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Toni Preckwinkle, the most powerful Democrat in Cook County, holds cards close

Max Herman/Sun-Times, Toni Preckwinkle, Cook County Board President, first African-American woman

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle speaks to fellow Democratic committeemen after being named chair of the county Democratic Party on April 18. | Max Herman / Sun-Times

She’s weathered two fierce tax wars. She’s the freshly elected chair of the Cook County Democratic Party, the first woman and African American to anchor that power base.

In November, she will be elected to a third term as Cook County Board president.

Toni Preckwinkle is still standing.

OPINION

Actually, she was sitting when I joined her last week at Chef Petros, her favorite Loop diner.

She ordered her “regular order” — scrambled eggs, turkey sausage, hash browns and raisin toast — and fretted over Congress, where funding for the county’s massive health care system is under attack.

“If the Republicans are successful in repealing the Affordable Care Act, we’re in terrible trouble,” she said.

A repeal would cost the Cook County Health and Hospitals System between $300 million and $500 million annually in lost reimbursements and a consequential boost in bad debt and charity care, she estimates.

She was eager to tout a drop in the Cook County Jail population, down from more than 10,000 in 2013 to about 6,000 today.

Preckwinkle and Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx have crusaded for reforms that encourage judges to release non-violent suspects on their own recognizance, rather than require them to post cash bonds. That is saving taxpayer dollars and getting people back home to go to work and support their families.

“All the research shows that even if you spend one day in jail, everything else being equal, you have a worse outcome than if you don’t,” Preckwinkle said.

But, I noted, “there’s a perception that you and Kim Foxx are too lenient …”

“Soft on crime?” she interjected.

“It’s the term Republicans use to beat up Democrats.”

“We try to be smart on crime. Let’s focus on the people who are doing real harm rather than, you know, possession of drugs, or not paying your child support, or not paying your traffic tickets or shoplifting or prostitution, or the things that used to keep a whole bunch of non-violent offenders in jail, right?”

I brought up the Fraternal Order of Police. That triggered a rant.

“The FOP is always going to be a critic,” she said. “That’s hopeless. What do they say when I talk about how the jails are full of black and brown people, do they have anything to say about that? You know. Ninety percent of the people in our jail are black and brown.

“Is the Fraternal Order of Police talking about racial injustice? … .  No. They don’t have anything to say about it.”

Instead, Preckwinkle said, “let’s focus on the people who are committing violent acts against other people. Especially in the City of Chicago, where the closure rate on murders, is like 26 percent? So let’s focus our resources on trying to do something about that.”

In 2017, the murder clearance rate was just 17.5 percent, a Chicago Sun-Times analysis has found.

“I am told there are 77 communities in Chicago, and 12 or 15 are where most of the violence takes place,” she added. “So, what is your strategy for dealing with those communities, how are you going to get resources to those communities to improve the quality of the schools, to provide employment for people?

“I don’t see that we have a strategy for those communities.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has no strategy? I asked.

Preckwinkle won’t discuss the mayor.

And for now, she won’t choose a side in the crowded 2019 mayoral campaign.

If the county’s top Democrat changes her mind, it could be a game changer.

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