The Democratic primary race for Cook County assessor is in full swing with television attack ads from the campaign of embattled incumbent Joe Berrios, which attempt to position Oak Park challenger Fritz Kaegi as an "investment banker" who invested in private prisons.
But Kaegi has come out counterpunching against his rival, telling Wednesday Journal that the ads are "an attempt to distract people from the record about what a failure Joe Berrios has been as an assessor and the damage that it's caused, and the corruption that's come with it."
Berrios could not be reached for comment.
Although identified in the ad as an "investment banker," Kaegi was, in fact, an asset manager for mutual funds, one of which, known as the Acorn Fund, invests in smaller companies.
After Kaegi left the fund in March to run for assessor, the remaining managers invested about $29 million in CoreCivic, a private-prison company formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America.
"During the whole time I managed the Acorn Fund, which was from 2015 to March 13, 2017, we never invested in companies in that industry, and the reason why is, I always blocked investments in that industry." Kaegi said, adding that he is not only morally opposed to private prisons but also finds them to be a risky investment.
"I thought they were bad companies doing bad things, but I also thought they are in a bad business because the whole trend toward mass incarceration was changing," he said.
His bear-ish position on private prisons was inspired by reading the book The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, which explores trends in mass incarceration.
Kaegi said Berrios is desperate because of widespread criticism of his management of the Assessor's Office, which was explored in a detailed exposé this summer by the Chicago Tribune.
That and subsequent reports from the Tribune revealed how the Assessor's Office has maintained a system that allows the wealthy to, in many cases, reduce their property taxes, while lower-income property owners are subjected to tax increases.
The system benefits the wealthy and the politically connected elite who run law firms that represent them, according to the report and according to Kaegi.
"I think it's no coincidence that they started talking about this at the same time the Tribune had this bombshell exposé on how billions and billions and billions of dollars of abatement benefits were given to the clients of Joe Berrios' campaign donors," Kaegi said. "And that is sort of the bookend to the exposé the Tribune did earlier this summer showing extensive overassessment of black and brown communities, including on the West Side and the western suburbs."
Berrios also has challenged Kaegi's nominating petition in an effort to get him kicked off the ballot, a standard tactic used by incumbent politicians to block challengers.
"It's harassment and it's going to backfire on the Berrios people because all these people [who signed the petition] are fighting mad," Kaegi said, comparing the tactic to "Putin's Russia."
"Oak Parkers are telling all their friends about this. It's one thing to read about Joe Berrios; it's another thing to experience the harassment yourself."
Despite Kaegi's indignity over the ballot challenge, his campaign has similarly challenged the nominating petition of a third — and largely ignored by major media outlets — candidate, Andrea Raila.
Raila's nominating petition also has been challenged by the Berrios campaign. Raila is a tax analyst for the lawfirm Raila & Associates and has served on the board of review that determines whether tax assessments can be reduced. She is also has represented clients aiming to get their property taxes reduced.
Raila claims in a press release that the Kaegi and Berrios campaigns are "working together" against her "constitutional right to have her name on the ballot."
The Kaegi campaign responded to the petition challenge stating: "Our campaign is focused on demonstrating to the electoral board that we exceed the requirements to get on the ballot. Ms. Raila has a chance to make her case to the electoral board as well. The process of getting on the ballot is onerous, but candidates need to follow the rules just as elected officials need to follow the rules."
* This story was updated to correct information identifying Andrea Raila as an attorney.
Answer Book 2018
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