Two months after winning the democratic primary to take over the Cook County Assessor’s Office, Fritz Kaegi sits at a plastic folding table at his campaign headquarters.
The 10th floor office’s rooms in the shadow of the Chicago Board of Exchange were once covered in stacks of challenger Andrea Raila’s petition papers. Now the office is nearly empty. Kaegi’s team is moving out of campaign mode and into transition mode. While his message of ethics and reform is much the same, the tone has changed.
In one of the most in-depth interviews he’s given since that win, Hyde Park native and wealthy Oak Park resident Kaegi refers multiple times to outgoing Assessor Joe Berrios’ graciousness despite his loss. He gives President Toni Preckwinkle’s steadfast support of Berrios during the campaign wide berth. He is optimistic about his ability to shift both the practices and the perception of the assessor’s office, even as Lake View and Rogers Park township homeowners express sticker shock, with more likely to come.
Beyond the assessor’s purview, he believes the state is on the cusp of a “special moment” to enact a graduated income tax. That tax, in combination with reforms to the assessment system, can attract global investment and drive economic growth in neglected pockets of Chicago and suburban Cook County that have long-been subject to regressive taxation, Kaegi said.
All of it will take years, Kaegi said.
“We’re entrusted to reform this system,” he said. “We greatly feel the urgency to fix it. It will take a couple years for the results that we are accountable for to have a visible impact on them. We hope people will be patient with us in letting that happen, but know that we greatly feel the urgency of it and we’re focused on it every day.”
Asked about all the roadblocks – county budget woes, potential North Side backlash to higher valuations, rising levies and pending litigation against Berrios’ office – to making those changes, he is steadfast that none of it will stop what he promised voters.
“In the end, what people want is for this office to be run more ethically and to get it right the first time,” Kaegi said. “Everything that we do is geared towards that.”
Here are five big takeaways from our hour with Fritz Kaegi:
- It’s hard to know what is leading to big changes in valuations on the North Side: Berrios’ office has already rolled out a new model, which is reflected on valuations for property owners on the city’s North Side. While the median increase in valuation for Lake View homeowners was 31.24 percent, some saw their valuations double. The assessor’s office said much of the jump can be attributed to increasing values overall after the housing rebound, but Kaegi says, “It’s hard to know how much to attribute to each factor until we get an actual look at the data. One of the things that’s troubling, that troubled us during the whole campaign was the total lack of transparency.” He pledges to open that data up – come what may on pending litigation – once he takes office.
- Congressional endorsements were key: “People who are beholden to the machine are not going to be able to be the first endorsers, but we thought there are many powerful people who could endorse us who are not beholden to the machine. If we can persuade them that we’ll have a viable campaign, that we have a good message that the voters are ready to make a change, we think we can get your endorsements,” while progressive aldermen, committeemen, mayors, Clerk David Orr and Chuy Garcia came first, U.S. Reps. Robin Kelly, Danny Davis, and Bobby Rush were “really helpful in building credibility for our campaign,” and “knew about these issues before we started running.”
- He is in for JB…: Kaegi is “out there backing JB Pritzker very actively in this campaign because this is a special moment when we can get a graduated income tax finally passed.” He says the tax Pritzker has backed “is a necessary condition for attacking our state’s fiscal problems, coming up with more fair funding for schools, for addressing pension issues, for making this a better economic environment under which people can live.” He will likewise back state House candidates in swing races in this cycle to help achieve that goal.
- … But believes in the need for campaign finance reform: Kaegi sunk close to $2 million into his own campaign. “It is very disheartening when you have to think about, ‘Is the price of admission for running for governor to be a centimillionaire or a billionaire?’ That’s really bad for democracy. I think JB’s a great candidate and I think he’ll be a great governor, but I think he also recognizes that there are other people out there who could be good governors too, and we should have a public financing system that gives them a fair shot of doing that.”
- Private sector-inspired reforms will come first: In addition to maintaining his campaign pledge not to accept donations from property tax attorneys, Kaegi says some other ethics rules from his time as an investment analyst will come to the assessor’s office. Those promises include holding quarterly conference calls, releasing an expanded annual report, opening up the data to taxpayers and third parties, maintaining a visitor’s log, limiting gifts and entertainment for people that work in the office, and try to “anonymize to the workers and analysts who the tax appeals attorneys are on different cases so analysts can just be focused on the facts of the case rather than the identity of who is involved.”