It’s been nearly six years since Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle took over the Executive Chief seat of the largest county in the Midwest and the third largest in the United States.
Having previously served for nearly 20 years as the 4th Ward Alderman and Committeewoman, she is the second most powerful public official in the City of Chicago – only a slim margin behind Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Her diligence, discipline and hardcore work ethics have created a new culture for doing business within the county.
In her 2009 election for Cook County Board President, Preckwinkle ran a non-stop campaign focusing on the penny surcharge tax increase proposed and passed by former President Todd Stroger. The unpopular move immediately reminded Cook County taxpayers of the woes of another tax increase.
Preckwinkle won the Board President seat, becoming the second African-American woman to hold the position (behind Bobbie Steele, who was appointed for four months after then-President John Stroger suffered a stroke) and the first female public official elected to the office.
According to the Civic Federation, Preckwinkle was met with a $285 million budget deficit, a health system on life support, and a broken criminal justice system that was considered one of the worse in the country.
She rolled back Stroger’s one-penny tax increase to many taxpayers’ satisfaction, but it’s been a small band-aid for a bigger budget wound. Now, the county’s fiscal year 2015 forecast is for a $168.9 million budget deficit.
The former history teacher went into action executing one of the biggest overhauls in Cook County history. It involved job layoffs, consolidating positions, instituting mandatory employee furloughs and streamlining an ongoing history of patronage hiring.
Making Justice More Equitable
One of her biggest challenges has been the county’s criminal justice system, where close to 89 percent of African-American and Hispanic inmates occupy Cook County jails.
“The jails in this country are at the intersection of ‘racism’ and ‘poverty’. They are full of Black and Brown and poor people,” Preckwinkle, not one to mince words, told the Chicago Defender in a recent sit-down interview.
“I’ve made criminal justice reform one of the hallmarks of my administration. It’s something I’ve been working on since I walked in the door. Usually, I talk about it in kind of a macro sense. We live in a country that has five percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of the people in jail or prison in the entire world.”
She began to make aggressive moves in bringing this to the forefront of her administration. “We worked with the actors in the criminal justice arena from March 2011 to August 2013. Everybody agreed that we had too many people accused of non-violent crimes awaiting the disposition of cases in jail – everybody agreed to this,” Preckwinkle said. “Yet, in August of 2013, we were still at 10,000 people in jail despite that commitment from everyone.”
The lack of movement prompted Preckwinkle to write to the Supreme Court requesting assistance with the dysfunctional system in place.
Preckwinkle admitted, “The court was not happy with me, but two months later, they brought all the actors to the table to talk about what’s happening in our criminal justice system. We’ve been meeting on a regular basis since November 2013.
“That’s two years now. The jail population is now down to 8,200 on a daily basis and that is because fewer people accused of non-violent crimes are in our jail. That’s about an 18 percent reduction and we’re working together with all of the actors in the criminal justice arena to try to get support from the MacArthur Foundation. We’re part of their initiative.”
(Cook County is in the running out of 20 communities applying to receive up to $2 million for up to two years from MacArthur in helping to reduce the number of people in the jails.)
About The State’s Attorney
Preckwinkle doesn’t make any bones over her disappointment in working with Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, noting that it has become a difficult task working with Alvarez’s office to put in place criminal justice reform initiatives.
“Regarding policing in the City of Chicago in our neighborhoods, there is a profound racism that continues to plague us. This means that our jails are filled with people of color,” Preckwinkle said.
“In our efforts to try to reform the criminal justice system, we’ve had to fight the State’s Attorney’s Office all along. She’s resisted our efforts to try to have more reasonable bonds for people so that ordinary people can pay them.”
At a press conference of African-American community leaders and public officials including the Black Aldermanic Caucus, Preckwinkle publicly endorsed her former chief of staff, Kim Foxx, in the Cook County State’s Attorney race against Alvarez in the March 2016 primary.
“Kim has an intimate knowledge of the State’s Attorney’s Office, having served there for 12 years and then four years before that in the Public Guardian’s office,” Preckwinkle said. “As a result of her experience in the State Attorney’s office, we focused on the juvenile justice initiative around adult transfers – transferring juveniles out of the juvenile justice system into the adult system. That legislation we passed goes into effect in January. It’s due to (Kim’s) knowledge and insight that we’re able to be successful at that.”
Improvement In Healthcare
In addition to criminal justice, the state of healthcare in the county is of crucial importance to Preckwinkle.
“Cook County taxpayers contributed $121 million to the healthcare system to cover the costs of the operations. When I entered office in 2010, over $400 million was being paid to the healthcare system,” Preckwinkle says. “That has substantially declined due to efficiencies in our healthcare system and the influx of federal dollars through the Affordable Care Act program.”
She noted that for the first time in the county’s history, in 2014, the healthcare system served more insured people than uninsured people.
“We have 170,000 people in our Cook County Care program. We ramped it up, and as a result, the composition of our patient population in our hospital and clinics changed,” Preckwinkle explained. “Prior to 2014, about 70 percent were uninsured and 30 percent were insured. Now it’s 70 percent insured and 30 percent uninsured. So it’s flipped because people have access to the Medicaid expansion program.”
Making The Hard Decisions
Although she enters 2016 with a new county budget passed, the challenges of what’s going on in Springfield, a $6.5 billion unfunded pension, and decades of budget mismanagement from previous administrations have pegged Preckwinkle as the “cleaner” – she identifies the problem, assassinates the target, and cleans up without a trace.
“The city is in terrible financial shape because there was unwillingness to address the tough financial issues over decades. The same is true of the state. Those of us in executive offices now have to make these really difficult decisions. This is the result of long-standing unwillingness, denial, inattention and inactivity,” Preckwinkle says.
“I’m grateful for the members of the Board of Commissioners that recognize this difficult task. Now, we’re just playing catch up. We had to increase the sales tax because that was the only way we were going to get the resources to address our pension crisis. As a steward for county government, I have to meet our obligations and sometimes you have to make difficult decisions.”
Preckwinkle has a long-standing relationship within the Hyde Park/Kenwood community and often has been criticized for giving preferential treatment to constituents and businesses that have supported her throughout the years.
She has also had her alliance with the Black community questioned. Although a great deal of votes have come from this area, Preckwinkle believes that working with the communities outside the Hyde Park community in her former ward is the primary reason for her success in public service.
“I spent most of my 19 years as alderman working to rebuild communities outside of Hyde Park and Kenwood. I came to Chicago when I was 18; I was elected when I was 43,” she says. “I worked very hard to rebuild those neighborhoods, so when you’re alderman, you’re sort of like a mayor of a small town. People hold you responsible for the safety of the streets, the quality of the schools, even the shopping environments.”
With a tough job ahead of her and the majority of the Board of Cook Commissioners in support, Preckwinkle takes it one day at a time. “I feel blessed to have the job that I have,” she says. “The county touches people through public health and public safety. I feel that I’m the right person in the right place, and that’s affirming and satisfying.”
Outside of her job, one of the secret joys for this grandmother of three is spending time with her grandkids on weekends, as well as antique shopping and soaking in the beauty of the area’s museums and zoos.