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Cook County political heavyweight Frank Zuccarelli dies at 70

The Thornton Township supervisor helped launch numerous Illinois political careers, prioritized social services in his south suburban township — and was no stranger to controversy.

Thornton Township Committeeperson Frank Zuccarelli in 2012, speaking before Democratic officials slated a candidate for the 2nd Congressional District election at South Suburban College in South Holland.
Thornton Township Committeeperson Frank Zuccarelli in 2012, speaking before Democratic officials slated a candidate for the 2nd Congressional District election at South Suburban College in South Holland.
Sun-Times file

South suburban political powerhouse Frank Zuccarelli, who for decades helped launch careers and social programs, died Monday at age 70.

The longtime Thornton Township supervisor and Democratic committeeperson was pronounced dead in his South Holland home, apparently of natural causes, officials in the suburb said.

Supervisor Zuccarelli, an early supporter of then-U.S. Senate hopeful Barack Obama in 2004, was an essential backer for many candidates looking for a boost from voters in Chicago’s south suburbs. He held key votes within the Cook County Democratic Party, most recently wielding that leverage in the party’s slating last month.

Supervisor Zuccarelli served as chairman of the South Suburban College board of trustees during an “unparalleled” tenure that saw the school grow into the third-largest community college system in the United States, officials said.

“He was a champion for equity and inclusion and breaking down barriers to higher education,” SSC president Lynette Stokes said in a statement.

South Suburban College Board of Trustees chairman Frank Zuccarelli, pictured at a commencement ceremony.
South Suburban College Board of Trustees chairman Frank Zuccarelli, pictured at a commencement ceremony.
Provided by South Suburban College

Thornton Township also ran a massive food pantry in Harvey under the leadership of Supervisor Zuccarelli, who fought for more funding for that service and for other services for senior citizens.

“That’s his legacy, fighting for the underdog,” said Calumet City Mayor Thaddeus Jones, who started as a volunteer in Supervisor Zuccarelli’s political organization at age 13. “He was effective because he didn’t lie to people. It was about him serving others.”

Those efforts helped Supervisor Zuccarelli, a white official, remain enormously popular with voters in the mostly Black suburbs even as he ran into controversies in a career that spanned parts of six decades.

“Seniors loved him, but he had that charisma that appealed to Black people,” Jones said.

“You couldn’t find anyone who did more for senior citizens and their families,” said Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza, who courted Supervisor Zuccarelli’s support in her 2015 statewide run. “I’ve never seen anybody go to such extremes to make their constituents happy.”

After serving as an Air Force medic, Supervisor Zuccarelli got an associate’s degree at South Suburban College in 1978, the same year he was elected to an unpaid post on the board of trustees. He was voted chairman of the board in 1987, and won his first bid to become township supervisor in 1993.

He consolidated his political influence when he was elected Democratic committeeperson for the township in 2001.

“You couldn’t run for statewide office and not meet with Frank,” Mendoza said of his vote-getting prowess. “He was like a rock star within his township. ... People liked him and trusted him. He was part of a dying breed of politicians who give you their word and keep it.”

Thornton Township Supervisor Frank Zuccarelli speaks at a 2012 news conference in Harvey.
Thornton Township Supervisor Frank Zuccarelli speaks at a 2012 news conference in Harvey.
Sun-Times file

His college and committee posts were unpaid, but over the years Supervisor Zuccarelli caught flak from opponents who accused him of “double dipping” with other public salaries on top of his six-figure full-time take-home pay as township supervisor.

“I do a good job and I’m busy all the time,” Supervisor Zuccarelli told the Better Government Association in 2011, when questions were raised about his $38,530-a-year appointment to the obscure Cook County Employee Appeals Board. “The people who live in this township are getting a good bang for their buck.”

Similar accusations pressured Supervisor Zuccarelli into backing out of his 2013 appointment to the Chicago Transit Authority Board by then-Gov. Pat Quinn, a close ally whose controversial anti-violence grant program lined the pockets of an aide to Supervisor Zuccarelli.

“I do not want political grandstanding to distract from the critical issues or stand in the way of what people in the south suburbs need,” Supervisor Zuccarelli wrote then.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker called Supervisor Zuccarelli a friend who “chose a civic path at a young age and never stopped.”

“His legacy reflects his life as he lived it: in service and friendship to the South Suburbs community and the students, families, and seniors who shape it,” Pritzker said in a statement.

Cook County Board President and Democratic Party chair Toni Preckwinkle said: “A resident of South Holland, Frank has been a devoted community member and champion for the south suburbs for nearly 40 years, serving on a number of boards for community organizations. I send my deepest condolences to his family and loved ones.”

Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton tweeted, “Frank Zuccarelli never met a stranger. I’m grateful for our friendship and his service. And I’m praying for the comfort of all who mourn his loss. “

Arrangements have not yet been announced.