He weeps, he insults, he builds lavish projects, and Mayor Roger Claar sees in his own journey—from chubby outsider to powerful Republican—a parallel to the booming emergence of his town.
The Bolingbrook Golf Club opened in 2002, a lush and rolling playground bulldozed out of the flat Midwestern prairie. The lavish course offers 18 championship holes and a topflight practice facility, but its most memorable feature by far is a 76,000-square-foot castle of a clubhouse, built to the rich tastes of the club's impresario, Bolingbrook mayor Roger Claar. "I picked the marble, the color of the grout, and outside stone," Claar crowed to Golfweek last spring. "I even picked most of the interiors down to the final two and left the choice up to the wives of the city council." Claar uses the East Room, the clubhouse's posh steak house, to entertain, and he often retires to the upstairs "West Wing" for private parties.
Unlike at most municipal golf courses, which are meant to be affordable to the local masses, the greens fees here are $70 for Bolingbrook residents during the week and $78 on weekends (roughly double the charge at courses run by the Chicago Park District and the Forest Preserve District of Cook County). Mayor Claar justifies the $35 million it cost to build the facility by saying the course is part of a storm water management strategy and the clubhouse provides a venue for weddings, senior proms, and other gatherings. Besides, he argues, the golf club is good for Bolingbrook's image. He has the same philosophy for all public works: "If you're not going to do it first class, don't friggin' do it."
Around Bolingbrook, that glorious clubhouse is known as the "Rog Mahal"—a phrase uttered sometimes in derision at the man, sometimes in admiration at the way he has transformed this town.
When Roger Claar moved to Bolingbrook in 1975, the town was little more than a series of subdivisions. Home prices started at well under $100,000, and many residents left as soon as they could afford to move to bigger houses in next-door Naperville or other more established places. Claar recalls the town as a kind of suburban way station for "young immigrants."
In those days, Claar was a young immigrant himself—a 29-year-old low-level school administrator who had emerged from his downstate hometown of Effingham with a chip on his shoulder and no clear sense of direction. He found a home in this suburban noplace. "I started knowing people around town," he says. "I thought that was kind of fun."
He thought Bolingbrook needed to accommodate more young people, an attitude that increased his interest in local politics and in 1979 earned him a role as a village trustee. Eventually, Claar came to believe he could "turn this town around."
He's been at it for almost three decades, the last two of them as mayor. During his tenure, Claar has overseen a huge increase in the range of housing prices and a near doubling of the population to around 75,000. He's brought in business, most obviously in the form of the shallow canyon of distribution centers you drive through on I-55 between Chicago and I-80. He's bought a private airfield and renamed it Bolingbrook's Clow International Airport. In addition to the golf course, he's built a sparkling new outdoor mall, a new high school, and a new hospital.
Along the way, he's bolstered himself just as dramatically, amassing a huge campaign war chest and making strategic political ties to become one of the most powerful mayors in Illinois. Claar may enjoy less renown than the late Rosemont mayor Donald Stephens and Niles juggernaut Nicholas Blase, but he's in the model of those musclebound suburban mayors whose shadows are at least as big as the towns they rule. As Claar sometimes says—and as even the strongest critics of his brash style, hardball tactics, and high-rolling financial schemes generally agree—"I am Bolingbrook!"
* * *
Roger Claar has been crying, on and off. The 61-year-old Republican has spent most of a day and part of an evening telling a reporter his life story: His largely unhappy childhood in Effingham, growing up "a shy, chubby kid in a crewcut with hand-me-down clothes" in what he describes as a "dysfunctional" family with four kids and a mother who "didn't support" him. His journey to Kansas State University in 1971 to get a Ph.D. ("For a fat little kid from Effingham, that was a bold move," he says.) His early career as a school administrator, which led him to take a job near Bolingbrook. His rise from village trustee to mayor, first elected in 1986. His side of the scandals that have dogged him along the way. His political relationships with Republican governors Jim Edgar and George Ryan, which led to a seat on the board of the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority, where he helped make Bolingbrook the thriving suburban crossroads it is today. And his secrets for bringing in the commerce and housing development that put Bolingbrook on the map.
Almost all these subjects make him emotional.
