Peter Gariepy is a Certified Public Accountant and Democratic candidate for Cook County treasurer in the March 20 primary. He recently picked up the endorsement of Run for Something, an organization dedicated to helping younger people run for political office. He is challenging five-term incumbent treasurer Maria Pappas, who was first elected in 1998.
The Gate: Why is it time for a change in the Cook County treasurer’s office—why are you running?
Peter Gariepy: The Cook County treasurer’s office is kind of a funny office—and this is one of the things that struck me—in that it’s kind of agnostic. It doesn’t vote on anything, it doesn’t assess property values, so there’s no competing interests that you have to balance. And that’s where, the more that I looked at it, the Cook County treasurer’s office, the way it exists, should be the most creative and proactive taxpayer advocate in the entire county, and that’s not the case right now.
The existing treasurer, she has been the treasurer since 1998, she has not had a Democratic challenger for this office since her initial campaign in 1998, and she has not had a Democratic challenger in any race since 2004 when it was then-state-senator Barack Obama. Just to let you know, this is an office where there is, by simply applying imagination and open-mindedness and hard work, there is a tremendous amount of value that can be created for taxpayers, regardless of income, education, or zip code that would make it far easier for a taxpayer, regardless of the situation, to easily and more effectively advocate on behalf of them and their households.
Gate: Your website deals a lot with transparency and accountability, as well as imagination, as you say—how would you bring more accountability and transparency to the office than the current treasurer?
Gariepy: One of the big things that I’ve always been taken with was, in 2014, the White House put out an itemized taxpayer receipt. Now, it was essentially just a spreadsheet where you would enter your federal tax burden and it would allocate those funds over the federal budget by percentages within the federal budget broken down dollars and cents to show you how much you’re not only paying to the federal government, but to the National Endowment for the Arts. We can break it down further, how much went to PBS, or to the Army, the Navy, and so on. It was really interesting! I’m a CPA, that’s my background, and I had never seen taxes before presented as almost a purchase or transaction, where you’d normally get an itemized receipt. I thought, we really don’t interact with the federal budget on a daily basis, but with our local and municipal budgets we absolutely do. In Cook County, our property taxes fund approximately 75 percent of our local goods and services: our schools, our police districts, parks, those things that you and your household interact with most intimately on a regular basis. It was also in 2014 that our wife and I bought our home: we live in the West Town neighborhood of the First Ward, and I started to look at my own property tax bill and think, ‘This isn’t helpful at all.’ It’s not helpful to see how much I pay that just goes to the City of Chicago, or to the CPS Building and Improvement Fund. I want to know how much goes to the twelfth Police District that I live in, or how much goes to Wells High School that’s across the street from my house. Those are the things that are going to ... if my daughter attends that school, or I call the police, it makes more sense if I can then call my Alderman or Cook County Commissioner and say, ‘I disagree with where you sent $382 of my tax dollars. More should be going there, less should be going there, and then reallocated or trimmed off of my total bill.’ Right now, it’s extraordinarily difficult for people to make those informed requests of their elected officials.
Gate: What are your thoughts on the Cook County soda tax plan?
Gariepy: I disagree with how it was administered, and I think it was done in a way that was not truly forthright. I understand sin taxes, in many cases, they’re appropriate, in cases of alcohol and cigarettes, but I agree with it not simply as a deterrent with that money going into the federal treasury, but where the money generated from those taxes is further leveraged to have a positive impact on public health. I would have an easier time with the soda tax if every dollar generated was going to help to fund athletic programs in those public schools where they have been cut, especially in low-income areas with higher rates of obesity and diabetes. But that wasn’t the purpose of this tax—this tax was meant to shore up county coffers, and then some money would go to public health initiatives, so I disagree with that. When it comes to operating funds of any entity, whether it is municipal or a private business, it should be able to stand on its own. If there is a special assessment or something in this case, where it’s not a special assessment but a tax on a particular thing that’s meant to drive a particular behavior, then everything that that tax generates should go towards that behavior if that’s truly the intent. I don’t think that the intent was forthwrite, I think that was the biggest deal. If we come back to the transparency side, if, as a taxpayer, you buy a soda or a can of pop, then look on your receipt and see the incremental tax, you should be able to know, when you pay this higher tax, where the money is going. It is going to help athletic programs in these low-income schools, and I’m fine with that, if that’s who it’s going to benefit. But if it is simply to deal with budgets that have gotten out of control at a county level, I don’t believe that that should be tacked on to those who choose to drink soda.
