CHICAGO -- Jim Wright would have appreciated the irony of the scene. The former House speaker and Texas Democrat was sometimes accused of governing in an imperious, autocratic manner, creating resentment that may have contributed to his downfall. But at a recent meeting of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, it was Wright's former chief tormentor who encountered exactly the same criticism and suffered the consequences.
The episode occurred this month at the first county board meeting under Richard J. Phelan, its newly elected president. As special counsel to the House ethics committee, he had conducted the investigation that led to Wright's resignation in June 1989.
Phelan's debut as an elected official was less than auspicious. In contrast to the folksy style of his predecessor George W. Dunne -- like Phelan, a Democrat -- the tall, patrician-looking Phelan positioned himself behind a podium in the board meeting room where, gavel in hand, he peered down at the 17 commissioners while occasionally lecturing them.
The commissioners, many of them hardened veterans of Cook County politics, responded to the Phelan style in a predictable way. They promptly rejected his plan for reorganization of the board's committees, including replacement of the chairman of the key Finance Committee with a Phelan ally. Four of the board's 11 Democrats joined the six Republican members in rejecting the reorganization plan.
"I'm confused," Phelan said several times during the raucous meeting.
In a headline the next day, the Chicago Tribune declared: "County Board teaches Phelan a lesson in politics."
The rocky start in his first elective office was a rare setback for Phelan, 52, a wealthy and successful lawyer whose political ambitions are thought to extend well beyond Cook County, which includes Chicago. Riding the wave of notoriety he gained during the Wright investigation, Phelan returned here from Washington last year to consider his political options.
His path to the Senate was blocked because two well-entrenched fellow Democrats, Paul Simon and Alan J. Dixon, are there. And although veteran Republican Gov. James R. Thompson did not seek reelection to a fifth term this year, Phelan said he concluded that running for governor in his maiden campaign would be "too much, too soon and too expensive."
Instead, Phelan took aim at what he calls the "gigantic office" of chief executive of the sprawling county that encompasses the inner-city slums of Chicago and the booming suburbs west of O'Hare International Airport.
With a budget of almost $2 billion and responsibility for the local criminal justice and health care systems, among other duties, the Cook County board president is arguably the third most powerful public official in the state, although no match in power or prestige for the governor or the mayor of Chicago.
With the Wright investigation providing a useful backdrop, Phelan positioned himself as an "outsider" and "reformer," and he prepared to challenge Dunne, whose one-man domination of county government had lasted almost 22 years. Known locally as "Gentleman George," Dunne had been weakened by a sex scandal involving charges by two women, aged 28 and 34, that the county board president got them jobs with the Cook County Forest Preserve after they had sex with him.
Dunne, 75, a widower, acknowledged the sexual liaisons but vehemently denied any link between that and the hiring of the women by the county agency. In November 1989, Dunne stunned local Democrats by announcing that he would not seek a sixth term as board president.
Phelan overwhelmed his opponents in the March Democratic primary and the November general election with the kind of television advertising blitz never seen in Cook County politics. He spent almost $3 million, including $800,000 of his own money. Among those he defeated in the primary was state Sen. Ted Lechowicz, who in November won a seat on the board while retaining his legislative job.
In the best "don't-get-mad-get-even" tradition of local politics, Lechowitz was one of the four renegade Democratic commissioners who engineered rejection of Phelan's reorganization plan.
In an interview, Phelan said he considered his initial setback to be a kind of rite of passage for a rookie politician here.
"I think a guy who comes from the outside, a person who wins against the odds, somebody who's given all this hoopla, I think everybody likes to level the guy," he said. "I think it's part of a process. . . . They sharpen their bows and arrows, and it happens. I don't take it as a serious matter as far as my character is concerned. I take it that this is a greeting for a new politician. There wasn't any honeymoon."
Phelan has promised to streamline the county government and vastly improve the health delivery system "to bring it closer to the people," while also cutting $50 million from the county budget and not raising property taxes. He also has promised to back resumption of abortions at Cook County hospital, where they have been banned since 1980 by Dunne's executive order. But Phelan apparently lacks enough votes on the board to lift the ban and hedges when asked whether he would attempt to overturn the prohibition by executive order.
To achieve these goals, Phelan needs the cooperation of the county commissioners, which he began seeking last week as he presided at his second board meeting. The podium and gavel were gone and, like Dunne, Phelan sat -- not stood -- in conducting the session. A picture of congeniality, he grinned at every opportunity and traded jokes with the commissioners.
Phelan also must overcome considerable skepticism. "He can be humble for a day, but it won't last," said Steve Neal, political editor of the Chicago Sun Times, who has dubbed Phelan "North Shore Dick," a reference to Phelan's home in the wealthy, lake-front suburb of Winnetka north of Chicago.
Leaving the meeting, Phelan was asked, "Better day today?"
"It had to be," he replied, flashing another grin.