Claar angrily likens Bolingbrook's onetime status as a poor relation to neighboring Naperville to his own plight as a child at the family dinner table, when he was the last of the four kids to get the fried chicken. "I'd get a back. I'd get crumbs."
He talks regretfully about his 25-year-old daughter, Lindsey, whose childhood was troubled by the controversy around him. He seethes over a Chicago Sun-Times front-page article by Tim Novak about Claar's resignation from the tollway authority board. The story ran the day after Lindsey moved into her Northwestern University dorm. Lindsey told her mother she'd left Bolingbrook "to get away from all this." As tears come to his eyes, Claar says, "I could have killed Novak, that jagoff!"
Now, Claar is having a hard time talking as he tells of waking up in the middle of the night, wondering what U.S. attorney Patrick Fitzgerald's office will dig up in its ongoing investigation into yet another scandal, this one involving a number of Bolingbrook employees using village purchase orders to buy personal items, such as food, tools, tires, and garage doors. While no one suggests that Claar participated in this scheme, Claar believes the feds are using it as a pretext to look more broadly into Bolingbrook's business practices, at the encouragement of Claar's longtime nemesis, Will County state's attorney Jim Glasgow. Earlier, Glasgow had passed the case on to the feds, claiming he didn't have the resources to investigate it properly.
Claar says he lies in bed, staring into the pitch black, wondering, "What are [the investigators] looking for? What are they going to do?" He keeps checking the front door, hoping the newspaper has been delivered, because reading is the only thing that gets his mind to stop scaring up scenarios in which a desperate witness points the finger at him to get a break from the feds. "All I have is my fucking reputation!" he cries. "I'm not a rich man!"
* * *
He may not be rich, but Claar has done better financially since his career as a school administrator ended in 1991. In his roles as Bolingbrook's mayor, liquor commissioner, and tobacco commissioner, Claar pulls in an annual salary of $122,033. Throughout the 1990s, he also ran a political consulting business. Beyond his income-producing ventures, he maintains a campaign fund of close to $1 million—the amount varies as he takes in money and spends it—one of the biggest mayoral funds in Illinois. (Though there's no official ranking, many observers say the coffers of Citizens for Claar are topped only by the campaign fund of Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley.)
Claar acknowledges that he spends only about $25,000 to $30,000 in Bolingbrook's low-voter-turnout elections, and the liberal Illinois campaign-finance laws give him extraordinarily wide discretion in tapping the fund. Hence, he has used it to pay for trips abroad (he's been on what he characterizes as idea-gathering missions to India and China in recent years); for Palm Desert vacations with pals in politics and business; for entertainment (Claar makes no secret of his love of a late-night party); and for monthly fees and repairs to his "campaign car," the Jaguar he drives every day. (Among other items listed on his 2006 State Board of Elections reports are $1,000 for "funeral expenses" for a Bolingbrook beautification commissioner, $200 for a graduation party for his secretary's son, and $250 for a wedding gift.)
As for Claar's reputation—as a winning high-stakes political gambler and Bolingbrook's Booster-in-Chief—that's undisputed. DuPage Township supervisor Bill Mayer credits Claar with overcoming skepticism from people who said, "'Who's gonna buy a $250,000 house in Bolingbrook?' Then they were saying, 'Who's gonna buy a $350,000 house in Bolingbrook?'"
Like other longtime Bolingbrook residents and Claar supporters, Mayer points to the distribution centers, the hospital, the new Promenade mall with a gratitude that's almost awestruck. "I'm standing in the mall going, 'This isn't Bolingbrook,'" says Mayer. "'I can't believe this exists.'"
Mayer graduated from Bolingbrook High School around the time Claar became mayor, and he remembers growing up in a community where there was nothing to do (townspeople used to talk about "Boringbrook"). Mayer says his childhood friends mostly "moved on, moved off," he says. "Now they're moving back."
Still, not all of Claar's projects have been successes, and today even his crown jewel looks troubled. A Bolingbrook financial report shows the golf club lost $1.45 million for the 2005 fiscal year, and though village attorney Jim Boan attributes some of that to one-time capital outlays, he acknowledges that "the cost of operating the golf course was not covered by the revenue generated last year."
