After 10 years leading Cook County, Preckwinkle focused on ‘how we’re going to get out of this’ pandemic, not politics
In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times about her decade at the helm of the county, Preckwinkle ticked off a list of accomplishments she’s proud of as well as what she still wants to focus on.
Reflecting on her decade as the county’s chief executive, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle isn’t getting caught up in the regrets that come from leading, choosing instead to focus on “where we are now” and the issues still facing the county.
“My view is that you have to be there for awhile… to make sure the changes you make become embedded, become the new standard operating procedure as opposed to ephemeral reform,” Preckwinkle said. “So, we’ve got a lot of work to do there.”
In a sit-down interview with the Chicago Sun-Times about her decade at the helm of the county, Preckwinkle ticked off a list of accomplishments she’s proud of: righting the county’s fiscal ship, reducing the jail population, working to stabilize the county’s health care apparatus and creating a department of economic development, which has proven helpful during the pandemic as the county tries to disburse money and other assistance to businesses and residents in need.
As for regrets or learning lessons, the board president wouldn’t name any.
“In the midst of a global pandemic and economic collapse, I think it’s better to focus on where we are now and how we’re going to get out of this,” Preckwinkle said. “When I wake up in the middle of the night, I think of how to address the things right in front of me, not the things that happened in the past.”
Leading the county was a step up from being an alderman, a post Preckwinkle held in the city’s 4th Ward from 1991 until moving on to county government in 2010.
In Chicago, people know who their alderman and mayor are, said Preckwinkle, who was unsuccessful in her 2019 bid for mayor.
Beyond that, “many people couldn’t tell you who their state reps are, or their state senators or county commissioners or county president,” because their attention is on what’s happening in their community, Preckwinkle said.
“You step out the door ... and people feel free to accost you on the street or give you a piece of their mind, and that sort of direct connection with the people you serve can be challenging, but it’s one of the great things about the job and I miss that,” Preckwinkle said. “When you’re in this position [as county board president], the work that you do can have an impact on a larger number of people. We serve tens of thousands of people ... but it’s not the kind of thing people are usually likely to stop you on the street and pat you on the back about.”
The Hyde Park Democrat credited her team for their work on county finances and criminal justice reforms, and looking ahead she identified the county’s $300 million charity care burden, or care provided by Cook County Health without compensation, an issue that remains to be tackled.
“It’s just not sustainable ... $300 million a year is a pretty big lift and we have to figure out how we’re going to do that going forward,” Preckwinkle said.
The political powerhouse said she’s not interested in running for Illinois secretary of state, a position filled by Jesse White since 1998.
“Why would I want to do that? I’d have to learn to be a tumbler,” Preckwinkle joked, referring to White’s famous youth gymnastics program.
“The responsibilities that I have, I think, are more critical to the people of Cook County than the secretary of state’s office,” she said. “It’s not something I’m interested in. You shouldn’t run for office if you’re not interested in it.”
Preckwinkle didn’t say whether Cook County Clerk Karen Yarbrough would have her backing should she decide to seek that office. Three people have called Preckwinkle, she said, and she recommended they talk to the county’s Democratic Party committeepeople because “having the support of the Cook County Democratic Party is a good place to begin.”
Meanwhile, Preckwinkle, who chairs the county party, said Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan — the state party chair — should step down if his associates benefited from an alleged ComEd bribery scheme, as federal prosecutors have outlined in a criminal charge against the utility company.
Madigan hasn’t been charged with a crime. Preckwinkle said others will have to decide whether he holds onto his leadership position in the House.
“The decision about who will be speaker of the House will be made by Democrats in the House. The decision about who will lead the state party will be made by people who are members of the state party leadership,” Preckwinkle said. “I’m not [in] either of those places.”