WASHINGTON: Time for reform, Berrios

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Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

In politics, timing is king. Joe Berrios’ time may be up.

The Cook County assessor’s chief challenger in theMarch 20Democratic primary is a guy named Fritz Kaegi.

OPINION

It’s not exactly a “Chicaguh” kind of name. A year ago, I had never heard it. He was a nobody nobody sent, aiming to knock off the powerful Cook County assessor and chairs the Cook County Democratic Party.

The unassuming political novice was born and raised in leafy Hyde Park, the son of a University of Chicago history professor. He now lives with his wife and kids in leafy Oak Park.

When I first met Kaegi last summer over coffee, he seemed an earnestly honest and reform-minded pro. “People need transparent, fair and square, impartial assessments based on asset value, not political connections,” he says.

Kaegi, a money manager with an MBA from Stanford University, has both the financial know-how and the wealth to fund a credible campaign. He has plowed $800,000 of his own cash into the effort; sources close to him say there is more to come.

Berrios’ tenure has long been controversial, but the two-term assessor is a power gatekeeper. A lot of political somebodies owe and depend on him.Like his family.

In 2016, the Sun-Times’ Dan Mihalopoulos reported that a dozen Berrios relatives enjoy government jobs and public pensions.

A daughter, son, four siblings, two nephews, a sister-in-law and a brother-in-law were working in county or state government. “The salary and pension checks to members of the Berrios family total nearly $1.1 million a year,” Mihalopoulos wrote.

Despite investigations and sanctions, the Democratic Party heavies stood by him.

Then, last year, an investigation by ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune revealed that Berrios oversees a deeply flawed assessment system that gives massive tax breaks to wealthier homeowners at the expense of poorer families, particularly Africa Americans and Latinos.

Last month, the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council and Logan Square Neighborhood Association sued, charging that Berrios “conducts assessments that systematically and illegally shift residential property tax burdens from whites to Hispanics and African-Americans and from the rich to the poor.”

This month, the Cook County Board of Ethics fined Berrios $41,000, charging he should have returned campaign contributions from property tax lawyers that exceeded legal limits.

Berrios rejects it all. He works within the system, he says, and his office provides outreach and education to ensure all taxpayers get a fair deal.

But he’s taking Kaegi seriously. Berrios unsuccessfully tried to get his rival kicked off the ballot and is running ads that attack Kaegi’s investment record. Kaegi has sued, saying the claims are false.

Meanwhile more than 30 elected officials, activists and political organizations have endorsed Kaegi, including four Chicago-area members of Congress: Bobby Rush, Danny K. Davis, Robin Kelly and Bill Foster. Other supporters include Cook County Clerk David Orr and Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.

Our Revolution Illinois, an offshoot of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ progressive movement, has made Kaegi’s election a top priority.

As long as Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan is running the Springfield show, real reform of our broken property tax system may be elusive.

But voters are angry about corruption and even more steamed about taxes. When I chat with Democratic Party voters these days, I hear a common refrain: “Throw the bums out.”

Specifically, two “bums:” Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, of course. And Joe Berrios.

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