Gate: You have been endorsed by Run for Something. What is it like running for office in a place like Cook County as younger candidate?
Gariepy: To be honest with you, it’s a lot of fun. Cook County, and Chicago as well, is well-known for its political history, but it really is a lot of fun. As a candidate, when you reach out to an organization like Run for Something or a political figure for support, reaching out as a candidate is definitely a different position from which to speak, because you will be held accountable, as you should be, as a candidate, for what you are saying and for those people with whom you choose to associate. A really neat process was going through slating—it’s a biannual meeting of the Cook County Party when candidates who are seeking the endorsement of the Cook County Democratic Party step forward in front of the Party’s eighty committeemen from the fifty wards and thirty from the surrounding townships, and you give your pitch. You look out over the crowd, and, to anyone who pays attention to Chicago and Cook County politics, there are some familiar and well-known faces that have been in this for quite some time. It’s really flattering to have their attention, to be able to speak to them, and it’s a lot of fun. If you’re going to get in this, it’s important to truly believe your reasons and your motivations to do this, so it’s really a neat task and a neat experience to get up there and make your pitch to people who have done this for a majority of their lives and in many cases have been successful. It’s a wonderful experience for anyone else thinking about doing it—do your homework to make sure you’re never caught on a technicality, but it’s really a lot of fun.
Gate: Do you believe that increased turnout in the primary, whether it be due to the actions of the President, the governor, or the mayor, will help your candidacy?
Gariepy: That’s a good question. I think that the turnout will likely be—it obviously won’t be as high as the 2016 Presidential primary—so I’m projecting turnout between three hundred thousand and 350 thousand for the Democratic primary within Cook County. Cook County has an open primary: as long as you’re a registered voter, you show up and request a ballot for either party, and only that party. You ask for a certain party’s ballot, they give you one. There are really no viable primary races within the Republican Party as it applies to Cook County—Governor Rauner will definitely get the Republican nomination, and there really aren’t any other competitive races within the Republican Party, so I imagine that those who are inclined or impelled to vote, even if they are not Democrats themselves, would request Democratic ballots. And, knock on wood, everyone with whom we have spoken already has been very responsive to our campaign, and that includes elected officials, different community activists, so we have been lucky in that regard. However, my opponent has been elected at the county level since 1990. She was a two-term county commissioner as well, so it’s certainly an uphill battle in regards to name recognition. That is where a majority of our work is between now and March 20. If we can hit two hundred thousand votes, we should be in good shape, but I’m certainly not naive in the amount of ground we need to cover over what is a 945 square mile county and the nation’s second largest taxing district behind Los Angeles County. It’s a big county, but it’s a small world out there in regards to those who are politically engaged.
Gate: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Gariepy: Please register to vote. Please check out our website. Nowadays, our campaigns are totally different. It’s not just about yard signs; people communicate differently, so that’s where a digital platform and social media to an extent can let you further leverage the budget that you tend to work off of as a new candidate, and I hope that that is encouraging to anyone who is thinking about getting in, about running for office. If you have a message you believe in, you have affordable ways to get it out there, and that’s where the support of groups like Run for Something that can help amplify your message, are extremely helpful. As a younger candidate, and I don’t think it’s solely about running against incumbency, incumbency is not an evil thing, but if you do see something where you see it should be better, the tools are there to step forward and extend your message. It really is a good and exciting time to be a first-time candidate.
This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness. The image is provided by Peter Gariepy. Ridgley Knapp is a member of the University of Chicago Democrats, to whom Mr. Gariepy spoke on Monday, October 23rd. Opinions expressed in this interview do not necessarily reflect that of the Gate's staff.
Ridgley Knapp is a third-year Political Science major interested in domestic policy and economic theory. This summer, he was an intern for Senator Richard Blumenthal in Washington, D.C. On campus, he is a member of varsity crew and the UC Democrats. He also sits on the Executive Board of College Democrats of Illinois. When he isn't working, he enjoys spending time with friends.