Another Claar gamble is Americana Estates, a high-end housing development adjacent to the golf course. Planning to sell lots to developers, Bolingbrook spent $9.4 million to pay for the streets, sewers, streetlights, and gatehouse. As of this summer, a couple of years into the 206-lot venture, only 48 lots had been sold; in June, I counted 32 houses under construction or finished on the Americana streets, named after Presidents Reagan, Bush, Eisenhower, and Kennedy.
The venture "just didn't work," says village trustee Leroy Brown.
"The high-end housing market went in the tank," Claar says.
But Jim Boan, the village attorney, insists that "Americana Estates is already a success." He points out that the sale of the 48 lots has already generated $6.8 million. The sale of the remaining 69 market-ready lots, he says—he's banking on a cyclical upswing in the real-estate market—will more than offset the infrastructure costs.
Dan Droogan, chairman of Claar's only local political opposition group, the DuPage Township Democrats, questions the very idea of a municipality's taking a flier on a housing development. "If there really was a market for high-end houses" near the Bolingbrook Golf Club, says Droogan, "wouldn't the developers be flocking there?"
* * *
Dan Droogan is the son of Terry and Charlotte Droogan. They go back to Bolingbrook's origins in the early 1960s as a couple of small subdivisions cut out of cornfields. Terry was an early village trustee and was fire chief from 1967 to 1993, when he retired from the department and staged a failed run against Claar for mayor. Charlotte taught third grade in a Bolingbrook public school for 30 years. Shortly after she retired, she ran unsuccessfully for a village trustee seat in hopes of becoming an opposing voice on what she believed was a rubber-stamp board.
To talk to these three Droogans is to hear three levels and two generations of dissent. Charlotte complains that while chasing his "grandiose ideas" to build Bolingbrook into an upscale suburb, Claar has neglected older, middle-class neighborhoods like hers, on the city's east side. She says she's been lobbying for many years to get sidewalks in her part of town for the safety of children walking to school.
Terry, who is divorced from Charlotte and now lives in Tennessee, questions how much Claar had to do with Bolingbrook's growth. With a population explosion all over western Will County and the confluence of highways at Bolingbrook—I-355, I-55, and Illinois Route 53—the village would have grown exponentially "if Donald Duck was mayor," Droogan says. (Chicago political expert and one-time Will County resident Paul Green echoes the sentiment, saying that Claar has been more the beneficiary than the cause of a "demographic miracle" that's happening in Will County, the fastest-growing county in Illinois.)
Dan Droogan is in his mid-40s, and perhaps because he is part of the political system in the area, he's less quick to criticize Claar, who has beaten the DuPage Township Democrats every time they have run someone against him. "I learned about politics from Claar," Dan Droogan acknowledges. "He's so good. Even though [the DuPage Democrats] are getting beat up, [Claar] is forcing me to get better."
If the Droogans' critiques of Claar are divergent, Claar's response to the Droogans is not. "They're fucking nuts," he said when I said I might quote them in an article. He threw a copy of Chicago magazine onto the office floor and declared an abrupt end to the interview.
* * *
Roger Claar uses his powerful emotions strategically. He laughs a lot. He bellows sometimes. He preens. He can charm, he can pout, and he can intimidate. He let me sit in on a meeting in his office with several representatives from the Salvation Army, who were petitioning him to open a store in Bolingbrook on Route 53. Claar objects to the idea because the location is immediately across the border from Naperville, and he doesn't want a Salvation Army outlet as "Bolingbrook's front door." He received the visitors coldly.
While they made their pitch, he signed purchase orders and made a point of re-arranging items on the conference table, at one point walking out of the room to get himself a cup of coffee. He sniffed at the guests for not having brought their business cards, and when one countered that they were "kind of low-key," Claar snapped, "Well, once you come through that door, the low-keyness ends."
This is the Claar that friends and rivals know: the fierce defender of Bolingbrook's image, the straight talker, the man with an unwavering vision for his village. Early on, he ascertained that the town needed some industry to help with its tax base, and more and bigger houses to give those "young immigrants" room to grow beyond their starter homes. He cold-called higher-end developers, and urged them to build in Bolingbrook; he made the invitation more appealing by persuading local farmers to annex their land to the city and get it zoned for residential. And after a development was built, he asked the next developer to set the price of his cheapest house at the price of the most expensive house of the previous development. "That was the horse I rode on," he says.
