County Board President Toni Preckwinkle | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

LAURA WASHINGTON: Here comes Hurricane Soda

SHARE LAURA WASHINGTON: Here comes Hurricane Soda
SHARE LAURA WASHINGTON: Here comes Hurricane Soda

It’s the calm before the storm.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has weathered many storms. She served for two decades in the never-a-dull-moment Chicago City Council. She took over a bloated and broken county government, and raised taxes to rescue its bloated and broken pensions.

Now comes the big one. Hurricane Soda.


Toni Preckwinkle is (almost) always calm. In her office the other day, she quietly and methodically made the case for a cause that may already be lost. She defended her proposed 2018 budget, one that hinges on the most disputatious policy to ever hit Cook County, the sweetened beverage tax.

County commissioners will vote this week on a proposal to repeal the tax.

“The board of commissioners hasn’t found itself in this kind of contentious place for a long time,” she said.

The tax is needed to fund $200 million in vital county services, she says. It will help curb unhealthy sugar consumption and support the health services needed to combat the deadly perils of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

Opposing commissioners are confident they have the nine votes to overturn the tax.

Has this been your toughest challenge? I asked Preckwinkle.

“What’s different about it is that both the commissioners and I are being attacked personally, at a level that is discouraging, I guess I’d say.”

On black talk radio, they routinely label the first female county board president “Queen Sugar.” Down with “The Winkle,” others sneer.

Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin, a leading repealer, has said that the tax and Preckwinkle “must go right now.” And he charged, “the tax has been handled in a very incompetent manner.”

Preckwinkle is sanguine. “I have a friend who says, ‘you know, if you’re going to be in the public life, you have to have the hide of an alligator.’ ”

So what’s her political strategy? “My goal,” she said, “is to try and get out as much as I can personally” to make the case.

“I tell people, look, we’re getting the stuffing beaten out of us for this sweetened beverage tax. But this is what it goes for. So, you know, if you and your family have used our public health system, understand that’s where half the money goes. If you or your family have been a victim of a crime or you have somebody who’s been involved in the criminal justice system, that’s where almost the rest of that goes.”

In her proposed $5.36 billion budget, 46 percent will go to health care, for hospitals and clinics, and 41 percent to criminal justice services.

That’s nearly 90 percent of the budget for services that most aid African-American and Latino communities, she says.

What do you say to those who don’t use the system, and don’t care? To the people who sing, “It’s my pop and I will get fat if I want to?”

“I am disheartened,” she said. “What I always say is, if you want government you have to pay for it. We have to be grown-ups and understand that that’s the case.”

Preckwinkle is open to compromise, but replacing the beverage tax means finding a massive new revenue source.

Otherwise, draconian cuts are coming, she said. They could include closing Provident Hospital, clinics, even the county’s trauma center.

All “terrible” choices, she said, but possible.

Batten down, Hurricane Soda is here.

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