Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios defends his record
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Berrios’ longtime tenure as a political powerhouse may soon end, I recently wrote. The two-term assessor and chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party is locked in a mortal battle with challenger Fritz Kaegi in the March 20 Democratic primary.
Kaegi, a political novice and wealthy former asset fund manager, is campaigning on a ProPublica Illinois/Chicago Tribune investigation that portrayed a chronically flawed assessment system that favors wealthier homeowners at the expense of the poor, particularly people of color. Kaegi and other critics also charge that Berrios is a machine “pay to play” politician. Among those other critics is Andrea Raila, a third candidate in the race who is fighting to stay on the ballot after the electoral board ruled she should be removed.
Berrios dismissed all in an interview last week at Chef Petros restaurant, near the county building.
As he sipped iced tea, Berrios shared one way he is in fighting shape. He has lost 177 pounds in the last four years. Berrios, who turns 66 Wednesday, is looking forward to watching his three grandchildren grow up. And winning.
“You know what? Any time I run, I run scared,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I have won my elections because I’ve told the truth … and I am not going to allow a millionaire to tell me what I can and cannot do.”
Kaegi has poured at least $1 million of his own money into the race. “I don’t have the access to what he has,” Berrios said.
Berrios rose from a childhood in the Cabrini-Green housing development to decades in public office. In 1982, he became the first Latino elected to the Illinois General Assembly.
He frames this campaign as another assault by white power and wealth on an accomplished Latino public servant.
“When I first decided to run for assessor, everybody told me not to because of the fact they weren’t going to let a minority in the office. And I ended up with two opponents, both white.”
One, in the 2010 Democratic primary, another, Forrest Claypool, an ill-fated independent challenger. “You had never, ever seen that in the history of Cook County government,” Berrios said.
Berrios touts his accomplishments. After his first year as assessor, tax bills started going out on time, saving taxpayers “many tens of millions of dollars.” Before that, the bills had not been issued on time in 34 consecutive years.
Berrios pushed legislation to correct erroneous exemptions, recovering nearly $30 million in revenue; expanded exemption savings for senior citizens and veterans; and improved his agency’s community outreach and customer service.
Twelve percent of the tax attorneys who contribute to his campaign fund do business with his office, he said, but he runs his shop by the book. “There is no quid pro quo.”
Berrios ran campaign ads charging that Kaegi’s former firm, Columbia Wanger Asset Management, invested in a company that manages for-profit prisons nationwide. Kaegi left the firm weeks before that investment was made and has sued Berrios for defamation.
Kaegi would have been deeply involved in the “due diligence” and preparation for that investment, Berrios scoffs. “So, he leaves there one day and then three weeks later they decide to invest this kind of money in private prisons. I don’t buy it.”
An independent study of the county’s tax assessment system commissioned by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle will be released next week.
Berrios will be “100 percent” behind its recommendations, he pledged. “Anything that will help us get it better for taxpayers is what I’m gonna do.”
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