Assessing Berrios’ chances: Removing rival from primary ballot tightens race

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The Democratic primary for Cook County assessor potentially became a whole lot more interesting Monday when a hearing officer recommended removing one of the candidates from the ballot.

The finding, if upheld, would leave embattled incumbent Joseph Berrios in a one-on-one primary battle with the individual generally regarded as his strongest challenger, Oak Park financial analyst Fritz Kaegi.

Berrios, who is seeking his third term as assessor while also serving as chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, is considered vulnerable this year in a two-candidate race but less so in a three-way contest that might split his opposition voters.

Before Monday, the three-way scenario loomed likely with both Kaegi and Andrea Raila, who operates a business that helps property owners appeal their real estate taxes, vying for the anti-Berrios vote.

But Christopher Agrella, a hearing officer for the Cook County electoral board, ruled Raila should be dropped from the March 20 ballot because she and her campaign engaged in a pattern of fraud in her nominating petitions.

Raila and her attorney Frank Avila acknowledged “mistakes were made” but denied there was fraud and accused the hearing officer of being biased in favor of Kaegi.

They said she would challenge the ruling, first with the Cook County electoral board, and if necessary after that, by filing suit in circuit court.

The electoral board is a three-member panel that normally consists of the county clerk, state’s attorney and clerk of the circuit court.

Cook County assessor Democratic primary candidates Andrea A. Raila, left, and Fritz Kaegi met with the Sun-Times Editorial Board Friday, January 26, 2018. File Photo. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Cook County Clerk David Orr, whose office oversees county elections, has recused himself from participating in the ballot challenges involving the assessor’s race because he has endorsed Kaegi.

That leaves only the circuit court clerk and state’s attorney to rule on the hearing officer’s finding. The electoral board is expected to meet Friday.

It was political newcomer Kaegi who pressed the petition challenge against Raila after Berrios dropped his own challenge to her petitions when he lost his bid to knock Kaegi off the ballot.

In addition to Orr, Kaegi has the backing of much of the Democratic Party’s progressive establishment, including congressmen Bobby Rush, Robin Kelly, Danny Davis, Bill Foster, Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, Sen. Heather Steans, Rep. Will Guzzardi and nine Chicago aldermen. Kaegi has reported loaning his campaign $800,000.

Long regarded as a lightning rod for his unapologetic, old-fashioned Democratic Machine ways, Berrios saw his political problems magnified by a Chicago Tribune-ProPublica investigation critical of his assessment practices. But he retains strong support among most party leaders.

Raila ran against Berrios in 2010 and regards herself as the most qualified candidate in the race because of her tax appeal work. She also has progressive credentials, touting the support of former Ald. Dick Simpson, former Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon and the iconic author-broadcaster Studs Terkel.

When it was pointed out to her that Terkel has been dead since 2008, Raila suggested reporters contact Terkel’s son for confirmation of the endorsement.

Raila said both Berrios and Kaegi feared running against a qualified woman in what many expect to be a strong year for female candidates across the ballot.

The Kaegi campaign, which because of the high stakes spared little expense in its legal attack on Raila’s petitions, naturally welcomed the decision.

“We look forward to continuing to focus squarely on defeating Joe Berrios, because the voters deserve an Assessor who operates fairly, transparently and professionally — and that’s what’s at stake in this election,” said Kaegi campaign manager Rebecca Reynolds.

The Berrios campaign had no comment on Agrella’s finding, which was issued orally at the conclusion of a hearing that had stretched over 11 days. The hearing officer still must file a written report.

The accusations of fraud centered mainly on Raila and others notarizing petition sheets without the person who originally circulated them being present, as required by law. For every notary who committed an instance of what he deemed to be fraud, Agrella tossed out all the petitions they had notarized.

Avila argued that exceeded the hearing officer’s authority.

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