By AARON GETTINGER
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle began her widely expected run for Mayor of Chicago today. The decades-long force in local and Democratic Party politics enters as an immediate frontrunner in the race to replace Rahm Emanuel.
She chose an auspicious site for her announcement: the Chicago Lake Shore Hotel, 4900 S. Lake Shore Drive, where former President Barack Obama began his first run for the Illinois State Senate in 1995.
“I can think of no better place, surrounded by so many neighbors, friends and colleagues, to announce my candidacy,” she said.
If elected, Preckwinkle would be the first black woman elected mayor. Jane Byrne, the last female mayor, was elected in 1979; Harold Washington, the last African American to win a mayoral election as well as the last mayor to come out of Hyde Park, won reelection in 1987.
Chicago would become the largest city in the United States to be headed by a woman or person of color should voters elect Preckwinkle next year.
Preckwinkle outlined her political vision in a 20-minute speech, striking distinctions from the Emanuel administration by calling for an elected school board. She described individual schools as “anchors in our communities.”
“When we close a school, we aren’t just reallocating resources or addressing logistical challenges,” she said. We’re making a public withdrawal of support from an already-struggling community.”
A former high school teacher, Preckwinkle choked up when she talked about a student who was shot while sitting on her porch — “at the wrong place at the wrong time.” She said support for schools goes beyond academics: “Our kids can’t learn if they’re not safe, and they can’t focus on growing up if they’re struggling to deal with the loss of their classmates and friends.”
She said the answer to Chicago’s crime rate is a better police force, not a larger one, which sparked loud applause. Calling herself an outspoken critic of policing in Chicago, particularly its effect on communities of color, Preckwinkle said having “good, dedicated” police officers does not matter without a system that holds all police officers accountable. She lauded the ongoing consent decree process between the Chicago Police Department and the Illinois Attorney General.
Preckwinkle assailed the over-representation of people of color and Chicagoans in the Cook County Jail and its effects on neighborhoods and taxpayers.
“This isn’t about who commits crime,” she said. “It’s about who is most vulnerable to arrest and who, once detained, is too poor to pay for their freedom.” She called for more mental health services for substance abusers and people suffering from mental illness, celebrating the expansion of such services at the Cook County Hospital because of Obamacare.
Describing the job of alderman as akin to being the mayor of a small town, Preckwinkle, who served 19 years in City Council, said she would support aldermen’s needs as they supported their communities. Rhetorically asking why anybody would seek the job for which she is running, Preckwinkle said she was running because she can.
“I’m doing this because it’s necessary,” she said. “I don’t take this decision lightly.” She said she hoped her announcement would begin a movement “to demand a mayor’s office that understands, values and respects the diversity of its residents and communities.”
Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, Preckwinkle relocated to study at the University of Chicago, where she received bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Long involved in local activism and politics, she challenged incumbent Ald. Timothy C. Evans (4th) twice before defeating him in 1991. She was elected to City Council five times, where she clashed with then-Mayor Richard M. Daley — she chagrined the privatization of parking meters in her speech — and helped establish its progressive caucus.
She has served as President of the Cook County Board of Commissioners since 2010. Though her support for the “pop tax” on sweetened beverages cost her some political support, Preckwinkle handily won the Democratic primary for another term last March and is on the November ballot unopposed. She has chaired the Cook County Democratic Party since April, after scandal-plagued Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios lost his bid for reelection.
Ald. Sophia King (4th), called her City Council predecessor “uniquely situated” to be mayor because of her aldermanic career, gender and experience in county government, predicting that Preckwinkle will be “an ally for the entire city.”
“We need somebody right now to really unify the city and bring us together,” said King. “There are a number of challenges to which she is uniquely suited to tackle, given her long experience on the City Council, which you cannot take for granted, and [her] understanding that aldermen know and understand the city.”
Hyde Park’s other municipal representative, Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th), also said Preckwinkle has put in the work and has the experience to be mayor.
“I think her comments today were refreshingly real about the problems that we face as a city, and, as a matter of fact, I have not heard anybody address them in such a cohesive and competent manner,” Hairston said.
At a press conference following her speech, Preckwinkle was first asked about her Tuesday firing of John Keller, her chief of staff, after he was accused of undefined inappropriate behavior. She conceded that Keller had harassed someone, framing her answer as an attempt to protect the victim’s requested privacy.
“What’s important here is that I have zero tolerance for harassment of any kind,” Preckwinkle said, swearing she had no idea about the allegations before Friday, Sept. 14, had corroborated the incident earlier this week by talking to the victim and two witnesses and made “prohibition of all forms of harassment” a priority in the county government.
Preckwinkle described herself as a lifelong progressive Democrat who has tried to “knit” the party together after the Berrios chairmanship. When asked about why she delayed entering the mayoral race until after Emanuel declined to seek reelection, Preckwinkle listed their areas of cooperation and highlighted their differences of opinion, saying that the problems Chicago faces “are ones I’m uniquely qualified to address.”
Emanuel declined to comment directly on Preckwinkle’s candidacy at a City Hall press conference before the announcement in Kenwood, but he did say that his successor will be “one of the more fortunate people in the world.” He said he would avoid commenting on the mayoral race “except when we go off-record, because I have a lot to say.”
The incumbent did say, however, that he would focus heavily on the Obama Presidential Center until the next mayor is sworn in.