CHICAGO — The race for president of the Cook County Board has been thrown into uncertainty because of a stroke suffered by incumbent President John Stroger on March 14. It is not known how serious Stroger’s illness is.

Up to this point, privatization of county services and public worker layoffs have emerged as key issues in the race. The Democratic Primary will be held March 21 and pits Stroger, the board’s first African American president, against Forrest Claypool, a board commissioner and former chief of staff of Mayor Richard M. Daley. Claypool is also a former superintendent of the Chicago Park District.

The Chicago Federation of Labor endorsed Stroger. At a Feb. 23 get-out-the-vote rally, CFL President Dennis Gannon said this was the most important race facing the labor movement and that the federation was going all out to re-elect Stroger.

“This race is about one word — privatization!” said Gannon. “We have to stop it.”

When Claypool was park superintendent he fired 1,000 workers (or 25 percent of the work force) and cut service to poorer communities. Claypool privatized these lost jobs and many operations, including management of Soldier Field, Lincoln Park Zoo, municipal golf courses, parking garages and janitorial services. This also resulted in steeply increased fees for activities.

There is a lot of confusion because Stroger also has longtime ties with the old Democratic Party machine and has been accused of allowing the county forest preserves and other services to deteriorate under the patronage system.

Because of his stint in the Parks Department, Claypool has been portrayed as a reformer who will clean up the mess. He has won support from many independents, North Side liberals and environmentalists.

But Claypool is also the product of the Daley machine. The privatization of Parks Department services resulted in bolstering the patronage system by bypassing the Shakman decree, the federal court order that bars political hiring. Claypool also has the support of many ward machines and the business community.

In its endorsement of Claypool, Crain’s Chicago noted, “Mr. Stroger clearly isn’t willing to make the changes needed to bring county government into the 21st century: reducing head count by using technology to the fullest extent possible, offloading operations when it makes sense and taking politics out of hiring.” Crain’s believes that Claypool will downsize and privatize county services.

Stroger has won praise, including from the CFL, for his dedication to maintaining Cook County Hospital as the only place that tens of thousands of poor and uninsured county residents can get health care. As a result, the hospital was named after him.

In addition to having strong support in the African American community, Stroger also has support in the Latino community, which also fought for the new hospital. While Stroger is not without his problems, Alderman Ricardo Munoz said, “I shudder to think about what a Claypool administration could do to the health care system.”

Stroger also has support in the gay and lesbian community because he has been a longtime supporter of gay rights and Stroger hospital “has been a place of last resort” for gays, especially those seeking treatment for HIV/AIDS.

For sure, county services will always suffer under the corruption of the Democratic Party machine. But privatization and downsizing is no answer either. A solution lies in building an independent political movement with labor and its allies at its core.