Preckwinkle: Running on her Progressive roots

Cook County Board President and mayoral candidate Toni Preckwinkle in her River North campaign headquarters on Jan. 24. (Photo by Aaron Gettinger)

Staff Writer

Few people in local government are as well-known as Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle, the former 4th Ward alderman who has lived near Hyde Park since her college days at the University of Chicago.

Preckwinkle believes her record speaks for itself.

“I was alderman of this community for 19 years. I’m proud of the service that I gave to the people of the 4th Ward and proud of the service that I’ve given to the people of Cook County,” she said. “And, frankly, I think that the people of the city and the people of the county are concerned about good governance, and we’ve surely managed to turn around a failing county government.”

She first got involved in political campaigns when she was 16 in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she was born, and she continued her political involvement when she relocated for college. “Hyde Park and South Kenwood have always been economically and racially diverse communities and very politically progressive, and I got involved in Independent Voters of Illinois Independent Precinct Organization (IVI-IPO), and I was a precinct worker for many years.”

She was precinct coordinator for Ald. Larry Bloom in 1979, ran for City Council twice in 1983 and 1987 and won in 1991 by 109 votes, “when I finally beat the regular organization.”

“I started out involved in progressive politics and took on the machine and finally won on my third try,” Preckwinkle said. “I take my progressive values wherever I go. When I was in the City Council, I was the founder of the Progressive Caucus. I was the sponsor of every single affordable housing and living wage ordinance that came before the body. Ald. Hairston and I were (two) of five votes against the parking meter deal. Every time there was a divided vote and the progressives were on one side, I was there, and so was Ald. Hairston.

“You know I was a teacher for 10 years, and it’s really important that communities have strong public schools. That’s what I believe as a teacher, and that’s truly what I believed in the 19 years I was alderman,” Preckwinkle said. “People would ask me two questions when they said they were thinking about coming into the ward. One, are the schools good? And the other is are the streets safe.”

Preckwinkle said that “you can pretty much determine the quality of the schools by the ZIP code, just as you can determine life expectancies, basically.” Resources in local public schools go beyond teachers, she said, in neighborhoods beset by severe trauma, “We need social workers and psychologists and paraprofessionals who will help support the young people and provide them with wraparound services they need to do well in school.”

She said work has gone into building up public schools and the communities, noting that, during her aldermanic career, they built 1,500 units of mostly affordable, rental housing, “so that working and middle-class families could stay in the city.”

Preckwinkle said investments had been made in public health, with 300,000 now in County Care through an expansion in Medicaid, as well as public safety, with 4,000 fewer people in the Cook County Jail on a daily basis than when she was first elected in 2010.

“We’ve made some real progress on the things that matter to the people of Cook County, namely the provision of public health care and criminal justice reform,” Preckwinkle said.

“We’ve got some real challenges in terms of police misconduct that require considerable resources in terms of professionalizing our police officers and being sure they’re properly supervised,” Preckwinkle said. “I bring my progressive values with me wherever I go, whether it’s the office of president or it’s the Democratic Party.”

If she is elected mayor, Preckwinkle said she hopes the aldermen will support her platform. She wants to “close the exemptions in the ‘Welcoming City’ ordinance that enable our Chicago Police Department to cooperate with ICE. That should never happen,” she said. “Local police forces should not be enforcing federal immigration laws.”

Preckwinkle also proposed eliminating the Chicago Police gang database that, she said, is 128,000-strong. “Eleven percent of the entire African-American community is on that list, and four percent of the Latinx community. And how you get there is arbitrary and capricious — there’re no guidelines — and you don’t even know if you’re on it, and you can’t get off.”

She said the police share the database with ICE, employers and apartment-owners. “People can deny you employment or housing on the basis of the fact you’re on the gang database, and you don’t even know you’re there. The ACLU is suing us. We should cooperate with the plaintiffs and eliminate it.”

Preckwinkle has proposed an office of criminal justice within the mayor’s office with “a public policy locus but bring the stakeholders together to address the criminal justice and policing reforms that we need to make and also be the point of grant administration and distribution.”

There is an improved chance that the state government would be supportive of her criminal justice platform as mayor, which also includes more resources for anti-recidivism and violence prevention efforts, now that Democrats hold every level of power in Springfield, but Preckwinkle noted the state’s own challenges.

“We’re just hopeful that there’s progressive revenue at the state level that enables them to not only deal with their financial challenges but also to provide local units of government money — it’s called the Local Government Distributive Fund, LGDF — and that’s money that goes directly on a per capita basis to local units of government, and Chicago of course is a big unit of government.” She said she is optimistic to have Gov. J.B. Pritzker in office, applauding his “progressive agenda that will be tremendously helpful to Chicago.”

Preckwinkle said that police accountability and neighborhood revitalization are Chicagoans’ chief concerns. On economic development, Preckwinkle said her aldermanic career included efforts to revitalize North Kenwood, Douglas and Grand Boulevard.

