Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is on a mission to seize the political reins of Chicago as the next mayor. The 71-year-old seasoned political veteran has been crowned by many news outlets to be a frontrunner in a crowded mayoral field with 13 other candidates. But a ballot full of contenders doesn’t trump Preckwinkle’s enthusiasm about the opportunity to work in the city council. The Chicago Defender recently had an opportunity to pose questions to Preckwinkle about her decision to run for mayor and her campaign platform.
The Chicago Defender: Why now?
Toni Preckwinkle: “I was alderman of the 4th ward for 14 years; I loved it. When you’re an alderman, you have a personal connection to constituents that is very rewarding. The people that you serve are often people that you know, people that you’ve talked to on the telephone. I love that work. It was community-building, working with public schools, and working with our police/community relations.
The last eight years, we’ve had a tremendous impact on a large number of people. We had 330,000 in our County Care Medicaid expansion program. I believe healthcare is a right, and the fact that 330,000 people now have healthcare as a result of our expansion program is a boom to them and to our system.
Criminal Justice reform has always been a passion of mine. We’ve gotten to do a lot of that work in the county. We dramatically reduced the number of people within the jail from 10,000 on a daily basis to 4,000. What really attracts me about city government is the personal connections to people and community that make the job so rewarding.
CD: Black voters in this election have a wide range of Black candidates to choose from. They have names like Willie Wilson, Amara Enyia, Neal Sales-Griffin…
TP: Lori Lightfoot.
CD: Yes, Lori Lightfoot. La Shawn Ford. What separates Toni Preckwinkle from these other candidates?
TP: The experience that I’ve had. I’ve spent 19 years as a local elected official and the last 8 years managing the second largest county in the country. Nobody else, whoever they are, has that experience in this race.
CD: Say that you win and become our next mayor. What is the first thing you tackle on day one?
TP: Strengthening our neighborhood public schools. We can’t have strong communities unless we have strong public schools. The problem we have is that we have great public schools in some neighborhoods but we have remarkably under-resourced schools in others. We have to provide every young person in our city a great public education. That means investing in our schools.
We put a lot of energy into magnet schools, selective-enrollment schools, and charter schools, but if we don’t have stronger public schools, then we’re not going to be able to have a world-class city.
The second thing is working with the aldermen. We have to figure out a strategy for some of our neighborhoods that haven’t seen investment for decades, particularly the neighborhoods that struggle with violence.
CD: Chicago has a problem with keeping Black folks inside the city. Many candidates say jobs are a solution. How can we provide jobs and beautify our communities without displacing Black Chicagoans? Gentrification is a heavy buzzword, but I’m interested in how do we keep Black Chicagoans.
TP: Well, when I was I alderman, people moving into my ward asked me two things: “Are the streets safe?” and “Are the neighborhoods good?” So, we must have safe streets and great neighborhood schools. That’s the first thing.
I support a $15 minimum wage. We have to have a city in which people who are working can support themselves and their families. The city’s minimum wage will be $13 as of July 1st and I have a plan to raise it 50 cents every 6 months until we get to $15. $15 is not an arbitrary number; it is what it takes to get a family of four just above poverty.
In the last couple of weeks, I also talked about supporting small and medium-sized businesses through the neighborhood opportunity fund. It presently provides rebates, but I want it to be a grant program. There is also the Chicago Microlending Institute, a public-private partnership that gives loans to businesses. We have to support our local businesses because they employ our neighborhoods.
CD: Young Black people are often characterized as disenchanted and really apathetic about politics. What exactly in your platform can young people get excited about?
TP: Things I talk about all the time seem important to people across the age spectrum: good neighborhood public schools, rebuilding communities that have been struggling, repairing police and community relations. Those are issues that should appeal to all age groups.
CD: There is a whirlwind of headlines regarding Ed Burke and corruption in the city council. What do you say to voters who fear more corruption is on the way? Can you quell those fears of a corrupted Democratic Party in Chicago? What do you have to say about corruption in general, especially since you have been linked to Ed Burke and folks like Joe Berrios?
TP: That’s a good question. The problem with corruption is that it diminishes people’s confidence in government.
Ed Burke was my colleague in the city council, but he was neither a friend or an ally. I think it’s important to remember that the person he endorsed in this race is Gery Chico and that Susan Mendoza got married in his house. Until recently, she talked about him as her mentor.
I’ve taken the strongest position against [Burke]. I stripped him of his committee chairmanship in the Cook County judicial slating committee. I said he should resign as chairman of the finance committee. I said he should resign as alderman and committeeman of the 14th ward.
I also said nobody should have dual-employment who is an elected official in the City of Chicago. Since I was elected in 1991, I never had an outside job. The question is are you serving clients or constituents.
CD: You’re endorsed by Ald. Carlos Rosa, who is known as a progressive voice in the city council. He was the lone vote against Rahm’s proposed $95 million cop academy. What does his endorsement mean to you?
TP: I ran for alderman in 1983, against the machine, and I lost. I ran in ’87 against the machine and I lost. I won in ’91 by beating the machine candidate. I was one of the founders of the Progressive Caucus. I sponsored every single affordable housing and living wage ordinance that came before the body. I was 1 of 5 votes against the parking meter deal. I have a progressive record and I take that progressive record with me wherever I go.
As President of the County, I focused on access to healthcare—healthcare being a right and not a privilege—and criminal justice reform. Certainly, these are part of the Progressive agenda. I believe I’m the most progressive candidate in the race.
CD: Pop Tax, Soda tax, Sugar Tax…whatever you want to call it, people were upset about it. What is your message for a casual voter who only associates Toni Preckwinkle with taxes? What do you say to voters who fear more taxation will come from the government?
TP: We instituted the Pop Tax. Clearly, it was unpopular and it got repealed. We had to make difficult choices in the absence of $200 million in revenue. I think it’s important to remember where the money goes. Half of our money goes to healthcare; we have a $5.2 billion budget, $2.6 billion goes to healthcare. Again, we’re providing coverage for people who never had it before or only had it sporadically. Then, about 40 percent of it goes to criminal justice.
I understand that it was unpopular and we repealed it. We made difficult choices and cut 1,000 positions in the County. I just think it’s important to remember what we actually do with the money.