Preckwinkle will remain neutral in April 7 runoff election

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County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said Monday she is “staying out of” the April 7 mayoral runoff, despite her close ties to her floor leader, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, and her difficult relationship with Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

“My position hasn’t changed. . . .  I’m staying out of it,” Preckwinkle said before joining Emanuel and Garcia at Pulaski Day ceremonies at the Polish Museum of America, 984 N. Milwaukee Ave.

“In the first round, I had a colleague of four or five years in Bob Fioretti; a contributor in Willie Wilson — actually a significant contributor; my floor leader; and a mayor who I’ve tried to work with for the past four years. And I decided to take no position. And that’s where I still am.”

Garcia, who sat one seat away from Preckwinkle at Monday’s ceremony, took her neutrality in stride.

“How can anything be a blow if we’re doing so great?” Garcia said, referring to a new poll that shows the race a statistical dead-heat.

“I welcome any new endorsements. I will seek them. I’m also raising money and building our troops on the ground for a victory on April 7.”

Emanuel agreed that endorsements would not decide the April 7 runoff.

“This ultimately is about two candidates and not about anything else,” the mayor said.

“This is a real election about the leadership that it’s going to take to build a future for the city of Chicago. Regardless of any individual endorsement or non-endorsement, this is a choice that the people are going to make about who has the leadership, the strength and the perseverance to meet the challenges head-on and build a future for the city of Chicago.”

Hours after declaring that she would make no endorsement in the race, Preckwinkle called a Chicago Sun-Times reporter to “clarify” her remarks.

“What I said is that my position is unchanged and that’s exactly what I meant,” she said in a voice mail message.

“I truly didn’t intend for you to print that I would never take a position in the mayoral race, but only that my position was  unchanged. That’s exactly where I am. My position is unchanged. The story you’ve written says that I will take no position in the race and that’s not [exactly what she meant]. There is a nuanced difference there and that’s the nuance that I need you to respect.”

Preckwinkle considered running for mayor herself before deciding in July that she would stay put.

That prompted Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis to consider a run of her own, until brain cancer forced her to drop out and persuade Garcia to take her place.

Garcia had hoped to pull Preckwinkle off the sidelines to help him resurrect the Hispanic, black, progressive white coalition that helped Harold Washington become Chicago’s first African-American mayor.

As big a blow as Preckwinkle’s decision to remain neutral is to Garcia, that’s how big a boon it could be to Emanuel in the mayor’s fight for political survival.

Four years ago, black voters helped put Emanuel in office on the strength of President Barack Obama’s tacit endorsement of his former White House chief of staff.

Thanks to Obama, Emanuel captured every one of Chicago’s 18 majority black wards and 58 percent of the Acrican-American vote overall.

Last week, Emanuel was the leading vote-getter again in black wards, but with margins in the 40 percent range.

That was largely the result of lingering animosity about Emanuel’s decision to close a record 50 public schools and complaints about his downtown-centric development and persistent crime.

If Preckwinkle stays out of it, Emanuel stands at least a fighting chance of being the second choice of African-American voters who are likely to decide the outcome of the April 7 runoff.

Both candidates are so desperate to lure black voters, they are courting Wilson, who finished third. Wilson captured nearly 11 percent of the overall vote, but 25 percent of the African-American vote.

Monday’s statement of neutrality marks the latest turn, in what has been a tense and difficult relationship between Emanuel and Preckwinkle, Cook County’s most powerful Democrats.

Shortly after taking office, Emanuel and Preckwinkle embraced a report they commissioned that concluded the city and county could save as much as $140 million a year by joining forces on everything from purchasing, revenue collection and elections to facilities management, minority business certification and 311 service.

That was followed by a decision to work together to offer an expanded array of summer programs to provide a constructive alternative for kids at risk of falling victim to youth violence.

Emanuel and Preckwinkle also teamed up to provide “reciprocal certification” that allows the city to recognize minority contractors certified by the county and for the county to do the same for companies that have passed muster with the city.

When Preckwinkle led the charge to de-criminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana to ease overcrowding at Cook County Jail, Emanuel and Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy pushed through a plan to issue marijuana tickets.

But for all of that cooperation, there have been political tensions that have played out behind the scenes.

Preckwinkle reportedly resisted Emanuel’s efforts to off-load city health clinics on the county. She also failed in a quiet campaign to succeed former Mayor Richard M. Daley as chairman of the Public Building Commission, a panel charged with buildings schools, libraries, police and fire stations.

Early on, Preckwinkle also bemoaned the city’s “miserable education system” and said Emanuel and Police Supt. Garry McCarthy had offered a solution to crime and violence that was to “just arrest everybody.”

A former teacher, Preckwinkle didn’t hesitate to criticize the mayor during the run-up to the seven-day strike by Chicago teachers that was the city’s first in 25 years.

She was equally outspoken after Emanuel closed a record 50 public schools and followed it closely with a massive charter expansion.

“It looks terrible. . . . It lends credence to the criticisms that were leveled against the school closures in the first place — that it was an opportunity to transfer resources from public, neighborhood schools into charter schools,” she said then.

Emanuel has maintained that the new charters were planned for neighborhoods where public schools are overcrowded and that he’s a “firm believer in parents having choice in education.”

Preckwinkle didn’t buy it. She argued that the proliferation of charters was exacerbating the switch to what she calls a “dual” system with an ever wider “performance gap” between white and black students.

“Those parents who are most savvy, best-educated and know how to negotiate the system have the resources to get their kids into charter schools, magnet schools or contract schools, and those who are less able to negotiate the system end up in neighborhood schools that are now less-resourced,” she said at the time.

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