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If you want to play with the big boys and girls, you’ve got to be one

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is challenging the petitions of five opponents | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

Cook County Board President and mayoral contender Toni Preckwinkle said in an email statement Sunday she is returning all of the $116,000 she raised at Ald. Ed Burke’s house in January 2018. | Colin Boyle/Sun-Times

An army of crafty lawyers, campaign operatives and political mouths are celebrating the holidays with the Great Petition Challenge.

They are name-calling, spinning and whining over the challenges of some of the 21 candidates vying to get on the 2019 mayoral ballot.

OPINION

The challengers hope to keep opponents with similar demographics and political bases off the ballot.

To survive a ballot challenge, a mayoral candidate must present and defend the signatures from 12,500 registered voters.

Good government types argue the system is an assault on democracy, an evil tool to weed out candidates who will represent the people, rather than the politicians.

At the top of their villain list: Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who is challenging five opponents: Susana Mendoza, Catherine Brown D’Tycoon, Conrein Hykes Clark, Lori Lightfoot and Dorothy Brown, the Cook County Circuit Court clerk. All women, four African American.

Preckwinkle is questioning more than 14,000 of the 25,000 signatures Mendoza filed.

“It’s ironic that in the year of the woman, in Trump’s America, the highest-ranking woman in Cook County government, who happens to be the boss of the party bosses, thinks it’s a good idea to challenge five women of color and no one else, by the way,” Mendoza declared last week.

Meanwhile, businessman Willie Wilson’s minions are digging into the petitions of five of his opponents. All are African American, four are men. One, Ja’Mal Green, the millennial-activist-turned-millennial wannabe, has also complained loudly to the media.

“Ja’Mal Green needs to fix his pacifier,” replied former state Sen. Rickey “Hollywood” Hendon, Wilson’s political consultant and a lifelong Machine pol.

I agree with Hollywood on this one. If you want to play with the big boys and girls, you’ve got to be one.

Yes, the system is unfair. Yes, it was set up to favor those who know how to play the game. But those are the rules. If you aren’t tough enough to surmount a pile of paperwork, you aren’t ready for City Hall.

In 2019, Chicago will need a mayor with the muscle and moxie to take on the bullies and blowhards. Have you noticed that Donald J. Trump hasn’t set foot in this city since his 2016 election? He’s afraid of us.

Chicago needs a mayor who will keep him afraid. A mayor who is real enough to comfort a mother whose child who has been shot down in the street. A mayor with the courage to be real with voters about taxes, pensions and sacrifices.

Chicago must have a mayor who can negotiate with the powerful and wily unions, ride herd on a restive City Council and match the muscle of fellow Democrats with big clout, such as Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, Senate leader John Cullerton and the incoming governor, J.B. Pritzker.

The city needs a leader who can woo the corporations, foundations and wealthy donors to preserve Chicago’s crucial international standing.

Finally, I want to remind my liberal, good-government friends of that time back in 1996, when an ambitious African-American South Sider mounted a petition challenge against a veteran, highly respected incumbent — a black woman.

RELATED: Bill Daley’s spot on mayoral ballot safe after Jerry Joyce ditches challenge

The novice candidate endured great heat from his liberal, good-government friends. Yet he prevailed, knocked her off the ballot and was elected to represent Hyde Park in the Illinois Senate.

Twelve years later, he was elected president of the United States.

Now, there’s a petition challenge to believe in.

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