Stroger: 'I've been through a lot'
STROGER'S FIRST YEAR | Todd on dad's illness, friend's apparent suicide, constant criticism
December 9, 2007
BY STEVE PATTERSON Staff Reporter email@example.com
The phone rang at an hour that said this is nothing good.
The sun isn't up yet. Someone's sick, missing or, God forbid, worse. But it's nothing good.Dad had a stroke, Todd Stroger learned.
It was March 14, 2006, and Stroger could hardly have known the ways in which his life was about to change.
Over the next 18 months:
His father, longtime Cook County Board President John Stroger, would fail to recover from that stroke.
Todd Stroger would find himself in the middle of one of the city's great political theaters, uncomfortably thrust to center stage and assuming his father's legacy.
He would be forced to fire one of his closest friends, quietly battle prostate cancer and become the go-to punching bag for all that is wrong with government.
And he would get another call, late one night, telling him a dear friend and trusted adviser apparently had committed suicide.
All before he finished his first year as board president, a mark he hit Tuesday.
"I've probably experienced more in the last year than most of my critics will experience in 20 years," Stroger said. "But life is what it is. You've got to deal with it. Hell, Job didn't complain."
Seizures stunt progress
The reality is, things are not going to get better for John Stroger, who has been gone from the public eye since his stroke. Speculation has swirled about his health.
"There comes a point where the biggest thing is just trying to make sure he's comfortable," his son said. "Make sure he's comfortable. Make sure he doesn't get sick. That's about all you can do."
He admits he doesn't see his dad "as often as I should" and that his mother and sister, both named Yonnie, and cousin, Donna Dunnings, "shoulder the load" and are his primary caregivers.
There are those who believe John Stroger, 78, was never well after the stroke, but his son insists "I fully expected him to say, last summer, that he wouldn't be running. I thought he'd say it."
During rehab after the stroke, he said, a nurse would instruct John Stroger to lift a weight five times -- and his dad would try for more.
He'd speak more. " 'Tell the kids to stop running through the house,' " Stroger said. "And I knew he was back."
But then, in midsummer, the seizures began.
"He's got a strong will," he said. "But he had the seizures, and from that point on, there was no more progress. He had that lapse. He's not been better since."
'Those are fightin' words'This was not the plan.
Todd Stroger said he had no designs on being Cook County Board president. Maybe some other office, sure, but not his dad's. So when Democratic Party leaders came calling and his family gave its blessing, he thought it was right.
The public thought something else entirely.
Unqualified, inept, a growing vocal majority say.
"People paint me as the Democratic Party demon terrorizing the county," he said.
Stroger, 44, said he's learned to hide the paper from his son, Hans, 7, and daughter, Claire, 4, and to turn off the radio as soon as they hear "Stroger." He's learned to ignore the "Urkel" taunts and constant jokes about "how I'm a novice and don't know anything." But his wife, Jeanine, often reads things and reacts "those are fightin' words," Stroger said. "But I let it roll off my back."
But he continues to be dogged by talk he's not interested in the job, something not helped on days he's difficult to find or when he describes being president as "pretty much [a] 9-to-5 [job]."
Still, "it does begin to affect you and your public image," he said. "People don't believe everything they read, but after a while, they're like well, if half of it is true. . . ."
Stroger is aware of the talk about his electability and plummeting public opinion, as some in his camp desperately want to make him more publicly available. Others aren't as trusting and want a wall built around him.
In the end, "I've learned to trust my own judgment."
That includes giving in to political pressure in January to fire his longtime friend, Gerald Nichols, who many knew as the county's patronage king.
That may have been "one of the hardest things I've ever done," but he soon found himself without another valued confidante, Orlando Jones.
In September, Jones was found on a Michigan beach, dead apparently from suicide.
"I realized," Stroger said, "now, it's just me."
He's largely private anyway, trusting few, so when Stroger learned he had prostate cancer, he didn't tell many -- not even his mother.
Given the circumstances, it became "a small item on a larger list of problems." He's now in remission and conducts public-awareness campaigns for men.
No praise for $500 mil. cut
Capping those problems -- what to do with a dysfunctional $3 billion government.
Unlike many others, he blames his father for none of the mess, but instead points to a board that "wouldn't make the sacrifices needed" to properly fund it.
And for the second straight year, just like his father, he's staring at what appears to be another lengthy, drawn-out budget battle.
He says he needs more money, that he can't make any more cuts. Having cut $500 million last year and not raising taxes, he thought, would win him praise. It's instead drawn anger over where he cut.
And while he stands by his accomplishments, he admits the last year has worn on him.
"Sure, I've had days where I say I've had enough already," he said. "I've been through a lot. But I'm happy with what I've been able to do in the last year."
"I realized now, it's just me."
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