Sunday, February 18, 2007

Is there touch of Dillinger in Stroger?

Is there touch of Dillinger in Stroger?
February 18, 2007
Copyright by The Chicago Sun-Times

"So, tell me," the voice on the other end of the phone asked dryly, "is this Todd Stroger guy, like, worse than Dillinger?" It was my friend Steve Daley, a recovering Chicago journalist turned Washington, D.C., public relations honcho.

Even though Steve moved away years ago, he always reads Chicago papers, fascinated by the desperados who populate our politics. Unlike us, he can find dark humor in our plight since his tax dollars no longer swirl down Cook County's drain.

No, I told him, though Cook County Board President Todd Stroger is regularly skewered in news articles and columns (with the notable exceptions of this paper's election endorsement and the Tribune editorial board praising his budget cuts), a John Dillinger he is not.

But leader of the Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight? Yes.

There is a swagger, an attitude, that emanates from Stroger's office on the fifth floor of the County Building. And it leaches through the system from the six-figure-salaried army of friends and family who constitute Stroger's inner circle, all the way down to the rank and file who make the smaller bucks.

I watched it in action in a most unexpected way last Thursday over at the county's Stroger Hospital, the place the poor go for treatment.

Sun-Times reporter Steve Patterson had just been arrested, and I raced over there.

Patterson is a fine, tough reporter but hardly a rude kind of guy. I couldn't imagine why he'd be handcuffed and detained, but he was.

Patterson was covering a demonstration of homeless people who wanted to have a word with the new head of the hospital, Dr. Robert Simon, promoted last month by Stroger.

About two dozen homeless were protesting not only Stroger's massive budget cuts to medical services, but also the discovery of a 12-year-old interview Simon gave to the Chicago Reader in August 1995.

At the time, Simon was chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine. In the Reader article, Simon is quoted as saying:

''I did not come here to help the bum on the street -- the alcoholic or drug addict . . . I didn't come here for 'the homeless' . . . I'm not a liberal. Die-hard liberals talk about 'the homeless.' If they actually saw what they're defending I don't think they'd be so die-hard. Most of the homeless really don't care about themselves or are psychiatrically impaired. . . . They could do things for themselves, but they won't. So who the hell cares about them?''

It's a very small part of a long article that also explores Simon's dedication to providing medical care to victims in war zones as well as his concern over the lack of health insurance in America. But it was these words that outraged Thursday's demonstrators, who chanted outside Simon's second-floor office.

Patterson was there, watching and taking notes, when hospital cops ordered, ''Cuff his ass.''

Isolated incident?

Not at all.

You need only read the list compiled by Sun-Times reporter Abdon Pallasch to understand that the hospital cops have been less of a police force and more of a goon squad since they were created in 1973. Not to mention a place where precinct workers from Stroger's 8th Ward have been rewarded with patronage jobs. They have been accused of roughing up a pregnant woman, an old man and TV reporters over the years, the county paying out millions in lawsuits as a result.

Even after the hospital cops were ordered to take the cuffs off Patterson, they were hardly subdued. I saw one of them jab his finger in the face of a 30-year veteran nurse clinician, Loretta Lim, angrily warning, ''I'm watching you, I'm watching you.'' Lim, in a white lab coat, was not part of the protest. She had simply stopped to talk to the homeless.

And I watched that same cop, who wasn't wearing any identification, yell at demonstrators who were standing in the freezing cold to talk to me.

What does any of this have to do with Stroger, who only six weeks ago inherited his father's job as president of the Cook County Board? Who along with it inherited the huge financial mess his father's administration left behind?

Examples are set at the top.

In the short six weeks that he's been in office, Stroger has behaved like an entitled brat. Private elevator. Entourage of bodyguards and coat holders.

He's handed big salaries and ridiculous raises to his relatives and friends, while deriding questions about his mostly undelineated 17 percent cuts in vital services to the poor. He's lacked the courage to face public criticism, skipping every public hearing on his budget where citizens were invited to attend. Hundreds showed up. Stroger never did.

Little wonder he was the lone elected official loudly booed at Barack Obama's recent rally.

No, in answer to my friend's question, Todd Stroger is no Dillinger.

Dillinger, at least, understood what he was doing.


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