March 15 1993 – CHICAGO TRIBUNE SPECIAL (all rights reserved by original publisher)
David Orr is a vision in brown, clad in an infinitesimally checked brown suit, combined with a brown- and-white-striped button-down shirt, a brown-on-brown-patterned tie, brown socks and brown wingtips, all topped off by that familiar brown moustache, brown eyes and a mop of thick brown hair just beginning to show a few threads of gray; the only jarring note is the black plastic watch band.
The Cook County clerk blends in rather nicely with the brown paneling of his large office on the fourth floor of the County Building, an office where the expected photographs on the wall—Orr with Harold Washington, Orr with family—contrast with an old black-and- white picture of a young David as a Cub Scout.
David Orr, 48, is not your stereotypical Cook County politician. It is impossible to imagine him wearing a pinky ring. He looks a lot like the history professor he once was at Mundelein Coliege—he still has a tendency to slip into a tutorial mode—but he appears to have a lot more practical understanding than does the average academic. David Orr is a liberal with sense.
He’s a joiner who not only goes to meetings of organizations such as the International Association of Clerks, Recorders, Elections Officials, and Treasurers, but, while others may be playing golf or gambling, he actually attends the workshops and comes back with ideas.
When he was the independent-minded alderman from Rogers Park, even Mike Royko couldn’t impugn his honesty—although he did scold Orr’s mother for letting her son grow up to be an alderman. Says Chicago ethics consultant Harriet McCullough, who has worked with Orr for years, “He has an absolute commitment to government reform and having government serve people.” Former Ald. Anna Langford (16th) scornfully referred to him as “Mr. Goody Two-Shoes”; Orr didn’t mind a bit.
When he was, very briefly, mayor (after the death of Harold Washington) he conducted the City Council meetings to determine a successor in a fair, even-handed manner. And when he ran for Cook County clerk, after 12 years as an alderman, he promised to clean up a notoriously swampy department, for 20 years the domain of Stanley Kusper, who was an archetypal Cook County politician.
Some county offices are notoriously underwatched by the press, making it relatively easy for hacks to quietly build private empires. The 1990 election was remarkable for producing three high-profile Cook County officials: Board President Richard Phelan, the man who would be governor; gadfly Commissioner Maria Pappas—and reformer Orr, who hammered the Democratic Party-slated candidate, former state Rep. Cal Sutker, in the primary.
Orr promised to get more voters registered; to reform contracting procedures in the clerk’s office; to work on a countywide ethics ordinance; to end patronage in the department; to improve the administration of elections; to resume publishing the Journal of Proceedings of the Cook County Board (a publication that made it easier for the press and the public to keep tabs on what went on in that august body, and which Kusper had discontinued in 1982); to improve service in the clerk’s office; and to improve the administration of sales of tax-delinquent properties.
How well has he succeeded? Two years into his four-year term , he has cut spending while taking on new chores and registering record numbers of new voters— 365,000 between January and October 1992, a number, he points out, equaling one-fourth of the electorate of suburban Cook County. And he actually returned money to the County Board, an act that must have caused jowls to quiver in political circles across the metropolitan area.
Voter registration. “I have a strong belief in the importance of grass roots,” says Orr in explanation of his championing of voter registration drives. “There were two critical things: first, to go where the people are at. So we registered them at Dominick’s, Jewel, McDonald’s—places that are easy to reach, where we could get to them at much less cost.”
“The other critical thing is to remind people to register, so we had a PR campaign. We used advertising. People are realizing, ‘The country has problems—it’s time I got involved.” The emphasis was on younger (and presumably more liberal) voters; the registration drive traveled to rock concerts but not to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra concerts in Orchestra Hall. The cost per registration was just one- third of the expense of the registration in 1988, he says.
Contracting. The question of bidding out contracts proved a little more problematic. “Every contract that can be bid in this office is being bid,” Orr says. But he has found that it’s not easy. For example, he says that one software supplier is the sole source in Illinois of its complicated product, which is designed specifically for the vote-counting equipment that the county uses. The supplier is the only one certified by the State Board of Elections.
Orr has also worked with the city to do some joint bidding. “This is the second biggest county in the nation, after Los Angeles,” he points out. “This way, we can take advantage of our size.” This approach, he says, resulted in being able to buy the ballots for 1992’s elections at 1988 prices.
Ethics and patronage. Orr was a key player in getting the city’s ethics ordinance passed in 1987. As far as the county clerk’s own office is concerned, Orr and his team were able to put an ethics code in place “the second or third day we were here,” Orr says, “to protect the workers and discourage conflicts of interest.” Political affiliations are now, he declares, “a moot issue.” Most, if not all, of the office’s past hires got their jobs through political connections, and those employees were sweating it out when Orr was elected.
“I told them, ‘Your future here will depend on the job you do in this office,’ ” he says. Those who could do their jobs—the majority—stayed on. Orr was the first clerk to sign the Shakman decree, forbidding political hiring and firing in most positions.
On Feb. 22, he issued a three-point proposal “to help restore faith in Cook County government,” calling for a tough lobbyist registration law (the present ordinance lacks teeth; only 78 lobbyists are registered, and they declared a total of less than $6,000 in expenditures last year—all but $444 of that by Common Cause and the Chicago Metro Ethics Coalition—for influencing a $2 billion budget), an ethics law, and political finance reform. Governmental response to date has been less than rip-snorting.
Election judges. Orr calls changing the way election judges are selected “an uphill fight … very difficult to pass in Springfield” because judges have to be chosen from the two mainstream political parties. Independents and members of third parties, such as the Libertarian Party, are not permitted to serve as judges unless they declare themselves as either Republicans or Democrats.
Part of the problem is the miserable pay afforded election judges. For a day that can run from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., the state has authorized $80 for those who attend a special training meeting and $60 for those who slap it. Because this- was clearly not a priority for the state, Orr took some of the money saved elsewhere and raised pay for suburban Cook County elections, for which his office is responsible, to $100 and $80. There was even enough, he notes with relish, to give city judges a pay raise too.
The Journal of Proceedings. Under the heading “They said it couldn’t be done,” count Orr’s revival of the Journal of Proceedings of the Cook County Board. Kusper stopped publishing it in the early 1980s, during the heyday of longtime Board President George Dunne. Because it makes public the sometimes murky doings of the board, the swampmeisters would just as soon it not be published. Orr revived it—with an index—within his first two weeks in office.
Scavenger sales. “We have a full-court press” going in the administration of sales of tax-delinquent properties (Orr put a lawyer with real estate experience in charge) and counseling services (“most of the people that come in are folks that are distraught; they’ve received a notice that they’re going to lose their homes”)
Etc. Orr has also transferred money into interest-bearing accounts, cut overtime, improved services—you can use your credit card to pay for documents; birth certificates are available in five minutes in five suburban locations; ombudsmen will help customers and direct them to the right locations; brochures in your choice of language explain various procedures; lines are shorter and the service is more courteous.
New technology is on line. In a department that takes in between $250,000 and $500,000 a day in tax redemptions, Orr says, “they had been using cash registers equivalent to what you’d find in a Ma and Pa grocery store.” Now they’ve got spiffy new registers that speed the process. There are new computers, and the tax records are being entered onto disks.
“It was Charles Dickens back there,” says Orr, with clerks making entries in ledgers and complex calculations by hand, “and that’s how mistakes are made. Sometimes people lose their homes as a result of those mistakes.” Such problems, he promises, will be a thing of the past once everything’s in place electronically, though he concedes he has a long way to go.
In the constant stream of news releases, Orr pushes new ideas of varying degrees of practicality. Last week he proposed the dubious notions of faxing absentee ballots and ending the purge from voter rolls of those who don’t bother to vote in a four-year period. He also introduced state legislation last week to move to the fall primary elections now held in March and indicated that he was considering the utility of holding elections on weekends, which is done in other countries. And he pushed a perennial Orr proposal, namely a “motor voter” law to let voters register when they get their driver’s licenses.
“There is a great amount of frustration and anger about government,” says Orr with characteristic understatement. “I look at government more as community: It’s going to be here. The key is to make it work efficiently, to work for the community.” Orr, who usually drives his own car to work from his Rogers Park home, or else takes the “L,” says he dislikes political perks. “It bothers me when people set themselves up as better than others, particularly their own constituents. It bugs me when elected officials are out of touch with people.”
Orr has been quite visible, leading to inevitable speculation about what he’s running for next. He has been touted for everything from County Board president to mayor to secretary of state. Orr refuses to say what interests him most, though he does note that “much of the speculation in the press is not generated by me. … It’s still early to say. I’m certainly running for office again when my term is over, in ’94, but whether I run for re-election as county clerk or for something else, I honestly don’t know right now.”
County sources say that Rich Daley’s people, who fear Orr’s strong base in the black community, are most likely behind the drum-pounding for secretary of state: They would like nothing more than to see him exiled to Springfield, or make an unsuccessful run for office, then fade into obscurity.
Orr says his own supporters have urged him to run for mayor. Some political observers suggest that to win a mayoral primary against Daley, Orr must be lucky and not have a black candidate enter the race. He’s also looking seriously at the presidency of the County Board. But he has another consideration: his family.
Orr, who was raised in a conservative Republican family in the western suburbs, and his wife, Loretta, have three sons: Jeffrey, 8, Michael, 4, and Arturo, 3. He knows that too many jobs these days call for hours that doom family involvement.
“I believe in government service; at the same time, I like my life. The balance is critical. I don’t think we want to have a government only of single people; I don’t want a situation where only people who can work 80 hours a week can serve.”
Orr says he has an agenda that includes things like governmental reform and savings, and that he’s really not much interested in titles.
“I’m honestly considering my options, and I’m flattered by the urging to run [for higher office] As I look at the decision, given my interests and my agenda, it’s going to come down to where I can make the most difference.”
Bryan Miller is a Chicago freelance writer.