Joe Berrios: Daughter’s primary loss not a referendum on me

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Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios said the defeat of his daughter, Rep. Maria “Toni” Berrios, to a self-styled reformer in the recent Democratic Statehouse primary isn’t a referendum on what critics call his old-school approach to politics.

“I don’t see it that way,” Berrios, the powerful chair of the county Democratic Party, told the Sun-Times on Thursday, when asked whether Toni Berrios’ landslide loss diminished his political power.

“When you take a look at my history, I was the first Hispanic elected to the Legislature, I was the first Hispanic elected to countywide office, first Hispanic ever elected to the assessor’s office. First Hispanic ever to become chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party,” Berrios said, in his first expansive interview since election night, when he kicked members of the media out of his daughter’s campaign party.

Then, a bit cryptically, he added:  “I’ve opened up a lot of doors for people to come through, and that’s the way I’ve always looked at it.”

Berrios offered some sharp words for his daughter’s victorious 26-year-old opponent, Will Guzzardi, who won the so-called hipsters vs. Hispanics battle amid shifting demographics in the Legislature’s 39th District. Guzzardi’s victory was hailed as a rebuke to the political machine and insider nepotism that party leaders like Joe Berrios — who has drawn controversy for putting his family on the government payroll — are said to represent.

“Guzzardi was able to walk the district for four years, didn’t have to work, didn’t have to do anything,” Berrios said. “Toni had to continue doing her stuff in Springfield and walk precincts.” 

He also questioned just how much of a reformer the progressive upstart Guzzardi can be, after taking in more than $185,000 in donations from labor unions in the closing months of the race.

“He got a whole bunch of money,” Berrios said, referring to the unions’ infusion of campaign cash.  “If you think the unions aren’t going to be calling on him for certain votes down in Springfield, you’re wrong.”

What’s more, Berrios said it was one thing for Guzzardi to campaign against House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago) and the political machine. But standing up to the speaker when you are a member of the House Democratic caucus is a more difficult task.

“He’s come out and said he’s not going to vote for Speaker Madigan for leadership,” Berrios said. “We’ll just see what happens with that.”

Ultimately, Joe Berrios said, Toni Berrios lost the election because of the changing racial makeup of the district — a demographic shift anchored around the hipster-centric neighborhood of Logan Square, which was once a Hispanic stronghold.

“The district completely changed. It went from 64 percent Hispanic down to about 52 percent Hispanic,” Berrios explained. “She worked hard. We did everything we could to win that election and it didn’t come out the way we wanted it to, but, you know, you move on.”

What lies ahead for Toni Berrios, who did not return a call seeking comment, is uncertain. Her father said that since her defeat the 36-year-old has received several job offers.

He expects that she will finish out the rest of her term in Springfield before Guzzardi, who is not expected to draw a viable opponent in the general election, can take over. 

When asked if his daughter would soon appear on the county government payrolls, like many other members of the Berrios clan, the assessor was unequivocal.

“No” he said of her working for the county, before adding, “Unless she wants to run” for county office. 

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