Cook County assessor gets first challenger for ’22 primary election; Kari Steele calls incumbent Fritz Kaegi’s term ‘chaotic’

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Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Board President Kari Steele announced her campaign against incumbent Cook County Assessor Fritz Kaegi on Monday, pitching herself as a grassroots candidate who would tidy up an office she said was replete with disorganization.

Steele, Kaegi’s first challenger in next June’s Democratic primary, is the first Black woman to lead the agency tasked with managing wastewater and stormwater in Cook County. The debut of her campaign comes a month after Kaegi announced he will seek a second term in 2022.

Facing an incumbent foe with a slate of endorsements from the Democratic establishment, Steele acknowledged she had an “uphill battle” against Kaegi but said her opportunity lies with what she described as entrenched frustration among property owners.

“Currently, everywhere I go across Cook County, people are complaining about their property taxes or simply just don’t understand what’s going on,” Steele said in an interview with the Tribune. “I plan to make property taxes fair for working families and create a system of stability and transparency for businesses.”

Steele went on to use the word “chaotic” three times to describe Kaegi’s tenure. Among her criticisms was that his office was mismanaged and that working-class families shouldered an “unfair tax burden,” she said, adding such conversations take place at “almost every community meeting I go to.”

“He has created chaos in the system because there is no continuity in the assessments or decision making,” Steele said. “My plan is to jump in and get some order to ensure my constituents have the equity and fairness that they’re looking for.”

In a statement Monday, Kaegi defended his record in what he described as “transforming the old, broken property tax system into one based on fairness, transparency, and ethics.” He cited that in 2021, residential tax bills went up just 1% this year, the average property tax bill in Chicago went down and appeals declined.

“There’s much more to be done to achieve our vision for a fair and just system, but homeowners in Chicago and the suburbs are starting to see the positive effects,” Kaegi said. “I look forward to a robust conversation about how we continue toward a more equitable future and leave the corruption of the past behind us.”

The challenger took shots at how Kaegi’s office had to fix multiple errors in a senior tax break program this year after an investigation by the Sun-Times, although Kaegi has attributed those snafus to “previous administrations” and said they were fixed. Campaign spokesperson Eli Stone added Monday that those faulty assessments affected 0.1% of total senior freeze recipients, or 126 people out of 144,000.

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Steele, who grew up on the South Side, is a chemist who highlighted her environmentalist bona fides while kicking off her campaign Monday. Her key promises include incentivizing green infrastructure and fighting environmental racism and climate change.

She also said she can handle the numbers-crunching that comes with being assessor, pointing to her management of the Water Reclamation District’s $1.2 billion budget, 2,000-employee staff and triple-A bond rating.

The assessor’s office is in charge of determining residential and commercial values as part of the county’s property tax process, which has drawn intense scrutiny in earlier years, leading to embattled Democratic insider Joe Berrios’ ouster as assessor in 2018. Kaegi was the unexpected winner in the Democratic primary that year and rode a wave of discontent over Berrios’ assessments that the Tribune found had shifted an outsize portion of the property tax burden from the wealthy to the poor.

Since taking office, Kaegi has replaced most of Berrios’ top staffers and implemented multiple changes in the property tax assessment system. He has faced criticisms from the development community that he drove away investors following a round of assessments in 2019 that shifted some tax burden from homes to businesses in the northern portion of the county.

When he debuted his reelection campaign last month in South Shore, he lambasted what he said were previous undervaluations of large commercial properties and touted his office’s reforms that rolled back vacancy rewards. He also had the backing of a wide slate of Democratic congressmen, aldermen and county commissioners standing with him, along with the support of Cook County Democratic Party chair Toni Preckwinkle.

In her campaign reveal, Steele publicized only the endorsement of Cook County Circuit Court Clerk Iris Martinez, a newly elected official in charge of managing the court system and records.

“It doesn’t worry me,” Steele said about Kaegi’s longer list of endorsers. “I do know I have an uphill battle but, and they usually support the incumbent, but I will seek the support of the Democratic Party as well.”

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