Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner on Monday demanded with heated rhetoric that Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios step down—a call that Berrios, a Democrat, not only refused to heed, but fired back at Rauner.
The resignation calls come as each political boss fights for his political future, 99 days out from a competitive primary race.
“This system has to change and it’s got to start with the resignation of Joe Berrios. Joe has to go. He is a poor leader of this rigged, corrupt system. Joe Berrios, Mike Madigan and J.B. Pritzker are the unholy trinity of collusion, corruption, conflicts of interest in our property tax system,” Rauner said, standing on the lawn of a double-story home in Wheeling whose owners say they’d so fed up by rising property tax bills that they’re considering moving to Indiana.
Rauner isn’t the first to call for the head of Berrios.
Last week, Democratic candidate for governor Chris Kennedy did the same (he, too, drew a backlash from Berrios, whose campaign called Kennedy a hypocrite). Rauner’s primary challenger Jeanne Ives also says Berrios should resign, but called Rauner “late” in his calls. Meanwhile, Berrios challenger Fritz Kaegi wants both Rauner and Berrios gone.
“No one has made life worse for taxpayers in Illinois than Bruce Rauner, and no one has done more to worsen economic inequality. They have both done lasting damage to the economic futures of low-income communities and communities of color. They should both be relieved of their posts in the 2018 election, or sooner,” Kaegi said in a statement.
Rauner has long cast aspersions on Madigan, who serves as both speaker of the Illinois House and chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois and is a partner at his own property tax law firm, Madigan & Getzendanner.
As assessor, it’s Berrios’s job to set “fair and accurate values” for property in Cook County, a crucial part in determining how much home owners and commercial property landlords owe in local property taxes. (Like Madigan, Berrios also has another big title: He’s also the head of the Cook County Democratic Party.)
A Chicago Tribune investigation detailing problems with Berrios’s procedures for evaluating property wealth led Rauner to renew those accusations, and to call for Berrios to resign. Berrios’s spokesman Tom Shaer says “we vehemently dispute the opinions of the Tribune’s story.”
For example, Shaer says the assessor by law must value commercial property based on its current value, and not its sale price, as the article contends. He also says a claim that the commercial real estate market “came roaring back” (and therefore that properties were assessed below their value) is both inaccurate and misleading, given that assessed values of property take into account property information (like sales and the market) from the three preceding years.
“The system is rigged. It’s wrong. They’re in collusion with each other: Madigan, Berrios, Pritzker, all in the rat’s nest of corruption, together,” Rauner said.
Rauner’s calculation to tie the three together has political benefits: Rising property tax bills are a point of contention in the Chicago suburbs, where he needs to do well in the March primary, just 99 days way. Pritzker is thus far the front-runner in the Democratic race for a gubernatorial nominee, and Rauner’s strategy appears to be to bring Pritzker down by tying him to Madigan.
Rauner connects the dots to Berrios this way: He says Berrios’s flawed system pushes business to Madigan’s law firm, which he says has allowed Madigan to get rich (Madigan has previously admitted that in some years, his income rises above a million dollars). Rauner, buttressed by the Tribune article, says that politically connected and wealthy individuals can afford, and know, to hire property tax attorneys to appeal their assessments (those without connections or money either don’t know to bother, or can’t afford an attorney, the thinking goes). If wealthy individuals successfully get their assessments, and therefore property tax bills, lowered, it forces other taxpayers to pay more.
Berrios’s campaign says Rauner’s event was a “political stunt.”
“It’s time for Bruce Rauner to ‘Shake up Springfield’ by doing the people of Illinois a favor – he should admit that he has failed as governor and resign,” Berrios campaign manager Mario Lopez said in a statement.
The Pritzker campaign says the governor’s press event raises its own ethical concerns, given that one of the owners of the Wheeling home that served as the backdrop for Rauner’s allegations, Marianne Murphy, was appointed by Rauner to the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board.
Murphy’s position on that board is unpaid.
Madigan’s spokesman also raised red flags.
The Health Facilities Board is the replacement for a previous state board that performed similar work, but was riddled by scandals surrounding political fixer Stuart Levine. A firm that had been partially owned by Rauner’s former private equity firm, GTCR, had paid Levine a consulting fee even as GTRC was seeking lucrative pension contracts from the state Teachers’ Retirement System, a pension board on which Levine also served. Though Rauner denies knowing Levine, questions about their connections, served as a point of criticism during his first run for governor, in 2014.
“I think the guy who had Stu Levin on his pay roll for $30,00 probably should not be calling other people names,” Madigan spokesman Steve Brown said, calling it “kinda ironic.”
“This is not Mr. Pristine,” Brown said of Rauner.
For all of the political turmoil, Berrios scored a win on Monday.
Cook County Clerk David Orr’s office held a lottery to determine the order of names on the primary ballot—the first slot is believed to give a candidate in a crowded race a bump.
Berrios landed the top spot.
That will leave Kaegi sandwiched between Berrios and another candidate, Andrea Raila.
Objections to candidates’ petitions for county office were due to Orr by close of business Monday.
Kaegi and Raili must survive challenges; nobody filed an objection to Berrios’s paperwork.
Given his position with Cook County Democrats, Berrios is thought to have a stranglehold on Democratic insiders (he was recently endorsed by Secretary of State Jesse White), Kaegi this weekend won high-profile endorsements from Congressman Danny Davis (7th), Robin Kelly (2nd) and Bill Foster (11th).
Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky