Forrest Claypool is, by all accounts, a political veteran. The soft-spoken Ravenswood attorney currently serves on the Cook County Board of Commissioners and this week announced his intention to run for board president. ( Other contenders are Democratic commissioner Mike Quigley, interviewed by WCT July 13, 2005, incumbent John Stroger, and Republican commissioner Tony Peraica. )
In the past, Claypool was deputy state treasurer, twice served as chief of staff for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley and—perhaps most notably—was a highly praised CEO of the city's park district. However, in some circles ( particularly the LGBT community ) Claypool is somewhat of an unknown commodity. Although his political actions have been decidedly pro-gay, they have been overshadowed by those of other officials—particularly Quigley, who has been extremely vocal in fighting for rights and benefits for LGBT individuals.
Claypool spoke with Windy City Times prior to his official campaign launch.
Windy City Times: How did you fall into politics?
Forrest Claypool: Since I was a kid, I've been interested in politics; I can't quite say why. First, Stan Walker and then Jimmy Carter got me really interested. It's because of Jimmy Carter that I joined the Jackson County Democratic organization at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale and I ran all the student precincts down there for the general and township elections.
Then, in law school [ at the University of Illinois ] , I was involved in a congressional race in southern Illinois in which a guy named David Robinson challenged Paul Finley, who, at the time, was the principal supporter in Congress of the Palestine Liberation Organization. I then practiced law for a year at Jenner & Block and hooked up with an old friend, Pat Quinn ( who is now lieutenant governor of Illinois ) . Pat got elected to the Cook County Board of Property Tax Appeals, which was subject to the biggest tax scandal in U.S. history. I left law to work with Pat there. Then, I was Paul Simon's press secretary in his senate campaign in 1984. In 1985, I worked with David Axelrod, a national media consultant; that's where I met Mayor Daley, who asked me to come on board when he was elected in 1989.
From there, I worked in a number of other positions. I was deputy state treasurer under Quinn. Then, Mayor Daley called one day; he said that the parks were a mess and wondered if I would consider going over there. So I worked there for the next five years, leading the turnaround.
WCT: Was the environment close to your heart?
FC: Well, I come from the country and my father was a naturalist. But I think the mayor picked me because, when I was chief of staff, I proved my management skills to him. Those five years were challenging but very important; parks are extraordinarily important to the community. Chicago is truly a city of neighborhoods, and every neighborhood has a park. Parks can strengthen ties in the community and are aesthetically important as well. We spent hundreds of millions of dollars in restoring parks after years of neglect.
WCT: So you left being CEO to become [ Mayor Daley's ] chief of staff again?
FC: Yeah. There was a scandal in the city council; the mayor's floor leader had resigned and he asked me to come back. ( It was 18 months before the election and so I came back from Jan. '98 to May '99. I left 30 days after the election. ) Then, I practiced law again and ran for the commissioner's [ position ] .
WCT: You were also involved with an entity called Netgov.com . What was that?
FC: It's an Internet company that sprang up during that crazy period [ of Net start-ups ] . It stayed in existence for about a year. The company had $20 million in funds from a company called SoftBank, which, at the time, was the leading VC [ venture capital ] company for Internet start-ups. The idea of the company was to take the government, with all of its labor-intensive processes, and provide Internet-based applications and software to eliminate a lot of paperwork and processes to save money and provide more accessible services for its citizens.
I learned a lot during that process. I put out a paper last year that laid out the county's intention to create an electronic court, which would save enormous amounts of paper and money. It would also speed up some of the backlogs. It would be a major project, though, because it would involve four or five different agencies.
WCT: Where did you stand on gay or AIDS-related issues in your previous positions?
FC: I was Mayor Daley's chief of staff during his first and fourth terms, so I was essentially a chief operations officer for the city's officer. I had to implement the mayor's agenda so I had to make sure that programs ran smoothly. The mayor, though, has been strong on gay-rights issues.
WCT: What about other positions?
FC: Well, I was head of the park district for five years. Parks was a rather large enterprise where I established myself as an executive. We won awards and the program was established as a business case study by the University of Virginia.
WCT: When you were doing all that, sometimes department heads stay away from external politics—but sometimes they don't. Were there times when LGBT or AIDS-related issues came up when you feel you were externally supportive?
