Mark Brown: How Toni Preckwinkle handles loss will define her career

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

Toni Preckwinkle will wake up Wednesday morning still feeling the sting of an election campaign in which she doesn’t think she was given proper credit for her record in public office.

She also will still be Cook County Board president and chairman of the Cook County Democratic Party, which is a pretty good place to be for a politician trying to put a tough loss behind them.

I expect she will get over it and come back strong, seeking to prove she is who she said she was: a real progressive.

But whether she handles the defeat gracefully or vindictively will ultimately be the measure of her long career.

As she campaigned across the city Tuesday with a big, toothy smile seemingly frozen on her face, Preckwinkle did not act like someone who believed the polls predicting her landslide defeat.

She ran it out to the very end, buoyed by well-wishers who greeted her on a campaign tour of South Side and West Side wards where local aldermen had endorsed her.

“People are going to be surprised,” Ald. Walter Burnett (27th) told me late Tuesday afternoon after leading Preckwinkle through a pair of senior citizen buildings.

But the only surprise was that so few voters bothered to make their preference known in an election that could decide the city’s future, possibly their own.

That is, unless you count as a surprise the fact that Lori Lightfoot’s expected 2-to-1 winning margin was coming in closer to a humiliating 3-to-1, or that Lightfoot was on a path to win every ward.

Preckwinkle may be in her last term at the helm of county government, but that term has nearly three more years to run, which will make it a little too soon to treat her as a lame duck.

As board president, Preckwinkle still controls the county’s jobs and contracts and a solid majority of board members to help pass her agenda.

She’ll be 75 by 2022 and has indicated this would be her last term. Although she occupies a world of never say never, her thumping loss means voters have already rendered their verdict about any future beyond that.

Preckwinkle also still has nearly two more years to go as party chairman — and no need to relinquish it even then. She’s already paid the political price for her party ambitions, might as well enjoy the benefits.

Preckwinkle seems to believe that’s where she was most misunderstood. She thinks voters should have understood her ascendancy to party chairman as a hostile takeover of the Democratic Machine, not her being co-opted by it.

“It’s not the power, it’s what you do with it,” she told me recently, pointing to her efforts to elevate women and people of color within the party leadership and supporting the party’s first effort to dump a judge facing retention.

But aligning herself with party pariah Joseph Berrios, the unpopular former county assessor who she supported for re-election, belied that interpretation.

So did her fateful decision to allow powerful Ald. Edward M. Burke (14th) to host a campaign fundraiser on her behalf, a misstep made all the more indefensible when Burke was charged by federal prosecutors with attempted extortion.

Preckwinkle, who rarely made it a practice to stick her nose into the city’s business while Rahm Emanuel was running the show, would be well-advised to keep her full attention on the county while Lightfoot is settling into her job.

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