Todd Stroger is a surprise. And that’s a surprise to me.

With two Journal colleagues, I went to Stroger’s office last week. So disrespected does the Cook County board president’s camp feel by the daily papers, one Stroger aide made a point of inviting us over. I expected a brief and shallow encounter on the fifth floor of the County Building. Some 90 minutes later, Stroger and three aides seemed reluctant to see us leave.

Stroger is soft-spoken and, at 46, has a cheerful ease about him. He talks about broad successes over nearly three years. While more knowledgeable and more engaged on issues than I expected, Stroger will never be mistaken for a policy wonk. Like many executives, he talks more about good hires than about problems those folks need to fix.

Even when Stroger takes people down – he had strong rips at Rod Blagojevich, mild barbs at the mayor, and utter contempt for “the obstacles,” his term for opponents on the county board – he does it with a smile and whimsy.

“You don’t see them tote me off to jail,” he says.

Being indictment-free is a low bar. But this is Illinois.

After being crucified over the hike in the county’s share of the sales tax, Stroger’s facing more modest budget woes than city and state government. And, yes, he may be enjoying it. “We’re not saying the same things the mayor has to say,” Stroger told us. “We just do what we’re supposed to do.”

Under public pressure or court order, Stroger has had to peel from county government direct operation of the health and juvenile justice systems. He walks the fine line of taking credit for those transitions while honoring the tenure of his late father and predecessor, John Stroger, from whom he acknowledges inheriting old school government: “Pen, paper, manpower.” And while he defends adding technology to a hidebound, job-protecting bureaucracy, he hints at nostalgia for his dad’s slow ways.

“The county ran fine under President John Stroger. … My father cared about people. He not only cared about the health care system, he cared about that clerk who’s making $19,000, who will find herself out on the street with no job at all if the commissioners had made their changes as soon as they wanted. … The county is really based on a lot of clerical work. Getting paper pushed or paper moved around. … There’s a lot of low-skill jobs you don’t have to have a college degree to do. As we move into a more technological age, those types of people won’t be hired.”

The county has 10 percent fewer employees than when he took office, Stroger says. More technology might allow another 5 percent cut in staffing over several years. That would make the county about as efficient as it can be, Stroger claims, refuting frequent charges of bloat and patronage.

He knows he’s in for a tough primary fight in February but says African-American voters on the West and South Sides will stick with him over other black candidates, that Cong. Danny Davis and Ald. Toni Preckwinkle will be frowned on by the base for “taking advantage” of his woes.

“There won’t be a bigger underdog than Todd Stroger in this election,” he said with a smile.

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Dan Haley

Dan was one of the three founders of Wednesday Journal in 1980. He’s still here as its four flags – Wednesday Journal, Austin Weekly News, Forest Park Review and Riverside-Brookfield Landmark – make...