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.
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."
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.
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
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."
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!"
* * *
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.
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!"
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
* * *
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
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
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
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.’"
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
* * *
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.
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
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.)
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.
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.