FC: My roles as the mayor's chief of staff and as parks director were operational; it wasn't my place to take independent political stances. Obviously, as a citizen I have certain issues that are close to my heart. One example involves what is now Vital Bridges; my wife was a dinner chair during the late '90s. We believe in its mission. When I spoke for the mayor, it would've been inappropriate for me to speak out. Now, I'm an independent political actor. I have no compunction about expressing views or fighting for those views.
WCT: Talk about what you've done regarding gay issues as a commissioner. Also, how do you think you compare to Mike Quigley, who has been much more visible on those issues over the last 10 or 12 years?
FC: Obviously, I applaud Mike for the role he has played on the board. We're allies and work together closely on items; we've supported each other's initiatives. I don't think there's a whole lot of difference regarding our positions.
WCT: There isn't a difference in opinions but his style is much more [ visible ] . For example, there was the Boy Scout land issue ...
FC: Well, that's the nature of being colleagues on the board; we try to be respectful of each other where we've established known positions on certain issues. Where I take the initiative on forest preserves, for example, I try to support Mike as a co-sponsor and advocate and back his work. I fight for him but I recognize that he's staked out certain issues. With very few exceptions, we've been in concert with one another.
WCT: So how would you distinguish yourself from him in the gay community—especially if he's staked out that area?
FC: Well, I can't help the fact that Mike was on the board before me. I was pursuing reform through the parks while he was pursuing reform through the board, so I don't think I should be penalized just because ... [ laughs nervously ] I was in my first term and [ he ] was in his second. However, to your point, I think that Mike and I would both be strong advocates of gay rights. I think the difference is that this is a county-wide executive position and I'm the only one in this race who's a proven reformer as an executive of a large organization.
The main reason I'm running [ involves ] healthcare. I've [ co- ] written a plan that would essentially dramatically strengthen access to primary and specialty care for the uninsured and the working poor. It would also create a seamless integrated network of care through public and private partnerships. We have the ability to save lives and elevate the quality of life for hundreds of thousands of families. There's also a problem with waste. Each hospital has its own PR department, legal department, HR department ... it's one health bureau; we don't need a bureaucracy for every hospital.
Despite the fact that Mike and I have similar views on a lot of issues, the question is who has the track record to do something about healthcare and to do something about patronage in medicine.
WCT: Do you know how the CORE [ AIDS ] Center fits in that new model?
FC: The plan itself doesn't provide for every single change. We have a lot of good things that work well. The CORE Center is an important part of our mission; we just want to take away from places that are not working properly. One example involves unnecessary bureaucracy. We want to strengthen the CORE Center, AIDS delivery services and neighborhood-based access for all patients, including those who need AIDS treatment. ... Because of barriers, hospital tend to see people in the acute and chronic stages of disease rather than the preventable stage.
WCT: Did the Boy Scout issue regarding the forest preserves come in your term?
FC: Yes, and I opposed it.
WCT: What about the domestic-partner registry?
FC: Yes. I co-sponsored the registry resolution with Mike.
WCT: Are you for gay marriage and what role do you think the county can play?
FC: That's a good question. Yes, I am for it. I'm no legal expert, but I agree with Mayor Daley that if two committed people want to commit to each other and have all the legal obligations that flow from the institution of marriage, they should have that right—just like heterosexual couples. I would support and advocate that. The issue [ of gay marriage ] is probably a state-related one, but if there's anything the county can do to facilitate, promote and give equal rights to gay couples to have the same rights as heterosexuals, I'm going to be very supportive.
WCT: So being a county board president could be an advocacy position.
FC: Anytime you have a leadership position as chief executive of a $3 billion, 27,000-employee government [ organization ] , you have certain institutional powers but you also have an opinion that has meaning and significance.
WCT: You recently held a benefit that was sponsored by [ openly gay supporter ] Phil Palmer. Where do you feel your base of support is within the gay community versus Quigley?
FC: That was a good event. Phil is a good supporter who was also behind me in my last election. I think I would do well in the gay community. Once again, I'm respectful of the work that Mike has done and I certainly understand why a lot of people are behind him. Again, I think the distinguishing factor is not who has the most gay support or who has the strongest record of supporting gay rights, but who can truly reform this government and who has a proven track record.
WCT: You're aware that five commissioners recently removed their names from the Gay Games resolution. Do you have any comment about that development?
FC: Well, I don't think that they should've been cowed by right-wing extremists who don't represent mainstream Illinois politics—or even mainstream Republican politics. Their reactions were so swift and cowardly that they defy description. I guess it's a testimony to how the Republican party is now so dominated by right-wing ideologues and extremists that even mainstream Republicans feel that they have to kowtow to that type of hateful institution.