Her campaign released an environmental platform on Thursday and said the specter of lead service lines poisoning the city’s water supply is a social justice issue. She acknowledged that it will require a massive infrastructural project to solve and, asked how the city would pay for it, Preckwinkle said Chicago would look for federal resources and to the state, especially in its capital bill; the city might be able to use its own capital resources, too.

“We don’t know what the magnitude of the problem is,” she said. With the current requirement just to test 50 houses in three years, “There hasn’t been a systemic evaluation of what the magnitude of the problem is and where it’s the worst.” Preckwinkle prescribes an assessment followed by prioritization on replacing pipes.

Anyone who had a dollar for every time a Chicagoan has questioned why anybody would want to be the Windy City’s mayor would hold a healthy degree of wealth. Preckwinkle wants the job. “I’m doing this because I can,” she said in September when she launched her candidacy in a Kenwood hotel ballroom. “I’m doing this because it’s necessary. I don’t make this decision lightly.” A sign counting down the days until the election hangs on the wall in her River North campaign headquarters.

“We have a beautiful city, and it has great neighborhoods, and it has a bright future. And I think the important thing to remember is” — she laughed. “This is a city that has faced tremendous challenges in the past and has survived and thrived. I mean, it practically burned to the ground, right? And yet it was rebuilt. We face tremendous challenges, but we should not forget the assets that we have”: the incredibly diverse economy, the neighborhoods, the skilled workforce. McDonald’s and other corporations relocated from the suburbs to the city for these reasons and because its employees wanted to live in Chicago.

Chicago must recognize its strengths as it tries to deal with its challenges, she said.

“I was proud to serve the people of Hyde Park and South Kenwood for 19 years as their alderman,” Preckwinkle said, praising her City Council successor, Ald. Sophia King (4th). “I’m proud of the work that I’ve done countywide for the last eight years and hope for the support of my friends and neighbors in my race for mayor.”

Recently, Preckwinkle has felt the scrutiny of the press and public over her relationship with Ald. Ed Burke (14th) the Council’s longest-serving member. The FBI raid on his office and the report that Cook County had hired his son, Ed Burke, Jr., who had been under investigation for sexual impropriety clearly took attention away from Preckwinkle’s platform.

“It’s impossible to be in public life in the City of Chicago and not know Ed Burke,” Preckwinkle said, adding that her primary contact with the Burke family came from her contact with his wife, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne M. Burke, whom Preckwinkle said had championed the criminal justice reform in the Cook County government.

She noted the relationship Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza, her mayoral opponent, had with Burke: “He was a mentor of hers. She wouldn’t have been elected first time state rep without him. Ed Burke hired Gary Chico to work for the finance committee, so that’s one of the first jobs he had, and Ed Burke endorsed Gary Chico.”

Asked if she knew anything about allegations of sexual impropriety on behalf of Ed Burke, Jr., before he was hired, Preckwinkle said there was no access to his personnel files in the Cook County Sheriff’s office, his former employer, and that, had the county government known about the allegations, they would not have hired him. Preckwinkle said she heard about the allegations against him when she read them in the newspaper and could not comment on why Burke Jr. left the county government in 2018.

“He had been working for the county for 20 years, looking for a different opportunity. He sent his resume to the Department of Homeland Security, and they vetted him and hired him for a similar position with the sheriff. But I think what people are really concerned about, in Hyde Park or across the city, is the quality of our public schools and investments in our communities and police accountability, and those are the things that I talk about on the campaign trail,” Preckwinkle said.

“Here’s the thing,” she said later in the interview. “The headlines yesterday were about Danny Solis, and Danny Solis was neither a friend nor an ally. The idea that members of the City Council would betray the public trust is just infuriating and appalling.” Preckwinkle said that, when she was first elected in 1991, her government job was the only job she has ever held. When she rose to county government, she issued an executive order banning county employees from making contributions to her and mandating annual ethics training.

“We focused on addressing some of the challenges that the city has had in terms of contributions from employees and ethical lapses, but this clearly needs to be a focus in the new administration as well, figuring out how we can tighten up our own ethics rules and regs to limit bad behavior.”

Asked if she thought she had the standing to push for that, Preckwinkle said sure: “Look, I have been an advocate for ethics reform since I was elected in 1991, and I just described to you some of the things we’ve done in terms of reform in the president’s office.”

“I have a progressive record on the City Council and, frankly, since I was a committeeman, my goal is to try to make the party more inclusive and diverse in the people that it’s slated and supported,” Preckwinkle said. She said, when she was executive vice chair of the party, the party took more steps to slate women, African Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans and LGBTQ candidates: “The party started reflecting the county as a whole. Diversity and inclusion have been the hallmarks of the last decade of the party, and I’m very proud of that fact.”

Asked if she thought her message was resonating, Preckwinkle said she hoped so.