March 7, 2009
BY CAROL MARIN Sun-Times Columnist
Todd Stroger hung up on Henry Feinberg. It was March 2008.
Feinberg says he was "sitting in my kitchen, in my robe, drinking tea and reading the paper."
The news that day was that the County Board, after a protracted fight, had hiked Cook County's sales tax to highest in the nation.
"And I had one of those I'm-so-angry-I-can't-take-it-anymore moments," Feinberg recalled.
So what did he do?
"I picked up the phone and after going through a series of receptionists and secretaries, finally got Todd on the phone."
Did you scream and yell?
"No, I tactfully told him how it would be a debacle . . . push jobs out, retailing out. That this fat, inefficient government needed higher competency and more surgically focused spending."
What did Todd Stroger, president of the County Board, say?
"He told me to talk to my county commissioner," said Feinberg. "And hung up."
Like most voters in Cook County, Feinberg didn't have a clue who his commissioner was.
"I went to my computer to find out," he said. "It was Mike."
Mike as in Quigley.
The same Mike Quigley who just won the Democratic primary for Rahm Emanuel's 5th Congressional District seat. The reform-minded county commissioner who has been a wonky thorn in the side of Stroger and the "regular" Democratic organization.
When Feinberg called, Quigley didn't hang up.
A month later, Feinberg gave Quigley a $1,000 contribution.
Months later, he became the co-chair of Quigley's winning Democratic primary bid for Congress.
Who is Henry Feinberg?
"I'm a partner in a venture capital business and the former chairman and CEO of Rand McNally," he said.
Did you mention that to Stroger when you called?
"No," said Feinberg, 56.
At that frustrated moment, in his bathrobe, he was just a voter -- and not a very involved one.
"I have pretty strong opinions on things but have been pretty apolitical except for the 1967 march down Fifth Avenue in New York against the Vietnam War," he told me.
Since that time, Feinberg says he has voted for both Democrats and Republicans.
"Purity is not what you want to look for," he said. "What you want is judgment and people who are thoughtful."
For the first time in memory, voters in Cook County are paying real attention to county government, what it costs, how well it runs, and what crucial services it provides, from medical care to running the courts.
The Regular Democratic Party formerly known as the Machine, meanwhile, is also paying careful attention to newly awakened voters like Feinberg.
In 2006, another reform commissioner, Forrest Claypool, came within reach of unseating then-incumbent John Stroger, Todd's father. Claypool proved there was an embryonic but growing appetite for change in Cook County.
Quigley's victory last week proved even in a special, off-year, very low turnout primary, voters could make themselves heard.
The stage is being set for the 2010 race.
Claypool will likely be back for a rematch.
Alderman Toni Preckwinkle, a loyalist of John Stroger, supported his son in 2006. No longer. She's now running against him.
The head of the Regular Democratic Party of Cook County, Joe Berrios, is nothing if not candid.
"If the election were held today," he said, "it would be a tossup."
The coming County Board race, with all the patronage jobs the president controls, is far, far more important to the party than any congressional seat.
"I have committeemen who say Todd can't win," Berrios told me, adding, "I've told Todd he's gotta reach out, he hasn't reached out enough to them."
My own attempts to reach out to Stroger for comment went unanswered.
There's a bright side, though.
He didn't hang up.