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Mihalopoulos: Preckwinkle’s push for power

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle looks on as Dr. Stephen Cina, the county's chief medical examiner, speaks at a news conference earlier this month. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

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While Toni Preckwinkle finally and dramatically showed her clout in Tuesday’s election, the Cook County Board president also was making a move to increase her muscle.

Preckwinkle powered former top aide Kim Foxx to the Democratic nomination for Cook County state’s attorney. And she has been quietly maneuvering in Springfield to increase the powers of her Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

A bill introduced in the state capitol on March 8 would create a new county police force answering to Preckwinkle. Senate Bill 3076 would give police powers to members of the homeland security department. Under the legislation, the agency would have authority to grant “peace officers’ duties and compensation” to its employees.

Those newly deputized officers “shall have the power to investigate and mitigate threats of manmade disasters, protect the county’s critical infrastructure, have access to law enforcement databases, protect the county’s emergency assets and personnel that get deployed upon the request of local law enforcement agencies in emergency circumstances, protect county elected officials as requested and observe and enforce local, county and state ordinances and laws,” according to the Illinois General Assembly’s website.

OPINION

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Preckwinkle aides said neither she nor her director of homeland security were free to discuss SB 3067 on Wednesday. But in a statement sent from the department, officials said the agency “is seeking Law Enforcement Agency (LEA) status so it can effectively support and protect 134 municipalities and their residents.”

According to the statement, the homeland security department wants to have “access to critical law enforcement and counterterrorism information” that’s not available to it without LEA status.

The department also wants to deputize officers to protect personnel and expensive equipment that the county deploys to emergency incidents, Preckwinkle aides say.

I wondered what it would cost for the cash-strapped county — which already has a large contingent of officers led by the independently elected sheriff — to add a police force.

Preckwinkle administration officials said the move would not require making new hires because many employees of the homeland security department already have experience working for the Chicago police and other law-enforcement agencies. Some already act as a security detail for Preckwinkle.

The bill’s sponsor is Antonio “Tony” Munoz, who didn’t return calls. The Democrat from the Southwest Side is the assistant Senate majority leader, and like Preckwinkle, his power only grew Tuesday. Munoz repelled a challenge in the 12th Ward Democratic committeeman’s race from Ald. George Cardenas.

Munoz’s ward organization worked for Emanuel’s re-election bid last year. But that didn’t stop Munoz from beating up on Cardenas during the ward committeeman’s race for supporting many of the mayor’s unpopular initiatives, including the red-light camera program.

Munoz and others in local politics at all levels could prove wise by trying to cozy up to Preckwinkle instead of Emanuel.

Until the Foxx campaign, Preckwinkle’s efforts to help her allies at election time often failed.

This time, though, she pulled every lever she could for Foxx, a first-time candidate. In the wake of the release of the Laquan McDonald police shooting video, Preckwinkle persuaded county party leaders to abandon their neutrality and endorse Foxx.

More significantly, Preckwinkle put big bucks where her mouth was this time, ponying up about $300,000 for Foxx. Longtime Preckwinkle supporter Fred Eychaner gave $600,000. Overnight, a Foxx campaign that once seemed to lack adequate funding was able to outgun incumbent Anita Alvarez on TV.

Assuming Foxx overcomes her GOP opponent in the fall general election, Preckwinkle will only have to pick up the phone and call Foxx to have a say in criminal-justice issues.

Should she get what she wants in Springfield, Preckwinkle also will have a police force at her command. County officials say they expect SB 3076 to come to a vote by lawmakers in early April.

Preckwinkle has carefully cultivated an image as a reformer. Now, she’s looking a lot more like a boss, too.

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