Fritz Kaegi is a thorn in the Cook County Assessor’s side. The millionaire financial manager is running against Joe Berrios in the March 2018 primary election. Running on the platform of being a progressive Democrat, the husband and father of three resides in Oak Park, and as a Certified Illinois Assessment Officer, he has mastered the property tax assessment system.
Financing his own campaign with $1.3 million since December 2017, this is the first time he has taken the leap in running for a public office.
Growing up in the Hyde Park community, Kaegi attended Kenwood Academy. His father was a history professor at the University of Chicago, and his mother was an editor and former peace officer who was active in Civil Rights causes. Raising his own family, he’s built a career as a financial manager for Columbia Wanger Asset Management, which would lead him to co-manage company assets and become a long-term Democratic donor supporting causes such as the minimum wage ballot measure, Planned Parenthood, ACLU and other organizations.
He is no stranger to going against the grain.
“I grew up in the 80’s surrounded by discussions about progressive politics. I’ve played baseball and would be playing with my friends in the alley where I would see Harold Washington posters on the poles–Come Alive with ’85 and We Should See in ’83. That was my first awareness in politics. After graduating from college, I lived abroad for a while. I came back to Chicago in 2001. I’ve been here ever since. I have a wife, Rebecca. I have three kids and attend First United Methodist Church of Oak Park,” said Kaegi. “I was really proud of my career. I’ve always had an interest in serving my community. I got involved in politics—supporting young Democrats and I did this for over a decade. I also served on a board for Central Venture Partners.”
Visiting different communities throughout Cook County, Kaegi says the conversation is often the same especially among Black and Latino property owners who feel there is an unfairness in the current property assessment system. He agrees wholeheartedly that there needs to be immediate changes so that taxpayers are not in jeopardy of losing their property.
“Every time we go, and we talk to people who say, ‘I was displaced from my home because the property assessment was too high.’ Or you talk to someone who had a family business and they were forced out or talk to someone in the faith community. Every time you lose someone in a church, the whole church can feel it,” he says.
“If someone is teaching youth ministry, you feel that departure. This is what this office [Cook County Assessor] is about because when we have over assessment, it causes people to be displaced, causes businesses to disinvest and go vacant. At the same time, there is lavish benefits to downtown corporate skyscraper owners. Our assessment system hasn’t caught up.”
Kaegi is not only up against the incumbent Assessor Joe Berrios, he is also running against the Chair of the Cook County Democratic party, which Berrios holds. This doesn’t faze the native South Sider. His endorsements from Black public officials and faith leaders include Congressman Danny K. Davis, Congresswoman Robin Kelly, Rev. Otis Moss, Father Pfleger, Rev. Marshall Hatch and Rev. Ira Acree among others.
He has a plan in place to change the current system.
“Change is long overdue, but it’s gotten worse under Assessor Berrios. He gets his campaign financed by lawyers who are in the assessor repeal business. He’s not focused on fixing our assessment system. He’s focused on getting more business for his campaign donors by telling people to appeal. We’re never going to fix the system that way,” he continues.
“First of all, we’re not taking donations from lawyers or people from the industry of property tax assessment. They function from a malfunctioned system and it creates bias. It’s a big part of the problem. We’re also put in a lot of rules that will take out political influence and the appearance of political influence and favoritism from the assessment process.
“Secondly, the first thing we want to tell people [is how] they are calculated. They won’t reveal the basic aspects right now. It’s hidden behind closed doors. That’s unique in this state. The other counties do that. It allows bias and malfunctioned process, and it’s not accountable. I want to open up the data and algorithms. That would go a long way. How we measure this office is how are you doing for the vast majority of people that don’t appeal.”
Kaegi concludes his progressive plan. “There’s a better model available that is less regressive, that’s more accurate. The office already owns this model. The PWR model. The assessor’s office told us they were going to implement but because they agreed it was horribly regressive. It took the Chicago Tribune‘s investigation last summer to show that they were lying, they didn’t implement the system. It’s only gotten worse. That’s why people are so mad. Not only is the system being corrupt, it generates unjust outcomes,” he adds.
“We don’t need a new law to implement them, it requires new leadership in this office to drive out the ‘pay for play’ and to put in rules to make it transparent.”
According to a recent poll by Public Policy Polling (PPP)—the polling memo showed Kaegi in the lead over Berrios. With 44 percent for Kaegi and 27 for Berrios, he leads over incumbent and Cook County Democratic Party Chairman Joe Berrios. PPP surveyed 757 likely Democratic primary voters in Cook Co. from February 6-7, 2018. The margin of error for the poll is +/- 3.6 percent.
Having a major budget has allowed Kaegi to push his legal team to challenge candidate Andrea Raila. Both sides have issued statements on Raila’s allegations of Kaegi’s harassments and Kaegi alleging a “fraudulent petition drive” by Raila. As it stands, Kaegi will be the only Democratic candidate to face Berrios in the primary election.
“We’re 100 percent focused on earning people’s trust. The first thing to earn the people’s trust is to walk the walk by having a representative staff. I grew up in an integrated community in Hyde Park. I’m always mindful when I’m not in an integrated community. I want to have the office looking like this– not just demographically but geographically,” he says. “The Southland has been mistreated by the county for so long. They are especially vulnerable by the unfairness of this system. People go to Will County or Indiana, so we need to get it right for them. We also need to speak out more for policies like progressive income taxes, a better school funding formula.”
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