Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has some fancy dancing to do.
Preckwinkle won office in 2010 as a common-sense reformer promising to bring professionalism and sanity to county government. She is a leading champion for the poor and minority populations the county serves.
She speaks her mind, is painfully blunt. She aims to run the county with business-like compassion.
Voters responded by electing her twice. She plans to seek a third term next year.
But first she must maneuver through the thorniest territory of her tenure.
Last week, the ground at the County Building shifted. A wayward step in the muck could be politically perilous.
Her enemies are lying in the weeds.
Last year Preckwinkle staked her ample credibility on a highly unpopular penny-per-ounce sugar and diet sweetened beverage tax to balance the county’s budget.
Meanwhile, her friend and top ally, the beleaguered Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios, is gamely fighting a firestorm over charges of racial and economic bias in the assessment system.
The county board’s approval of the tax came with Preckwinkle’s tie-breaking vote. It was slated to kick in July 1, but retail operators and the powerful “Big Soda” interests hit back hard, filing a lawsuit that charged the tax was unfair and unconstitutional. Lately my in-box has been chock full of irritated and overtaxed county voters and business owners.
The lawsuit put the tax on hold. That has created a “crisis,” Preckwinkle acknowledges. She needs $67.5 million in cuts to balance the budget this year, and another $200 million in 2018.
The county may have to lay off 1,100 county employees, she warned, and she has asked county agencies to begin delivering the bodies.
Her critics, vocal and uber-ambitious, are pushing back. When Preckwinkle suggested the Cook County Jail’s budget was “bloated,” Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart shot back that he “didn’t create this crisis.” Instead, he charged, it was “dropped in our lap.”
Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin told reporters Preckwinkle is behaving like “a drunken sailor with the taxpayers’ credit card, who is being dishonest, and everything she sees she wants to tax and spend.”
Instead, he argues, cut the 600 vacancies in the Cook County Health and Hospitals System. Her “crisis” is “manufactured,” Boykin charged.
Then there’s Berrios. The assessor is taking heavy incoming over a scathing University of Chicago/Chicago Tribune investigation. It revealed that the county’s tax assessment system favors residents of high-income neighborhoods over poorer minority neighborhoods.
At a grueling County Board hearing, University of Chicago Professor Christopher Berry fingered Berrios for a “regressive” system that amounts to “institutional racism.”
Who called for the hearing?
Who prominently asked Berrios, “Are poor people getting shafted in the Chicagoland community?”
Commissioner Chuy Garcia, a Preckwinkle ally and floor leader.
Is it payback time? Garcia may still be smarting from his 2015 loss in the mayoral race, when Preckwinkle declined to support his challenge to Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Progressives have long puzzled over Preckwinkle’s loyalty to Berrios, who is chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party and a poster boy for hackish, old school Chicago politics.
The ground is wobbly. Preckwinkle is trying to stay a step ahead. She has commissioned a consultant’s study to examine the tax assessment system.
She must find a dodge around county layoffs that are sure to deliver excruciating pain and encourage a serious challenger in 2018.
Dance on, Madame President. You’d better stock up on those sensible shoes.