He was riding into a bedroom suburb with a weak civic tradition. Voter turnout is low; despite Bolingbrook's estimated population of 75,000, Claar won his last election 3,078 to 235 over a write-in candidate. (Low voter turnout is not strictly a Bolingbrook phenomenon; Naperville's more than 137,000 residents cast only 11,536 votes in a nonpartisan mayoral primary last February. Unlike Naperville, however, Bolingbrook doesn't have much of a history—the oldest subdivision has brown historical-district signs that say, "Est. 1960.") Bolingbrook doesn't even have a downtown. "Having toured the downtowns of many suburban cities, I'm glad we don't have a downtown," Claar says. "The downtowns were built for a whole other retail era."
* * *
Over the years, Roger Claar has often been the target of criticism. Bolingbrook residents complained to Chicago, sometimes with a laugh, about a wide range of issues: Claar parks his car in front of the clubhouse (and not in a parking spot). He spent $20,000 from his campaign fund on a New Year's Eve party a year and a half ago. He named one of Bolingbrook's biggest thoroughfares Lindsey Lane, after his daughter. He takes in most of his campaign donations from developers and others who do business in Bolingbrook. He acquired a local church for the village and installed a nonprofit adolescent counseling organization, Heart Haven Outreach; its board president is Claar's wife, Patricia (who is also an assistant principal at Bolingbrook High School), and its executive director is Lindsey Claar, who appears to have reconciled herself to the hurly-burly of being the mayor's daughter.
The mayor has survived more concrete charges: He was forced to resign in 1991 as director of the Romeoville-based Wilco Area Career Center after an audit revealed tens of thousands of dollars missing from soda machines. (Claar says the soda delivery drivers took advantage of an illiterate maintenance man.)
A 1996 Will County state's attorney's investigation looked into a tollway authority land deal involving the developer Don Hedg, a Claar associate. While Claar was out of town, he learned that police were searching his home. "I seriously wanted to shoot myself," he remembers, as tears come to his eyes. The investigation petered out.
He had to resign from the tollway authority in 2000 after the Chicago Sun-Times revealed that Claar had broken a rule forbidding board members to solicit campaign contributions from vendors who did business with the tollway. Claar protested that he was soliciting them as "people doing business with Bolingbrook," he says. But he resigned from the paying tollway post after Gov. George Ryan gently urged him to step down.
And he's survived conflict-of-interest questions stemming from his operation of American Consulting Services, through which he advised corporations that needed things from state or local government. (Claar says he has since shut this business down.) Claar does not concede that his multiple roles—mayor of a fast-growing village, political consultant, and tollway authority board member—ever represented an inherent ethical conflict. He believes most of the criticism he has received over the years comes out of jealousy among political rivals for what he has accomplished in Bolingbrook—and the flashy, brash way he has done it. "My style draws attention," he says.
* * *
Roger Claar is Bolingbrook, and at this point separating his success from that of Bolingbrook is impossible. So why does Roger Claar keep crying? "Things wear on me more than they used to," he says, referring to the investigations and accusations. Perhaps he is worried that he overreached with Americana Estates. He is uncharacteristically showing a willingness to back off another big plan: a second golf course he wanted to build, which would have been designed by the pro golfer John Daly. "If the market shows it won't support it, I'll be the first one to walk away."
But walking away from Bolingbrook is another story. After spending a day driving around in Claar's Jaguar and discussing big ideas and tiny details—"I am anal!" Claar exclaims—it's impossible to imagine him retiring and watching someone else do his job. He plans to run for reelection in 2009, and his daughter Lindsey flatly says the best way out for her dad would be dropping dead of a heart attack on the job.
As village clerk Carol Penning recalled her long association with Claar, she talked about his toughness. "The mayor of Bolingbrook does not hug, and there's no crying in Bolingbrook," she says.
Well, the mayor of Bolingbrook has been crying. Maybe the man (and the town) are preparing to enter the next phase.