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Now it’s Madam Chairman: ‘Proud’ Democrat Preckwinkle makes party history

Faced with the medical examiner’s routine failure to visit death scenes, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is moving to do away with that requirement.

Faced with the medical examiner’s routine failure to visit death scenes, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is moving to do away with that requirement. | Max Herman / Sun-Times

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle solidified her place in the political power structure — and the history books — on Wednesday, when the party backed her to become the first African American, and first woman, to take the once mighty seat of power as Cook County Democratic chairman.

A majority of the 80 city ward and suburban township committeemen who make up the Cook County Democratic Party filed into a conference room, complete with foosball and ping pong tables, on Wednesday to coronate their new leader.

One of Preckwinkle’s opponents for the top party post, 47th Ward Committeeman Paul Rosenfeld, conceded to Preckwinkle and nominated her instead. Her other challenger, state Rep. Luis Arroyo Sr., gave a statement via his son wherein he called for a more progressive party and withdrew from the race.

The political bosses quickly gave Preckwinkle the vote. And then they gave her a standing ovation.

“I’m proud to be a Democrat,” Preckwinkle said, accepting the post. “All my life, the Democratic party has been the party of working families.”

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle speaks to fellow committeemen after being named Chair of the county Democratic Party on April 18, 2018. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

She told the committeemen that she caught the political bug when she was 16, growing up in St. Paul, Minnesota. Now, 50 years later, it was time for the party to “turn awareness into engagement” by incorporating movements such as Black Lives Matter and March For Our Lives into the fold of the county’s Democratic Party and presenting itself as the modern way forward.

“We can and must do more to support the candidates in their campaigns,” she said. “Democratic candidates need to have the tools and training to ensure they can run modern, effective and inclusive campaigns. The Democratic Party has to be a resource not just for candidates and their campaigns, but the communities we all serve.”

The County Board president and 4th Ward committeeman was already an executive vice-chairman under her predecessor, Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios. Berrios surrendered the party reins after losing his own re-election bid for his county office in March.

Preckwinkle elevated 39-year-old Michael Rodriguez, who became the 22nd Ward committeeman two years ago, into her old No. 2 spot.

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“I think it’s reflective of … our growing base which is younger and more progressive,” Rodriguez said. “It’s a historic thing, Toni Preckwinkle doing this as first woman and first African American, and I’m proud to be a part of that.”

Other changes include Thornton Township committeeman Frank Zuccarelli filling the late Tim Bradford’s vacancy as first vice-chairman, 30th Ward Alderman and committeeman Ariel Reboyras replacing 12th ward committeeman and state Sen.Tony Munoz as treasurer, and Maine Township committeeman and state Sen.Laura Murphy becoming the new secretary.

Mike Rodriguez stands up after being named a Vice Chairman of the county Democratic Party during a meeting of Democratic Party committeemen on April 18, 2018. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

Under Berrios, who was elected chairman in 2007, the party increased the number of minority candidates by 76 percent and slated twice
 as many women for countywide offices, a spokeswoman for the outgoing assessor said.

At Wednesday’s vote, some committeemen thanked Berrios for his service. Berrios said he knows Preckwinkle “will continue the work we started more than 10 years ago.”

Outgoing Cook County Chairman Joseph Berrios talks with fellow Democratic Party members ahead of a meeting where committeemen chose the next chair of the party on April 18, 2018. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

“We’ve elected people from the gay community, we’ve elected people from the Asian community and that just shows what the Democratic Party can do when it wants to put its muscle behind someone,” Berrios said. “This is an equal opportunity party, and we will continue to be that.”

Berrios was handed a chairman emeritus position on the executive committee, but said his plans for the future mostly involve spending time with his grandkids.

“It’s a good life after retirement,” 21st ward committeeman Howard Brookins, Sr. said, approaching Berrios.

“No s—,” Berrios replied.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is greeted by Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) before being named Chair of the county Democratic Party on April 18, 2018. | Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

Under chairman and former Mayor Richard J. Daley, the county party post became a kingmaker position so powerful that Robert F. Kennedy once said “Daley is the ballgame,” when it came to winning the Democratic presidential nomination.

The position’s power has waned over the last few decades, but saw some success in the March primary when all but two of its slated, or endorsed, candidates won. As chairman, Preckwinkle will have an even greater role in slating the party’s candidates.

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“That’s our number one goal, getting everybody to work together again, like they used to a long time ago, like when I was born,”Zuccarelli said. “I think we’ve got the right person at the helm.”

Preckwinkle said the focus of the party would be on engaging with voters about “their priorities and concerns” and bring “the determination of today’s young leaders to work within the party by engaging them in the electoral process.”

Newly minted Cook County Democratic Chairman Toni Preckwinkle speaks to ward and township committeemen on Wednesday. Photo by Rachel Hinton.