Toni Preckwinkle: The Iron Fist in the Velvet Glove

In politics, one who wields their iron fist in a velvet glove is one who has the diplomacy and tact to resolve things rationally, but the guts to use the power of that fist when circumstance demands.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle

Power can be inherited or passed on, but true power is earned – attained through slow and strategic calculation that is held by those that practice patience, strength and resourcefulness.  Toni Preckwinkle embodies that concept.

The Cook County Board President has never been about bling or flash; rather, she’s steadfast and strategic – no showing off or showing out for her. But she is the quintessential iron fist in the velvet glove because you never see it coming.

For the past 25 years, Preckwinkle has steadily moved up the ranks of the Cook County Democratic Party.

She first served as alderman of the 4th Ward for 19 years and strengthened relationships with Hyde Park, Kenwood and Bronzeville families that have set down roots down in those communities for decades. It’s one of the few truly diverse wards in the city and includes the University of Chicago – a villain to some and a savior to others.

Preckwinkle’s dedication to various groups has created a delicate balance as she has quietly built her power and her influence. She became Cook County Board President in 2010, after beating incumbent Todd Stroger, Jr.

During a very intense campaign, Preckwinkle said she would roll back what remained on Stroger’s penny sales tax increase, only to later bring back the same sales tax in 2015 to curb the county’s fiscal crisis, proving that timing is everything in politics.

During her six years in office, Preckwinkle has created an environment that cultivates the grooming of fresh talent within her administration, and a distinct pattern demonstrates that.

In 2012, Christian Mitchell, who served as her Director of Outreach and External Affairs, won election as Illinois State Representative for the 26th District. He was re-elected in 2014 and won his third-term primary fight last week.

City of Chicago Treasurer Kurt Summers, who was appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2014 and won election to the post for a full term in 2015, formerly served as Preckwinkle’s chief of staff.

Kurt Summers
City of Chicago Treasurer Kurt Summers

In August 2015, Kim Foxx resigned after working in the Cook County Board President’s office for three years. She was first Preckwinkle’s deputy chief of staff and after Summer’s departure, stepped into the role he vacated as chief of staff.

The resignation immediately sparked questions over where and why Foxx – a rising star in the Preckwinkle administration – would leave after such a short time?

Foxx has had a good run in both the public sector, working in the Cook County State’s Attorney office for 12 years, and moving into the private sector as the president of the board of directors for Planned Parenthood Chicago.

By the time Foxx’s announcement to run for Cook County State’s Attorney in the primaries hit the airwaves – it was not news to insiders at City Hall – the move had Preckwinkle’s fingerprints all over it.

Having won the primary over Anita Alvarez and heading into the November general election, Foxx has run a campaign built on her independence, personal journey and triumphs.

Cook County State's Attorney Democratic candidate, Kim Foxx.
Cook County State’s Attorney Democratic candidate, Kim Foxx.

From a modest background, she worked hard to attain a law degree and serve in the juvenile courts. Although most of her professional career was not centered around Toni Preckwinkle, the connection between the two was clear and apparent.

Preckwinkle has a track record of success, but has had some unsuccessful endorsements as well. She backed 28-year-old Blake Sercye in the 2014 Cook County Board Commissioner’s race against former chief of staff to Congressman Danny Davis, Richard Boykin. When Boykin won, some questioned Preckwinkle’s ascension as “crown holder.”

Others more familiar with her history and quiet discipline thought differently. They believe that you should never bet against Toni Preckwinkle because you will eventually lose.

Criminal Justice Reform

The 2016 primary election brought out record numbers in voter registration and African-American voters. With a mounting history of police misconduct and the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office’s lackluster role in charging rogue Chicago police officers, the court-ordered video release of Laqaun McDonald’s execution was the final nail in the coffin for incumbent Anita Alvarez.

It was also the light at the end of a long and tedious tunnel for Preckwinkle, who has had to battle Alvarez’s long history of criminalizing people of color.

In the primary, Preckwinkle’s former chief of staff Kim Foxx defeated Alvarez, winning 62.4 percent of the vote.

“The people of Cook County voted for change and transformation in our criminal justice system, for which I’m very grateful,” Preckwinkle said. “Kim won 37 wards. She won not only the African-American wards, but most of the North Side and lakefront areas, too.”

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle introduces Cook County State’s Attorney candidate at the Women for Political Empowerment luncheon on March 7,2016.

Preckwinkle noted that two issues resonated in this campaign. “One was clearly police accountability,” she said. “The Laquan McDonald case. The case where Detective Dante Servin shoots into the crowd and kills Rekia Boyd. The case of Ronald Johnson, a young man that lived near me who was killed on 53rd and King fleeing from the police and was shot in the back.

“Philip Coleman, being dragged from his jail cell, tasered and subsequently dies in the hospital. Then, there’s a young man – Cedric Chatman – also shot in the back fleeing police in South Shore.”

The dashcam release of Officer Jason Van Dyke pumping 16 bullets into 17-year old McDonald was the most brutal and inhumane of images. It brought global outcry for justice and transparency in Cook County’s criminal system.

It also revealed what people of color had known for decades – that there is an ongoing cooperation between the State’s Attorney’s Office and the Chicago Police Department.

Preckwinkle said, “There are these high-profile cases in which the State’s Attorney seems to be unwilling to file charges. They filed charges in the case of Officer Jason Van Dyke only because the video was about to be released and it was damning.”

All those cases rekindled the conviction that the present State’s Attorney wasn’t willing to hold police accountable for bad acts. Eighty-six percent of the people in jail are Black and Brown, but 25 percent of the county is African-American and 25 percent is Latino.

“So, African-Americans and Latinos are 50 percent of the county population, but 86 percent of the jail population. Black and Brown people get ground up in our criminal justice system every day,” Preckwinkle said.

