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Progressive pioneer or boss of ‘corrupt’ machine? Preckwinkle, Lightfoot spar

Mayoral candidates Lori Lightfoot, left, and Toni Preckwinkle, right. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle was accused Friday of being a Democratic machine boss running a “corrupt organization that squelches innovation, doesn’t allow for independents to ever have a voice.”

Preckwinkle answered the broadside from mayoral rival Lori Lightfoot by arguing that she is the only candidate with the credentials to reform Chicago.

“I’m the most progressive candidate in this race, and I’ve taken my progressive values to whatever job I’ve taken on,” Preckwinkle said.

The back and forth over whether Preckwinkle’s progressive credentials conflict with her role as “boss” of the county’s Democratic Party came during a mayoral forum at the Union League Club. Preckwinkle initially shied away from the boss label, but has tried to turn it into a plus in TV ads.

With federal investigations roiling the City Council, corruption and the role of money in politics were once again front and center at the latest mayoral forum, featuring half a dozen of the 14 mayoral candidates.

Asked about mitigating the harmful influence of money in campaigns, Preckwinkle said the answer would be public financing of campaigns “but we’re a long way from that in Illinois.”

“Unfortunately we’re at a time in this country where the higher up you go the more likely it is that you need to be a millionaire or billionaire to be a successful candidate,” Preckwinkle said. “Even an ordinary person has a real struggle being an effective candidate because they don’t have the resources to fund their own campaigns or they don’t have a network of wealthy friends and colleagues that they can call upon for support.”

Lightfoot, former head of the Chicago Police Board, said the reason the city hasn’t seen changes in campaign finance is because “the entrenched Democratic machine doesn’t want us to get there.”

She also called out Preckwinkle in her role as chair of the “corrupt” Cook County Democratic Party.

“Look at what has happened over the last month that we’ve found out about: a Democratic machine of various factions that allows way too many people to amass way too much power and completely and utterly corrupt our government,” Lightfoot said.

Preckwinkle said otherwise.

“As alderman of the 4th Ward, I worked hard at the City Council to make it as progressive as possible, I was a founder of the Progressive Caucus,” she said. “ I supported every single affordable housing and living wage ordinance that came before the body — actually I sponsored them. … I think I’m uniquely qualified to be mayor of the city of Chicago.”

Though she touted her progressive resume, Preckwinkle couldn’t shake questions about meeting with criminally charged 14th Ward Ald. Ed Burke before hiring his son for a $100,000 post in the county, which was reported by the Chicago Tribune.

Preckwinkle said she has many meetings “some of them with local elected officials, some of them with staff, some of them with ordinary citizens and those meetings take up a variety of issues.”

Lightfoot said “that is not leadership, and that is not the person we need to be the next mayor of the city.”

“She may have been progressive at some point in her career, but … she is the machine,” Lightfoot said after the forum ended. “She’s the president of the Democratic Party, which is one of the most regressive organizations in our state. She sided with Joe Berrios, she sided with Ed Burke. There’s no way she can legitimately claim that she is progressive.”

Businessman Willie Wilson, former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, former Chicago Board of Education president Gery Chico and former Chicago Police Department Supt. Garry McCarthy were at the forum at the Union League Club, answering questions from WBBM’s Craig Dellimore about a month before they face off in the Feb. 26 election.

State comptroller and mayoral candidate Susana Mendoza and son and brother of former mayors Bill Daley were no-shows. Spokespeople from both camps said that previously scheduled meetings conflicted with the time slot.

The candidates who did attend weighed in on education and elected school boards — Vallas, Chico and McCarthy favor boards that are a combination of elected and appointed members — their public safety plans, economic development in the city’s neighborhoods and aldermanic prerogative and potentially shrinking the size of City Council.

McCarthy argued the city’s “government is too big” and “we have way too many aldermen with way too much power” — Wilson said 50 aldermen is too many. Chico said the number of aldermen won’t matter unless aldermanic prerogative — the unwritten rule that gives local aldermen final control over zoning and development issues in their own ward — is taken away and there are fundamental reforms.

“We have to be cognizant of the size but also fundamental reforms,” Chico said. “Nobody is saying the alderman has no say in these projects, but I just don’t think one man or woman should have the ability to do [thumb’s up] or [thumb’s down] over $5 or $6 billion dollars worth of projects, or a liquor license or a permit. That temptation is simply too great and has gotten us into huge trouble.”