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Preckwinkle staffer on why ‘everyone’ voted for Lightfoot—including the staffer

Toni Preckwinkle gives her concession speech at her election night party after losing to Lori Lightfoot in the Chicago mayor election, Tuesday, April 2, 2019. (Tyler LaRiviere/Chicago Sun-Times via AP)

Toni Preckwinkle gives her concession speech at her election night party after losing to Lori Lightfoot in the Chicago mayor election, Tuesday, April 2, 2019. | Tyler LaRiviere/Chicago Sun-Times

Toni Preckwinkle’s Election Day shellacking was so bad that the Cook County Board president lost her home ward, carried only 20 of the city’s 2,069 precincts and even lost the faith of a campaign staffer — who voted for Lori Lightfoot.

“I didn’t want to be on the wrong side of a historic moment,” the staffer told the Chicago Sun-Times.

It was indeed lonely on Preckwinkle’s side of history. She won just 26.3 percent of the vote to Lightfoot’s 73.7 percent, a 47.4 percentage point difference.

Though she lost big Tuesday night, the board president still has her day job.  Whether the political wounds she suffered this week will hobble her ability to run county government is an open question.

But her failed mayoral campaign was already getting a postmortem.

The staffer, who asked to remain anonymous to discuss the campaign candidly, said some on the board president’s team were “so ideological and so clueless” that they didn’t understand what “normal people” wanted to hear.

“There was a part of the campaign that thought that they could win, but for me, after the February election, I thought Preckwinkle had about a week to turn things around, raise money and establish herself as a frontrunner and establish some better talking points, but instead she just doubled down,” the staffer said. “She never really developed a message or expanded her support among the electorate. … If you look at who voted for Lightfoot, it’s everyone.”

Including the Preckwinkle staffer.

Chicago Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot, right, shakes hands with former mayoral candidate Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle as Rev. Jesse Jackson look on during a press conference at the Rainbow PUSH organization, Wednesday morning, April 3, 2019, in Chicago. (Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times)

Chicago Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot, right, shakes hands with Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle as Rev. Jesse Jackson looks on during a press conference at the Rainbow PUSH organization Wednesday. (Ashlee Rezin/Chicago Sun-Times)

Preckwinkle’s drubbing was so severe she didn’t even carry the 4th Ward, which she represented in the City Council. Seven of the 20 precincts Preckwinkle did carry were in the South Side ward, but the other 31 4th Ward precincts went for Lightfoot. In one other precinct in the 11th Ward, the two candidates tied, with each winning seven votes.

For Preckwinkle, it was a stunning upset for a woman who ascended from teacher to 4th Ward alderman to board president and, last year, chair of the Cook County Democratic Party.

Dick Simpson, a former alderman and longtime political science professor at the University of Illinois who was also part of Lightfoot’s strategy committee, said that resume may have worked against Preckwinkle.

“She was on the wrong side of both some people  — like [former Cook County Assessor] Joe Berrios and [14th Ward Ald.] Ed Burke — and on the wrong side of some issues — it wasn’t clear she had any important ideas about police reform … or curbing aldermanic privilege,” Simpson said.

“She had sort of a half-step progressive platform rather than a pretty pure one. She is legitimately progressive, but much more moderate than Lightfoot, much more cautious.”

Still, Simpson doesn’t believe the loss will affect Preckwinkle’s ability to get things done in the county.

Ken Snyder, who worked on Preckwinkle’s first run for the board president spot and helped launch Lightfoot’s mayoral run, said the defeat is not likely to stop Preckwinkle from going forward with her agenda at the County Board. But he said there is no question she was politically weakened.

In a race that became “entirely about change and reform,” Lightfoot became the perfect fit, Snyder said.

“Toni Preckwinkle made her bed,” Snyder said. “She decided to be an apologist for Joe Berrios [and become] the successor of the Democratic machine.”

Snyder said he thinks if Preckwinkle could go back in time she wouldn’t have become chair of the party. That decision, he says, has hurt her more than it’s helped.

Then Cook County Democratic Chairman Joe Berrios, center, talks with County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Ald. Michelle Harris at a party meeting in 2016. File Photo. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Then Cook County Democratic Chairman Joe Berrios, center, talks with County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Ald. Michelle Harris at a party meeting in 2016. File Photo. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Delmarie Cobb, who has also worked with Preckwinkle in the past, said Preckwinkle’s campaign was poorly run. She said getting pulled into Burke’s legal troubles with the feds was unfortunate. Cobb said embracing the boss label was a misstep but if Preckwinkle were a white man, people “would’ve fallen right in line. This was an opportunity to take her down a peg.”

“She’s accomplished more than any black woman in our history in the city of Chicago,” Cobb said. “This is still historic. You cannot minimize her history because we have someone else who made history.”

Cook County Commissioners Larry Suffredin, D-Evanston and Bridget Gainer, D-Chicago, are standing behind the president and believe she can still be successful at the helm of the county.

Suffredin said Preckwinkle can “reclaim her legacy of being a progressive that somehow got distorted in this campaign,” likely by continuing to focus on healthcare and criminal justice reform.

She could have a political fight in the race for Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx’s re-election, Gainer said. Foxx is a political protege of Preckwinkle’s.

But Gainer said the loss won’t change Preckwinkle’s ability to do what she wants to do and, since the board president is aligned with Chief Judge Tim Evans and Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart on policy issues, Gainer said the county is on pretty stable footing already.

Snyder explained Lightfoot’s win as something rooted in physics: objects in motion tend to stay in motion and Lightfoot, with some help from endorsements and campaign cash, put herself in motion.

Preckwinkle, he says has been independent throughout her career and will likely “go back to doing her job which she loves and she’ll throw her heart into it and continue looking for ways to make the county run better …”

“She’s certainly politically weaker today than she was yesterday, but I think she’s the kind of person who runs out ground balls,” Snyder said. “She’s not going to slack off, she’ll dust herself off, she’s tough — she started her career losing … to the machine and, in probably her last election, she lost as the face of the machine. There’s some poetic justice there.”