By DON BABWIN, Associated Press

CHICAGO (AP) — Far down the ballot for Tuesday’s election in Cook County — way past the candidates running for Barack Obama’s old Senate seat and the governor’s job once held by the ousted Rod Blagojevich — is a contest that may say more about Chicago-style politics than any other.

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The race for the obscure but powerful post of county assessor pits an old-school Democratic Party stalwart criticized for helping hire family members to government jobs and accused of arranging tax breaks for friends against a self-styled reformer who worked as Mayor Richard M. Daley’s chief of staff.

While many voters may not know exactly what the assessor does (sets property values), the results of the race could offer a window into the state of the storied Chicago Machine and the Democrats’ stranglehold on politics here.

In one corner is the official Democratic candidate, Joseph Berrios, who has been involved in the party’s politics since he was in high school. Now a member of the county’s tax appeals board who also works as a lobbyist, Berrios has been the subject of scathing editorials about his many roles, his relatives’ jobs and the alleged tax breaks for friends and political donors.

His opponent, Forrest Claypool, is no stranger to local politics. Now a county commissioner, he previously made a name for himself by slashing patronage jobs when he was a member of the park district board. A longtime Democrat, he declared himself an independent and jumped into the assessor’s race after Berrios won the primary, and has set up a website to criticize his opponent’s practices.

Berrios acknowledges being portrayed as part of the “old guard,” but rejects the label. While he denies doling out favors to friends, he isn’t about to apologize for having helped put “Let me see, one, two, three … yeah, four,” family members into tax-paid government jobs.

“Why should they be told, ‘You can’t be involved in government just because your brother or sister or relative decided to run for public office?”‘ he told The Associated Press in an interview.

If Claypool is elected over Berrios and two other candidates on the ballot, it would mark the first time in Cook County’s 180-year history that an independent won a countywide election.

The contest is particularly important because Berrios, besides being a commissioner of the county’s Board of Review, is chairman of the county’s Democratic Party, an organization that some believe has been weakening in recent years.

“If they can’t elect their own chairman to a position like assessor, they really have lost a lot of power,” said Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a former city alderman. “It would mean (the party) is even weaker than most people calculated.”

The political landscape has changed from the days when the first Mayor Daley, Richard J., wielded almost unlimited power. But in Chicago and Cook County, the vast majority of elected officials are still Democrats. In the city, for example, there is no talk about whether or not a Democrat will replace the current Mayor Daley, who is retiring, only which one.

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Nobody doubts that the Democratic candidate for Cook County board chairman, Toni Preckwinkle, will soundly defeat her Republican opponent. She would take over for the embattled incumbent, Todd Stroger, who was nominated to the post after the death of his father, and whom Preckwinkle soundly defeated in the primary.

As for the assessor’s race, whoever wins lands a little-known job whose main duty is to set real estate values used to calculate tax bills.

“This is a position where you are able to, if you are so disposed, help your friends and hurt your enemies,” said Kent Redfield, a professor emeritus of politics at the University of Illinois-Springfield.

Just how powerful the assessor is can be found in this bit of Cook County trivia: In the late 1970s the president of the state senate decided not to run for re-election in favor of a run for county assessor.

“Try to explain that to someone from Wisconsin,” Redfield said.

Many see the increasingly bitter assessor’s race as a referendum on the old days when political cronies gathered in smoky back rooms to make deals, line each other’s pockets and the pockets of their friends.

Calling Berrios an “affable throwback to a day when pols laughed off good-government reform,” the Chicago Sun-Times editorialized about Berrios: “In his years at the Board of Review … he has loaded the payroll with relatives. He has accepted campaign donations from lawyers almost at the same moment that he has granted tax breaks to their clients.”

Claypool has put up a website based on public documents that he said shows a link between tax appeal lawyers’ ability to donate to his campaign and Berrios’ ability to cut them property tax breaks.

Speaking to the AP, he said if he wins it would amount to a “seismic event that shows voters have revolted against the insider culture that has dominated our politics.”

Berrios dismisses such talk, asserting that he has been part of a movement to “open” the Democratic party in Cook County. “It’s not like the old days where guys came from smoke filled rooms and said these are our chosen candidates,” he said.

He counters by pointing out that his opponent, Claypool, didn’t vote in February’s primary election.

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