When Toni Preckwinkle was first elected Cook County Board president, she brought a report card for each of the commissioners.
“She had a list of things she wanted to tell us,” Commissioner Larry Suffredin, D-Evanston, said. “I said ‘I’m too old for this.’”
The former history teacher’s list included programs she wanted supported, such as a measure increasing the liquor tax that came before the Board. Not backing it earned Suffredin a spot on the ‘enemies list’ of Preckwinkle’s former chief of staff, Suffredin says.
Now, Preckwinkle is a potential front-runner in the crowded race for mayor, and she’s facing a report card of her own as rival candidates — and ultimately voters — grade how well she kept her promises to be a reformer and bring a “new day” to Cook County government.
Despite the report card she gave him in their first meeting, Suffredin would give Preckwinkle an A-.
But Comissioner Richard Boykin, D- Oak Park, said he would give Preckwinkle a C.
Preckwinkle’s claim on the votes of “progressive” Democrats got an added boost when Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a Bernie Sanders backer, opted not to enter the mayoral race. But it won’t likely end scrutiny of Preckwinkle’s own progressive credentials.
Preckwinkle sought to show off her reform mantle when she threw her hat into the race last month, making the announcement at the Chicago Lake Shore Hotel — the same place that Harold Washington and Barack Obama announced their historic bids for office.
Preckwinkle described herself as a progressive Democrat and pointed to the reforms in the criminal justice system — namely the reduction in detainees at the county jail — and the county’s Health and Hospitals System as just two of her qualifications for the city’s highest office.
But those reforms and her label as a progressive are already points of contention for the new mayoral candidate. One of her challengers, Willie Wilson, accused Preckwinkle of “arrogantly stealing credit” for a bail reform campaign that he championed.
And mayoral rival Troy LaRaviere portrayed her as “beholden” to the Cook County Democratic Party, which she chairs, and as a “progressive” of convenience on social issues – not financial ones. Preckwinkle’s camp refused to comment on the hit.
“Reform” is indeed an elastic concept, open to widely varying interpretations.
But after she steamrolled incumbent Todd Stroger in the 2010 election, Preckwinkle used her victory speech to make some key promises:
“We’re going to cut taxes, we’re going to clean up county government by ending patronage and doing everything in our power to root out the waste and fraud that have cost taxpayers millions,” she said that night.
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And initially, she set about doing just that, starting with ending Stroger’s penny-on-the-dollar sales tax.
But that’s where much of the tax cuts stopped. Preckwinkle raised the county’s alcohol and cigarette taxes, then levied a 5-cent tobacco tax. In the years that followed, she levied a $25 per gun tax, then an ammunition tax — a nickel per cartridge for center fire ammunition and a penny per cartridge on rimfire ammunition.
She also increased the sales tax, the one she campaigned on, back to Stroger levels — the revenue from the tax was put toward the county’s pension obligations. And then, of course, the now repealed penny-an-ounce sweetened beverage tax that split the Board and outraged some county residents.\
But Preckwinkle fared better on efforts to clean up county government.
Frank Shuftan, Preckwinkle’s now retired chief spokesman, said the county’s bloated ranks have been trimmed by about 13 percent since 2010, the detainee population at the jail has decreased by roughly 30 percent, and CountyCare, the county’s Medicaid expansion managed care program, has more than 330,000 participants.
Paula Wolff, director of the Illinois Justice Project who worked with Preckwinkle on criminal justice reform, said she doesn’t want to grade Preckwinkle’s work, but the Board president is “unequivocal about the importance for change” and tackles things “nobody thought could be tackled until they have been.”
“She isn’t afraid to say, as she does, that the criminal justice system is where racial bias and poverty intersect with justice,” Wolff said of Preckwinkle’s “strategic” way of addressing problems in the system.
“She certainly has been a reformer in the justice system — she examines the system as it exists, comes up with changes and supports the changes.”
As mayor, Wolff said Preckwinkle would be “thoughtful and resourceful” and “persistent and clear in the direction she’s going and she can be a consensus builder.”
Others who’ve worked with her on policies, such as Dr. Ram Raju, a former CEO of the county’s Health and Hospitals System, said she cares deeply about the health system and has a clear focus and drive to get policies through the Board — something that would be beneficial if she is elected.
He’d give her an ‘A+’ for trying to create health equity in the county.
“She made healthcare less dependent on public dollars,” Raju said. “And made the system better for people who couldn’t afford it. She is a reformer and one of the best leaders I’ve worked with. She personifies [being a reformer] and she lives what she says.”
But Boykin, the commissioner from Oak Park, said Preckwinkle only deserves a C, because she’s done an “average job.”
He said Preckwinkle “comes to [the race] with a good heart and with good intentions and with the hope to do well,” but he also said “she can be very vindictive as a leader, punishing her enemies and rewarding her friends “ and is “a fighter, a boss and a bully [who] pushes people to actually get her way and there have been numerous issues.”
As an example of Preckwinkle being a “vindictive leader,” Boykin called himself ‘Exhibit A.’
Boykin was one of the commissioners who led the repeal effort on the sweetened beverage tax, and he said the political retribution was swift. Preckwinkle got the unions lined up against him, he said, and even endorsed his opponent, Brandon Johnson, in the March primary.
Boykin pointed to the beverage and sales taxes as regressive policies.
“With Preckwinkle, you’re getting somebody who’s going to increase taxes, somebody who is vindictive and volatile and somebody who doesn’t put a lot of thought into these policies and their roll out,” Boykin said.
Shuftan argued that Preckwinkle has proven herself with fiscal responsibility, economic development, criminal justice reform and improvements to the county’s health and hospital system.
“I won’t dignify [Boykin’s remarks] with a response,” Shuftan said.
Suffredin gives Preckwinkle an A-, arguing that the former school teacher appears to have learned a few things herself since she took over county government.
“She was more rigid then, but she has evolved into the job and she works much better now with commissioners,” Suffredin said. “No one is perfect, but she’s not afraid to tackle key issues, like the overcrowding at the jail, the pension problem or healthcare or violence.”
Suffredin says that schoolmarm temperament could help the former history teacher and alderman from Hyde Park as a successor to Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
“She’d be replacing a bully,” Suffredin said. “The principal thing will be a welcome relief. She doesn’t do corporal punishment.”