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Preckwinkle touts ‘thick’ skin — but rivals say she’s ‘playing the victim’

Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle. File Photo. | James Foster/For the Sun-Times

Mayoral candidate Toni Preckwinkle. | Sun-Times file photo

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle held a women’s rally on Tuesday, using the event as a chance for African American women to both celebrate her mayoral candidacy and demand that it’s time for the news media to “be fair to Toni.”

Preckwinkle insisted she can take the heat.

“You know, if you’re going to be in public life you have to have the hide of an alligator, and I’m pretty thick skinned,” Preckwinkle said.

But two mayoral rivals — also women of color — suggested the event was little more than a pity party, calling it “simply stunning” that the powerful Cook County Democratic chair “is now playing the victim.”

Preckwinkle held her “Women for Toni” rally at the headquarters of the Chicago Teachers Union. It featured former senior advisor to President Barack Obama Valerie Jarrett, Ald. Sophia King (4th) and activist FM Supreme.

They were joined by others calling for fair coverage of the County Board president, and who better to call for fair coverage than black women, the so called “secret in the sauce” in election of the “most qualified candidate,” according to a press release.

Toni Preckwinkle headlines a rally on Tuesday. Photo by Rachel Hinton.

Toni Preckwinkle headlines a rally on Tuesday. Photo by Rachel Hinton.

Stacy Davis Gates, vice president of the union, said Preckwinkle’s candidacy is an opportunity to lead the city in a better direction.

“Toni Preckwinkle is in a position to make history Feb. 26, and I am proud that black women in Chicago get to have a person that is representative of their experience as black women in the city, the state and the country,” Gates said. “It is important that we see the accomplishments she’s made — County Board president, chair of the Democratic Party — not as machine but as transformative achievements.”

For weeks, Preckwinkle’s candidacy has been dogged by unwelcome headlines linked to Ald. Ed Burke’s scandals.

The 14th Ward alderman is accused of pressuring a Burger King franchise owner to make a $10,000 campaign contribution to Preckwinkle. She returned the donation because it exceeded the legal limits, saying she was unaware of any alleged shakedown. But Preckwinkle has also had to explain why her campaign only reported the donation and refund after Burke was charged with attemped extortion.

She also had to explain why she promoted Burke’s son to a lucrative county position after a personal pitch from the alderman.

Gates said the absence of other stories, such as Preckwinkle’s work in helping to reduce the population at Cook County Jail and in creating CountyCare, the county’s medicaid program, as well as her support for State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul leaves the coverage “imbalanced.”

Preckwinkle wouldn’t say whether or not people were unfair to her, only “there’s a lot of noise out there.”

“I’ve been working hard over the last six months to share with the people of the city of Chicago, my vision for the future,” she said.

But rivals Lori Lightfoot and Susana Mendoza scoffed, issuing a joint statement in advance of the rally.

“We need a mayor who isn’t worried about who is being fair to them, but who will worry more about being fair to the women who have been silenced for too long,” they wrote.

The former head of the Chicago Police Board and the state comptroller argued that many of the attacks in the race have come from Preckwinkle herself.

“The idea that Toni Preckwinkle, among the most powerful elected officials in Illinois, and the head of the political machine in Cook County, is now playing the victim, is simply stunning,” the statement read. “As women of color and candidates for public office, we know what it’s like to go through the gauntlet — to defend ourselves against unfair, unethical and sexist attacks — and to get up the next morning and keep going.”

(From left) Mayoral candidates Comptroller Susana Mendoza, Lori Lightfoot and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle meet with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board, Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 5, 2019. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

(From left) Mayoral candidates Comptroller Susana Mendoza, Lori Lightfoot and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle meet with the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board earlier this month. File Photo. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

“As the Chicago Tribune reported, Toni Preckwinkle covered up the sexual harassment of her chief of staff for six months, firing him only after she decided to get into this race. Then, she lied to the press about it for weeks, before finally being forced to admit the truth. In that situation, like so many others, we’ve come to learn about over the course of this campaign, Toni Preckwinkle had the power to be fair and do the right thing, and she opted out. Toni asks us to be fair to her — but she has not been fair to victims.”

Preckwinkle said her opponents mischaracterized the situation and repeated that she has “zero tolerance” for sexual harassment and that the best way to address issues of sexual harassment is to promote women, something she’s done “through out her public life.”

Charmaine Rickette, a restaurateur who attended Preckwinkle’s rally, said this is the first event she’s attended to support a candidate. She said Preckwinkle “understands the need to move the city forward.”

“I think that given the chance, she will show she’s not one dimensional in her thought process and won’t repeat past mistakes,” Rickette said.