This fight may go the distance (interesting story-2 politicos fight while computers crash-round 2) : LUSENET : TimeBomb 2000 (Y2000) : One Thread

This fight may go the distance

September 24, 1999


The first two heavyweight fights between Cook County Board President John H. Stroger Jr. and Circuit Court Clerk Aurelia Pucinski were settled at the ballot box, with Stroger coming out on top.

But there's a rematch shaping up, and it may be decided by a judge.

For years, these two prizefighters in Cook County politics have fought over everything from construction of a new county hospital to relocation of traffic court. Now they're sparring over computers and the millennium bug.

Pucinski, a Democrat turned Republican, has been pushing Stroger, a Democratic powerhouse, to upgrade her mainframe computer that stores billions of records for the Cook County courts, the most massive court system in the United States. Stroger has rebuffed her, pushing Pucinski to merge the court computer with the county computer by year-end.

``They try to micromanage every county office, and I think that's a big mistake,'' Pucinski said. ``As an elected official, I have a responsibility to run this office. The president of the County Board and members of the County Board should understand that.''

Pucinski has taken the gloves off, signing a $300,000 contract to upgrade her computer with new equipment due to arrive next week. She says state law and court decisions allow her to spend money that she already has in her budget without approval from Stroger and the board.

Stroger, of course, claims his longtime foe has no authority to spend the money, hinting at possible legal action to block her.

``We don't need mainframes everywhere,'' Stroger said. ``What we're trying to do is centralize the mainframes for this county. If she spends money without County Board approval ... she's outside the scope of her responsibility.''

Yet, these two longtime opponents deny they are fighting, or carrying grudges left over from their election battles. That's a surprise to other county officials who have had front-row seats to these often public bouts and scrapes.

``The County Board should authorize psychiatric treatment at $175 an hour for all disgruntled parties to end this fight,'' said a top county official, who asked to remain anonymous.

``It'll never end,'' the official added. ``Even after they leave, it will never end. It's like any group that has opposed each other. The English and Irish. The Turks and the Greeks. People who are pro-life. People who are pro-choice. That's how deep this runs.''

Another county official was more succinct. ``They just don't like each other,'' the official said, also declining to be identified.

Stroger and Pucinski squared off in the 1994 Democratic primary, when they sought to succeed Richard Phelan as County Board president. Stroger won. When Stroger ran for re-election in 1998, Pucinski jumped ship, joining the Republican party, but she lost again.

``She's run against Stroger from both sides now for the office he holds. That does not lend itself to friendly relationships,'' said Paul Green, a political science professor at Roosevelt University.

The election battles are over now, but skirmishes still flare up.

This summer, Pucinski balked at Stroger's plan to temporarily move traffic court to the congested Daley Center. As Pucinski was making her case to reporters outside Stroger's office, he walked out and said: ``The clerk is trying to do what she couldn't do--convince the people that she should be president of the County Board.''

Stroger, 70, dismisses suggestions that he resents Pucinski, the daughter of former Chicago Ald. Roman Pucinski. Some Democrats view her as a traitor.

``The clerk is a strongly opinionated person,'' Stroger said. ``I think she was disappointed when she was not elected [County Board president]. And sometimes her actions are far beyond that of the clerk's office. Sometimes she takes the posture ... that she should really be running the government.''

Pucinski, 52, bristles at Stroger's comment, saying no elected official should be muzzled on any issue.

``If I take a position on traffic court, it's not meant as any disrespect,'' Pucinski said.

``Do I think this president has animosity toward me? No. Nor do I have any animosity toward him. It's entirely consistent for elected officials to have different views toward their roles.''

The court's computer system is overloaded, causing it to crash, Pucinski said. Consequently, her office has shut down several computer terminals used by the public.

``It is a crisis,'' Pucinski said. ``Our computer is on meltdown. We're operating at 115 percent, 23 hours a day, seven days a week, in a system that routinely has been 12 [million] and 14 million transactions a month.''

Stroger's staff claims that Pucinski can greatly increase her computer storage space by merging with the county's mainframe computer, while saving $1 million.

``I try to do everything I possibly can ... to see that she has the necessary tools to perform her duties,'' Stroger said. ``I have to many times suggest to other elected officials like the sheriff, state's attorney, the county clerk, that there's inadequate funds for a certain program they're proposing. They come back with other information to try to convince me. They never fall out with me.''

Of course, those other elected officials are Democrats, just like Stroger.

-- Homer Beanfang (, September 24, 1999

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