Is Tony Peraica a fearless fighter of corruption and crusader for smaller, more transparent government or is he just an ineffective publicity hound who can't get along with people well enough to get anything done? That's shaping up as the central question in the race for the Cook County Board commissioner of the 16th District.
Peraica (R-Riverside), the two-term incumbent, and his opponent, Jeff Tobolski, the mayor of McCook, faced off last week at a forum sponsored by the Cook County Coalition for Tax Relief and the Lyons-McCook Business Association. The event was moderated by Andy Shaw, the executive director of the Better Government Association.
During the forum the rhetoric from Peraica and Tobolski was as hot as the weather outside. Also participating in the forum, which was held at the Crystal Sky Banquet Hall in McCook, were two candidates for Cook County assessor, Republican Sharon Eckersall and Forrest Claypool, who is running as an independent. Joseph Berrios, the Democratic candidate for assessor, was invited but did not attend.
Tobolski, the Democratic candidate opposing Peraica in November's election, said that he should be elected because Peraica has not accomplished much beyond getting on television in his eight years in office.
"I want him to tell the people what he has done over the last eight years to deserve to be voted back into office again," Tobolski said. "I think it's going to be an election about his incumbency."
Tobolski claimed to have the support of 19 out of the 24 mayors in the district.
"They're fed up with the B.S.," Tobolski said. "The time for talk is over, the Fox-32 news specials. They want someone who is going to make the district a lot more like McCook, where 700 jobs came to the region in the toughest recession we've gone through. I don't talk the talk, I walk the walk, and I truly believe in November the voters will send me there because they feel the talking will stop and the action will start taking place."
Tobolski said that Peraica is too abrasive and can't work with other members of the county board to get anything done for the district.
"The difference between the commissioner and I is I find a way to get along with people," Tobolski said. "You have to do that as a politician. You can't just continue to say I have nothing to bring you because nobody agrees with me. And that's what I see out here in the district. People want some tangible results."
The always-feisty Peraica gave as good as he got.
"I'll put my record, I'll put my character, I'll put my votes on the county board in front of the 16th District taxpayers and voters, and I'm not afraid to do it," Peraica said.
He made no apologies for often being outvoted.
"Sometimes when it comes to morals and principles, you have to be the majority of one," Peraica said. "And I'm not afraid to be the only no vote when I'm on the side of truth and justice."
Peraica pointed to his record of fighting for reform and lower taxes.
"I have opposed all tax increases and intend to do so in the future," Peraica said. "I want to reform this government, make it smaller, more accountable to the people."
Peraica said that his fight for reform has earned him many enemies.
"We live in the most corrupt part of Cook County, in a corrupt county, in a corrupt state," Peraica said.
Peraica called for the repeal of all of what he called the Stroger sales tax increase, including the remaining one half of one percent that remains.
On that issue, at least, there was no difference between Tobolski and Peraica.
"The commissioner and I agree on this," said Tobolski. "If it's left there it will be spent. Someone will find a way to spend it."
Peraica claimed credit for helping to reduce the number of county employees from approximately 28,000 to around 23,000. He said that he and a few other reform-minded commissioners, one of which was Claypool, helped block nearly a billion dollars of proposed tax increases.
"We have done the job for the taxpayers of Cook County, and I'm asking for your support to do it for another four years to save your money from being wasted, stolen and abused," Peraica said.
Tobolski charged that Peraica voted in favor of raising numerous fees, including $5.6 million in environmental fees, voted in favor of raising building and zoning fees by 25 to 50 percent, and he also charged that Peraica co-sponsored an ordinance to raise more than $1 million in fees for the assessor's office. Tobolski also claimed that Peraica had brought back very little county money to the district, only $5.2 million,
"I bet you I could do better than that," Tobolski said. "I'm about results. I'm not a Democratic machine candidate. I'm an individual. I will go there and represent you and bring back to you the services that you are entitled to for the tax dollars that you pay into the district."
Peraica charged that Tobolski would not be a proponent of reform.
"I know what it is like to stand alone on that board, but I'm doing it because I know I'm doing the right thing, and we don't need another yes vote and rubber stamp on that board," Peraica said. "We need somebody who is going to stand up to the corrupt politicians, particularly in the western suburbs here, to represent your interests.'
Peraica also suggested that Tobolski would not fight patronage hiring.
"Mayor Tobolski has 15 relatives on the payroll of McCook," Peraica said. "Is that the kind of government we want to bring to the county of Cook?"
After the forum Tobolski, who has been mayor of McCook since 2007, but whose father was also mayor of McCook before him, said that he only hired one of those relatives and promoted another. He said that that both are highly qualified.
"I do have other relatives working for the village that were hired 20 years ago," Tobolski said, noting McCook used to have a residency requirement for village employees and that McCook is a small town with extended families.
Shaw was impressed with the intensity of the back and forth between Peraica and Tobolski.
"Ladies and gentlemen it's only July," Shaw said closing the forum. "I mean, this is the stuff you normally get in October."
Peraica suggested that there would be more to come.
"We're just getting warmed up here," Peraica said.