The Candidate: Reform-minded alderman Toni Preckwinkle takes aim at the Cook County Board Presidency

Alderman Toni Preckwinkle (Sam Bowman)

Alderman Toni Preckwinkle (Sam Bowman)

The South Side is getting ambitious. A Kenwood resident sits in the Oval Office, a South Shore native daughter by his side. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was born and raised in Hyde Park, and Chief Advisor David Axelrod traces roots back to the University of Chicago. But even after the mass exodus of Chicago political power towards the Obama White House, there’s at least one South Sider still standing who is pursuing higher office without fleeing city limits.

One of Hyde Park’s own, 4th Ward alderman Toni Preckwinkle first came to the neighborhood to pursue not election but education. A graduate of the University of Chicago’s College and master’s program, she hasn’t left the area since. “She’s kind of a typical Hyde Park politician, in the sense that she’s very smart, she’s kind of a wonky intellectual, and kind of a reformer goo-goo [good government] type,” says Mick Dumke, a political reporter for the Chicago Reader, of Preckwinkle. She is often spotted by locals pushing a shopping cart through Hyde Park Produce or grabbing a meal at Mellow Yellow.

But today, Preckwinkle sits firmly in a rolling desk chair in the cramped downtown offices of the Cook County Democratic Party. Tall and not prone to smiling, she is as imposing as her colleagues are warm and friendly. It is this no-nonsense attitude that has kept her an alderman since 1991, and it is one on which she is relying heavily in her current campaign for Cook County Board President. As the February 2 primaries approach, Preckwinkle has no plans for backing down.

“I’ve been in this race longer than anyone else,” she says. “I’ve thought about it since a year ago in August–actually deliberated all fall, decided around Christmastime last year [2008] that I would make this run.” It is the first position besides alderman that she has aspired to since taking her seat in the 4th Ward. When pressed as to why she seeks higher office, Preckwinkle chooses her words carefully. “Clearly, I think that out of the present leadership in the county, we were struggling.”

That’s a nice way of referring to the disapproval that incumbent Todd Stroger has met with during his term as board president. Stroger, who is running for reelection, has been decried by both Republicans and members of his own party for his handling of the county; specifically, much outrage has stemmed from the one-percent sales tax hike that he passed in 2008. Preckwinkle, like most of her opponents, wants to repeal this tax in an attempt to undo what she sees as serious damage to the county’s economy. In fact, she lists it as her first priority if she gains office.

“Repeal of the sales tax, that’s one,” she says, taking a swig of water. “Permanent, independent governance of the healthcare system, that’s two. Reducing the number of people contained in the jail is three. Four, I usually talk about the importance of job growth and economic development activity.”

Preckwinkle fires these goals off quickly and definitively, but this is expected; she is known for not playing games. “What sets Toni Preckwinkle apart from other elected officials in Chicago,” comments Dumke, “is that she’s very blunt. She’s very straightforward…Those of us who follow politics in this town have seen her in environments where she’s had to tell people something they don’t want to hear, and she’s willing to do it, and that’s a very unusual thing among politicians–especially around here, where people are trying to spin things. She’s going to come out and tell people, sorry, I’m changing the parking restrictions on this block because I think it needs to happen, and you elected me to make decisions, not to be popular.”

But none of the four priorities outlined by Preckwinkle are quite controversial enough to put the alderman in a position to draw a line between effectiveness and popular appeal. The issue of the sales tax–which Preckwinkle proposes to repeal in increments over a year’s time–is more of a cleanup measure than a new initiative, and it’s one that two of her three opponents say they will take as well. Preckwinkle’s second and third points are responses to what she identifies as the purposes of the board. “The county has two main missions. One is the provision of healthcare, for the uninsured or the underinsured. The other is running the criminal justice system. It’s really important to the people that I have served as alderman and the people of the county that both those systems operate well,” she says. Her plan for the healthcare system, though, is mostly focused on rescuing its finances–not changing its fundamental structure–and at a debate on January 7, all Democratic candidates for board president voiced support for keeping fewer inmates in the county jail. Preckwinkle’s fourth goal, the creation of jobs and a healthy economy, is one that does nothing to distinguish her even from the Republican opponents she will face if she wins the Democratic primary. She does, however, emphasize her wish to promote job growth specifically in the environmental sector. “One of the things we should focus on in the economy is sustainable jobs and green jobs–let’s work with [President Obama] and make Chicago the model of green jobs and green job programs.”

It doesn’t seem like Preckwinkle has much clout by way of new and innovative political ideas. What is it, then, that holds her appeal to voters? Dumke thinks that her track record of trustworthiness and her no-fear approach to Chicago machine politics are what will draw support for Preckwinkle. “While she comes out of the muck of City Hall, she’s one of the relative exceptions to the rule that aldermen are rubber stamps [for Mayor Daley] or guys taking penny-ante bribes to allow development in their wards,” he says. “She’s known as a reform-minded politician…and I do think she’s probably seen, in general, as one of the good ones…I think that will play very well where voters tend to think of themselves as very independent and want someone who’s going to, when necessary, stand up to Mayor Daley and the machine and that type of thing.” Preckwinkle reinforces this image when she notes that she is vocally calling for zero-based budgeting of the county’s finances, which she explains as an initiative that would scrap each existing budget within the county and rebuild it from the ground up, in order to weed out inefficient spending and demand transparency.

As the February primaries draw near, Preckwinkle has her sights set straight ahead. She continues to make appeals to voters from across the county, avoiding pigeonholing herself as the candidate of just one or two demographics. “This is a Democratic primary,” she insists. “If you’re going to win, you’re going to have to have support all across the county. And I hope to have support from the African-American community, from the Latino community, from the progressive Democratic community, and from women across the county. That’s how I hope to win.” She goes on to say that she is the only candidate who has something for everyone. “I’m a full-time alderman, I’m an independent, progressive, pro-choice Democrat, and I’m the only one who can say all these things.” And as she stands up from her seat, with the contrast of her salt-stained winter boots against her pristine dress suit, Preckwinkle certainly looks as if she is in Chicago to stay. One gets the distinct impression that she will not be exiting the Windy City political arena anytime soon.

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