With all 17 seats on the Cook County Board of Commissioners up for election this year, party leaders on both sides of the aisle say they are bullish on their chances of gaining ground in November.
But first voters must determine their respective party nominees in Tuesday’s primary.
This year’s election cycle follows a once-a-decade redistricting process that — unlike the Chicago ward and state legislative seat remaps — saw little strife on the Democratic-controlled County Board led by President Toni Preckwinkle, who is also running for another term.
And while these races are lower-profile than other offices up for grabs this year, the county commissioners do manage an $8 billion budget that funds a public hospital system, a sizable Medicaid health insurance plan known as CountyCare, the courts system and one of the nation’s largest jails.
There are several competitive races both in the Democratic and Republican primaries. That’s in part because three incumbents — Republican Pete Silvestri of the 9th District and Democrats Deborah Sims in the 5th and Larry Suffredin of the 13th — are not seeking reelection, creating openings for new commissioners.
Each party also hopes the election creates openings to expand their number of seats on the board in November. Silvestri is one of just two Republicans on the board. The other, Sean Morrison of the 17th District, who is also Cook County GOP chair, faces a primary challenge from ex-Cook County commissioner Elizabeth “Liz” Doody Gorman, who stepped down in 2015.
The GOP is running candidates in only six of 17 district primaries. But local party leaders are betting that national woes such as record inflation and President Joe Biden’s approval ratings slump will boost their down-ballot candidates.
And despite traditional losses in midterm elections for the party that occupies the White House, local Democrats say they aren’t worried about maintaining — or expanding — their numbers on the board.
Silvestri has represented the 9th District on Chicago’s Far Northwest Side and the northwest suburbs since 1994 but is retiring this year. He bills himself as a centrist and said he wants his successor in the politically moderate 9th District to be a fiscal conservative who agrees “America works when we all meet in the center.”
He has not yet endorsed in the race, in which three Republicans — Matt Podgorski and Frank Coconate, both of Chicago, and Mark Hosty of River Forest — are seeking to replace him.
Despite the district being redrawn to lean more Republican, Cook County Democratic Party executive director Jacob Kaplan, questioned whether Podgorski, who has been endorsed by Morrison and other local Republicans, could be that unifying figure if he wins the GOP nomination.
Kaplan pointed out the controversial social media presence of a political organization called the Northwest Side GOP Club, which Podgorski started in 2016. On Jan. 7, 2021, the group shared an article on Twitter that claimed Democrats rigged the 2020 presidential election.
“They’re a right-wing Trump Republican group,” Kaplan said. “These are not moderate Republicans. (Podgorski) comes out of that group. I don’t think that’s the sort of Republican that voters in that district would be inclined to support.”
Podgorski maintained he is not behind the organization’s social media accounts and said he accepts Biden won the 2020 election. Still, Podgorski said Kaplan’s attack was “totally pathetic.”
“(The Democrats) are desperate because they have nothing else to talk about,” Podgorski said. “They should be talking about the Cook County gas tax, Cook County property taxes, the sheriff’s office, Kim Foxx, things that can actually affect the Forest Preserves. Not Jan. 6. Who cares?”
Podgorski, also owner of the Ogden & Fry polling firm, sought to make the case that another election in 2020 poses a far greater bellwether for his district and beyond: the Cook County state’s attorney’s race, where GOP nominee Patrick O’Brien lost to Foxx by 15 points but managed to carry the suburbs and outperform much of the Republican ticket.
“If (Democrats) want to hang their hats on talking about federal issues and trying to tie Republicans to (former President Donald) Trump, good luck, because they’re going to have to wear a Kim Foxx necklace around their neck if they’re anywhere near Cook County,” Podgorski said about the progressive prosecutor, whose term ends in 2024.
Hosty, a former Forest Park village council member, has said he does not believe the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. The other candidate, Coconate, is an ex-city worker who was fired during then-Mayor Richard Daley’s administration after sounding the alarm on corruption. Coconate said he believes the false claims that the 2020 presidential election was rigged in Biden’s favor.
Whoever wins will face one of four Democrats in November: Sam Kukadia, who has strong union support; Maggie Trevor, endorsed by several political grassroots groups; Frank McPartlin, who ran for the seat in 2018 and narrowly lost to Silvestri; and Heather Anne Boyle, a 2020 primary candidate for the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District.
Democrats are facing their own internal power struggle between heavyweight establishment candidates and progressives seeking government office for the first time.
The next commissioner of the wide-open 5th District will likely be determined in the three-way Democratic primary, as no Republican has filed to run in the majority Black district stretching from Chicago’s South Side to the south suburbs. Sims, who has said she wants another Black woman to replace her, endorsed Prairie State College Trustee Monica Gordon.
Also running are Hazel Crest Village President Vernard Alsberry and newcomer Jaylin McClinton, who graduated last month from Chicago-Kent College of Law at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Though Gordon and Alsberry have a leg up with name recognition, McClinton has tried to position himself as the reform-minded foil to his opponents, who have faced ethics questions over fundraising but deny any wrongdoing.
In the majority Latino 8th District on Chicago’s Northwest Side, incumbent Luis Arroyo Jr. faces four primary challengers, including Anthony Quezada, a self-described democratic socialist who works for Chicago’s 35th Ward Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa and has the backing of party progressives including U.S. Rep. Jesús “Chuy” Garcia.
Also running are Edwin Reyes, a former commissioner Arroyo Jr. beat in 2014; Rory McHale, a former lawyer for the Chicago Office of the Inspector General; and Natalie Toro, a Chicago Public Schools teacher. There is no Republican on the ballot in this district.
Arroyo Jr. said his strength lies in his track record with bringing resources to his district, including a new $12 million clinic in Belmont-Cragin that opened last year. But Quezada has attempted to cast Arroyo Jr.’s past work lobbying the state legislature while on the County Board as a “huge mistake.”
“We don’t need corporate lobbyists in elected office. We need public servants,” Quezada said. “That’s not what any elected official should be doing.”
Cross-lobbying, or when a member of one governing body lobbies officials in another body, is largely allowed for Cook County officials.
“I did that for one year, and I no longer do that, and that’s it,” Arroyo Jr. said. “There’s nothing illegal about it. But I chose not to do it anymore because I’ve seen where some people could get a negative opinion.”
Arroyo Jr.’s father was sentenced to 57 months in prison in May after the then-state representative pleaded guilty to bribing a state senator for support of gambling legislation that would have benefited a company he lobbied on behalf of at City Hall.
Elsewhere in the county, Sean Morrison said the local Republican Party will eagerly fight to reclaim two north suburban districts from their first-term Democratic commissioners who ousted Republican incumbents, one who was then the state GOP chair.
In the 14th District, Commissioner Scott Britton will face Republican Benton Howser this November, as neither has primary opposition.
In the 15th District, Commissioner Kevin Morrison’s GOP opponent will either be Chuck Cerniglia or Kevin Ake, the latter of whom was convicted of an anti-gay hate crime in 2002.
In the Democratic primary for the 17th District, Lou Gale is competing against Daniel Calandriello. The winner will face either Sean Morrison or his GOP primary challenger Gorman, in the November general election.
In the 13th District being vacated by Suffredin, the only candidate from either major party who has filed to replace him is fellow Democrat Josina Morita, a Metropolitan Water Reclamation District commissioner.
In the 11th District, longtime Commissioner John Daley — the son and brother of former Chicago mayors — is running unopposed in the Democratic primary. He will face Republican Declan Smith and Libertarian Brandon Sizelove in the fall.
The Daily Southtown’s Ted Slowik contributed.