rod Blagojevich got $150,000 from any individual. He turned it into a class issue, saying people don't have that sort of money to contribute in his Chicago community and adding, "I'm not controlled by the billionaires here in this county and this city.
"There's a difference between taking money from people who do business with you and have a vested interest in getting taxpayer money and influence your decision, Claypool said, "versus someone who has no interest in government and no contracts, doesn't practice before the office, and simply wants to level the playing field and provide good government.
Berrios planted an ordinance amendment at Tuesday's county board meeting sponsored by Chicago Democratic Commissioner Joseph Mario Moreno and aimed directly at Claypool, capping contributions at a maximum of $10,000, but it was soundly rejected, 12-4. Claypool voted against, prompting Berrios to call him "the complete definition of hypocrisy and say, "Apparently putting a cap on campaign contributions would cramp Forrest Claypool's style when it comes to his millionaire and billionaire friends.
Strobeck-Eckersall insisted she is the most qualified candidate as a former Evanston Township assessor and the only certified assessor officer of the three, but she admitted she faced the same fundraising woes Republicans usually confront in running for countywide office in Cook.
"I'm fighting a battle right now with name recognition and campaign funding, of which my opponents have, and I don't have, she said. "In a way I'm envious, but I don't have donators like that, unfortunately. I wish I did, and my name would be out there too.
Berrios twice insisted assessments had gone up in Cook County, although retiring Assessor James Houlihan has said every homeowner across the county received a lower assessment this year. "Houlihan's numbers were totally incorrect, Berrios insisted.
Houlihan has endorsed Claypool.
Berrios maintained that if the assessor did his or her job right, there would be less need for appeals before the Board of Review. "If we were to get the numbers correct, guess what, a lot of people would be out of business, Berrios said.
Asked later why voters should trust him to undercut his primary contributors, he said, "I have been in the Board of Review since 1988. I have dealt with thousands of appeals. I have tried to make every appeal as fair as it could be. ... We have done our darnedest to serve the taxpayers here in Cook County.
Green Party candidate Robert Grota, of Chicago, was not invited to take part in the event, part of the Union League Club's Breakfast@65West Forum series. More than 100 people attended, far more than the few dozen who showed up for the Cook presidential forum last month.