Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and her challenger in the Democratic primary, Bob Fioretti, met with the Sun-Times Editorial Board Friday, Feb. 23, 2018. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Fioretti faces ‘uphill battle,’ counts on pop tax fallout to defeat Preckwinkle

SHARE Fioretti faces ‘uphill battle,’ counts on pop tax fallout to defeat Preckwinkle
SHARE Fioretti faces ‘uphill battle,’ counts on pop tax fallout to defeat Preckwinkle

Former alderman Bob Fioretti faces an “uphill battle” in the race for Cook County board president, but he’s counting on incumbent Toni Preckwinkle’s failed pop tax in his attempt to unseat her, claiming the penny-per-ounce beverage tax was the final straw for some residents.

But Preckwinkle — running for a third term — has been touting her ability to balance the county’s books, “rightsize” its bloated government and steer criminal justice reforms during her eight-year tenure.

Nick Kachiroubas, a professor in DePaul’s School of Public Service who has been following the race, said Fioretti faces an uphill fight due to lack of name recognition, but his message may resonate more with voters.

“Preckwinkle has a stronger base, but Fioretti’s message may resonate more with voters,” Kachiroubas said. “She’s vulnerable in this race because of the beverage tax, but she made no qualms about the need for it and she was very vocal about the need for new revenue. The primary will show whether or not his message transcends that.”

Though a civil rights lawyer by trade, from 2007 to 2015 Fioretti represented the 2nd ward in the City Council before he was drawn out of the district.

He ran for mayor in 2015 and ran for the Democratic nomination for the state’s 5th Senate district in 2016.

If elected, Fioretti says he’ll have town hall meetings throughout the county and won’t levy any new taxes for four years because of the tax fatigue in the county.

“I shake my head when I look at some of the stuff we’re funding,” Fioretti said. “There has to be smart consolidation of government…You can’t dictate to everybody, as she’s been doing here … you have to work with everybody.”

Fioretti’s plans to tighten the budget mirror rhetoric used by county commissioners during last year’s budget cycle, when commissioners had to fill a $200 million budget gap caused by the repeal of the sweetened beverage tax. That process resulted in over 300 layoffs.

RELATED: Chicago Sun-Times 2018 Illinois Primary Voting Guide

Though the tax is gone, it hasn’t been forgotten.

Money from the American Beverage Association’s Citizens for a More Affordable Cook County has bankrolled several county commissioners who supported the repeal, though not Fioretti, who calls the tax a “bone headed attempt to shore up lagging finances.”

Preckwinkle said she’s already cut the budget by 14 percent and she’d “love to know where he thinks we can make these cuts that he proposes.”

“We laid off nurses and healthcare workers, probation officers and other criminal justice workers, and that has an impact on the services and programs we can deliver,” Preckwinkle said. “So it’s easy to say that you can cut the budget by further staff reductions, the question is where do you intend to make them and what impact is that going to have on either our legacy mission or our economic development initiatives.”

Preckwinkle is running to continue the progress she’s made on reforming the government and the county’s criminal justice system as well as continuing to create economic development for county residents.

A former alderman herself, Preckwinkle passed on running for mayor at a time when her approval ratings were high. She’s not “a job hopper,” she says, and is focused on embedding the reforms she’s helped to create into the legacy of the county.

As for revenue measures that may help the county avoid more cuts in the future, neither Fioretti or Preckwinkle could point to new measures. Fioretti said more trimming needed to be done while Preckwinkle said she doesn’t see any votes for revenue in 2018, which means the next few budget cycles could see the county’s employment trimmed once more.

Fioretti’s lack of name recognition isn’t the only thing that may hurt his chances. Since the last quarterly report was filed in December of 2017, his campaign war chest is over $116,000 which pales in comparison to the nearly $700,000 Preckwinkle has in her coffers, according to the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a campaign finance watchdog.

If re-elected, Preckwinkle says this will be her last term as the county’s chief executive and her last role in the political sphere.

“I had an agenda for myself when I ran for this job and these are things I care about: access to public health, criminal justice reform, economic development,” Preckwinkle said. “I made a commitment, I was going to try to do something about the county, both in terms of its fiscal operation and its substantive agenda so that’s what I’m going to try to do for one more term.”

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