WCT: Could you talk briefly about the Whistleblower Reward and Protection Act? [ Note: Claypool sponsored the act's resolution. ]
FC: That law protects employees who blow the whistle on fraud and malfeasance. It also provides an incentive by rewarding them with a percentage of the savings if the complaint leads to recovery of money that was fraudulently taken from them. However, there are also severe penalties for false claims, so it protects people from retaliation.
WCT: How successful has it been?
FC: I don't know. The law has only been on the books for a year and a half. The Inspector General testified that last year that there were three pending cases under the act, but couldn't discuss them. On the federal level—where the law has been in place for 10 years or so—there have been several large actions, adding up to billions of dollars.
WCT: When reading what your Web site had to say about the local budget, one statistic in particular was stunning: The forest preserve sector has a supervisor-to-worker ratio of about three to one. How does something like that happen?
FC: In a patronage-dominated government, the choice jobs are the white-collar, paper-pushing jobs with very little accountability—so [ current board president ] John Stroger and his allies like to protect those jobs at all costs. A good example happened in 2000. There was a financial scandal in which the board discovered that forest preserve management had been taking money from capital accounts for years. The response to that scandal involved Stroger presenting a budget before the board that eliminated the jobs of laborers—those who clean the toilets, pick up the trash, mow the lawns, and so forth. Not a single white-collar employee or manager was eliminated from the budget, even though they were responsible for the financial debacle that happened in the first place. So it was top-heavy in the first place, but when they removed the Indians and not a single chief, the ratio became [ worse ] .
I put in an ordinance in the next budget cycle to fire a third of the managers and hire 50 or 60 laborers, and that was defeated. I put in a resolution to fire the forest preserve superintendent—and that was successful. He resigned the morning of the vote. I've tried to be aggressive in trying to force management and personnel changes.
WCT: You're also doing work with jail.
FC: We're trying to reduce overcrowding. President Stroger has not shown a lot of leadership there, and the federal court now has forced us to hire about 300 jail guards [ to help with the ] supervisory structure. I put in a resolution ( which was defeated ) to require the sheriff to begin moving people off of desks and onto jail guard duty. It's a difficult issue, but there are more effective ways to handle it.
WCT: Such as?
FC: Putting civilians in some positions. Long ago, Mayor Daley moved sworn, uniformed, gun-trained, expensive officers from desk duty and administrative work onto the streets—and replaced them with much less costly civilians who could handle those administrative duties. I think we could do that with the county. People don't care too much about a guy handing out hallway passes who has a gun and a badge.
WCT: What's something that a lot of people don't know about you that you want them to know?
FC: Well, I think the thing that motivates me most is a fundamental belief in the individual. The individual, not the collective and not the state, is what matters. It's about protecting the rights, dignity and potential of every single human being. In my office, I have two photographs; one is of Martin Luther King and the other is of Ayn Rand. I have those because I believe that both were champions of power and the rights of individuals. I think too often that the state, in the name of religion or something else, tends to dehumanize or minimize or restrain the power of individuals ... .
WCT: Are there any other issues close to your heart?
FC: Not only do large, patronage-bloated institutions fail to serve the needs of those who need help the most, but they unfairly steal from hard-working people who live from paycheck to paycheck and who don't have any special connections. That, fundamentally, is wrong and is something that angers me. The issue of protecting the hard-earned money of people is important to me—and I think my record regarding taxes, waste and government efficiency is unparalleled. I don't think you're going to find anyone else who did what I did with the park district. I think the issue of taxes—especially in terms of scandals—is very important and is a driving issue whether you're a businessman, a senior citizen on a fixed income or a hard-working person who wants to enjoy the pursuit of happiness.
WCT: Let's say you win. Do you see that as a stepping stone to a higher office where you can help even more people?
FC: I doubt it. This is a pretty big job; you're talking about $3 billion and 27,000 employees. The potential is there to do so much good and I'm not looking beyond this office.
WCT: You've been in several political positions. Which one has taught you the most about politics?
FC: The park district job is the best job I've ever had; it was the most challenging and meaningful. I was running a large organization and had to tackle the bureaucracy and lack of accountability as well as degraded facilities and loss of revenue. In turning around that agency, I also met an enormously talented group of people who wanted to be part of something larger than themselves. The process was enormously rewarding.