Kaegi fends off challenger after tough fight for Cook County assessor

Cook County Assessor Frederick “Fritz” Kaegi faced Kari Steele. And in the Board of Review’s 1st District, first-term incumbent Tammy Wendt was battling Chicago Ald. George Cardenas.

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Kari Steele, left, president of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, in October; Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi, right, in March.

Kari Steele, left, president of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, in October; Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi, right, in March.

Pat Nabong; Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file

Nearly four years after Fritz Kaegi was elected on a promise to right the ship at the beleaguered Cook County assessor’s office, he declared victory in Tuesday’s Democratic primary, while facing a strong challenge from Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner Kari Steele.

With 97% of precincts reporting, Kaegi had a little more than 53% of the vote, against 46% for Steele. She had not conceded, according to WBEZ-FM.

“This race was all about, does the public understand, does the public get what happened under [former Assessor Joseph] Barrios?” Kaegi said on-stage at his election night party at the Jarvis Square Tavern.

“Do they wanna go back to that?” Kaegi asked as supporters shouted “No.”

“No they don’t,” he agreed.

Steele did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The assessor’s office is charged with valuing real estate parcels for taxing purposes, and Steele criticized Kaegi over recent assessments, claiming they have unfairly targeted commercial property owners throughout the county, and said late assessments are leaving property owners vulnerable.

Kaegi has countered that he has kept his promises to institute reforms in the office, which faced harsh criticism under Berrios — who the Sun-Times revealed in 2019 was being investigated by the feds, though he has never been charged —who allowed assessment methods that favored wealthier property owners and allowed them to pay less in property taxes than those in low-income and minority communities.

In a campaign ad that never mentioned his opponent — and featured a Chicago-style hot dog in a starring role —Kaegi said he had increased protections for seniors, veterans and people with disabilities.

Steele was also put on the defensive after criticism that her husband, real estate lobbyist Maze Jackson, engaged in anti-Semitic and anti-Latino conversations on his local radio show, broadcast on WBGX (1570 AM).

But in a series of investigative reports about the operation of Kaegi’s office, the Chicago Sun-Times found, among other things, that some homeowners had been granted tax exemptions to which they were not entitled, and that Kaegi bungled COVID-19 tax relief through an unusual effort to estimate pandemic-related job losses in neighborhoods and use those calculations to lower property assessments.

Kaegi, who was endorsed by the county’s Democratic Party, is unchallenged in the general election.

Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi, with Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, on Tuesday, June 28, 2022.

Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi, with Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, at a news conference outside Beulah Shoesmith Elementary School on the South Side on Tuesday.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Board of Review

In the Cook County Board of Review’s 1st District, Commissioner Tammy Wendt, who knocked off the board’s only Republican two years ago, was herself knocked off by Ald. George Cardenas, who was being backed by the county’s Democratic Party in the primary.

As 11:30 p.m., Cardenas held a commanding lead with more than 56% of the vote to Wendt’s 43%, and nearly 98% of city and suburban precincts reporting.

Cardenas will go on to face Hyde Park Libertarian Nico Tsatsoulis in the general election.

Wendt’s numbers were stronger in the suburbs, but she was crushed in the city, where Cardenas received roughly two votes for every one cast for Wendt.

“People are hungry; they want to see that you are working for them,” Cardenas told the Sun-Times Tuesday night.

Cardenas had criticized Wendt, saying she had not engaged with the public. He also accused her of using her position to hire a member of a family member to a cushy $150,000-a-year job.

He has called for more transparency from the board, which handles tax appeals.

“The people want things done,” Cardenas said, and promised to make his position on the board “high profile.”

Cardenas said he would bring the public more clarity to how their property taxes are determined and how they can appeal.

Wendt did not respond to a request for comment.

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