Cook County residents have overwhelmingly voted Democratic in the past five decades, so there is no doubt that Foxx will be the next State’s Attorney, despite her Republican opposition in November.

The Cook County Board President has been very vocal about Anita Alvarez and the tension that built up over the last six years, but she also understands the challenging road that Foxx has ahead of her.

“Let me explain – the friction between me and the State’s Attorney is about policy,” Preckwinkle clarified. “I always thought she had a ‘lock them up’ and ‘hang ’em high’ for people who came into our criminal justice system. That was pretty disturbing to me.

“This is a hard job. Kim is going to have her hands full in re-setting policy within the office, and changing out leaders who are committed to transformation like she is. It’s going to be a difficult transition.”

But Preckwinkle has confidence in Foxx’s ability to take over that office and respects her lane. “She knows the office better than I do,” Preckwinkle said. “She’s worked there for 12 years. I’m not a lawyer and I’m not a state’s attorney. I have a job and she is going to have a job.

“It’s about your vision of the office and the criminal justice system more than your experience. Kim has plenty of experience; that’s not the point. What she has is a commitment to both justice and fairness and I think that’s the critical issue.”

Whether Preckwinkle wants to claim it or not, the public’s overwhelming support of Foxx crushing her opponent solidified Preckwinkle as “Boss.” Maybe not yet on the same level as the original “Boss,” Mayor Richard J. Daley, but she is becoming one of most powerful women in Chicago’s political history – as exemplified by the election of Juliana Stratton.

Juliana Stratton vs. Ken Dunkin

Aside from the Cook County State’s Attorney’s race, the other highly visible primary election battle that was on everyone’s radar was for the Illinois State Representative seat in the 5th District.

The incumbent, Ken Dunkin, was challenged by newcomer Juliana Stratton and Dunkin lost his 13-year seat by capturing only 29 percent of the vote.

Illinois State Representative Democratic candidate for the 5th District, Julianna Stratton.
Illinois State Representative Democratic candidate for the 5th District, Julianna Stratton.

Preckwinkle still serves as the Committeewoman for the 4th Ward and openly supported Stratton’s run for the 5th District office. Dunkin had drawn the considerable ire of state Democrats by occasionally crossing over the aisle to support some of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s initiatives.

“If Ken Dunkin had won, Bruce Rauner would have considered his buy-out initiative successful. There would’ve been a lot of Democrats that might have been tempted by the resources that Governor Rauner could bring in,” Preckwinkle explained.

“So, it was important that Juliana Stratton beat Ken Dunkin to send a message – not just to Bruce Rauner, but to any wavering Democrats – that the kind of prostitution that Dunkin engaged in is not going to be rewarded by the voters.”

The endorsement of Stratton by President Barack Obama raised eyebrows and some questioned his involvement, as it is unusually rare for a sitting U.S. President to take sides in a statehouse election.

But Preckwinkle defended and explained the president’s actions. “(In a radio ad) Ken Dunkin used excerpts of his speech from Springfield to imply that the President was endorsing him. Of course, it wasn’t true, so the President decided he would do radio ads, television commercials and make local calls to counter that falsehood.”

Stratton’s connection to Preckwinkle is that she served as executive director for the Cook County Justice Advisory Council for over three years beginning in July 2011. She managed the public safety portfolio for the Cook County Board President.

If there is a mentoring process for Stratton, Preckwinkle noted, “Christian Mitchell and Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie also represent part of the 4th Ward. I’m grateful to them for their good work in Springfield and I know that Juliana will find her way – all that is all good.”

But you could hear the frustration in Preckwinkle’s voice as she explained the importance of Stratton’s victory because of the state budget stalemate that has affected the county’s budget in various areas.

“This budget not only affects people with autistic children who can’t get services or seniors that need home healthcare – it’s local units of government across the state,” Preckwinkle said. “It’s social services that are really important to those in need in our state.”

She broke down what the monies that have not been paid to Cook County since November 2015 means.

“The state owes us $30 million for our fiscal year that ended November 30. They owe our healthcare system $100 million for bills that go back to October. They owe $18 million for our child enforcement work that’s done on behalf of the state through state grants, but of course there’s no budget, so there’s no money,” Preckwinkle says.

“They owe us $12 million for one of our programs that tries to help people who have been in jail or prison to be productive citizens and not return to jail or prisons.”

She said, “It’s a nightmare and I hope that there’s a resolution soon, although I can’t say I’m optimistic.”

Power Broker

A former history teacher, Toni Preckwinkle is creating history herself by identifying key young professionals that stand out with a particular talent in management and a unique quality that sets them apart from the rest.

Not since the late John Stroger or former Illinois Senate President Emil Jones have we witnessed an African-American public official groom a new generation of political leaders at this rate.

Preckwinkle’s building power reaches beyond Cook County as the second largest county government in the country.

Throughout the primary election, her critics questioned her control of the Cook County State’s Attorney office if Foxx won the primary election, but she maintained a cool demeanor.

While all eyes were focused on the Alvarez versus Foxx battle, Preckwinkle’s influence played out like a seasoned chess player.

In the game of politics, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is the king of Chicago – in chess, the king is the most important piece in the game and also the weakest.

It is the queen that is the most powerful piece. She’s the only piece that can move in any one straight direction – forward, backward, sideways, or diagonally. There is no doubt that Preckwinkle has earned the crown of Queen of Chicago politics.

As her power continues to grow, it becomes more challenging to maintain a chief of staff before finishing a term. This week, the announcement came that former Illinois Revenue Director Brian Hamer will be Preckwinkle’s fifth chief of staff.

He replaces Tasha Green Cruzat, who resigned in February to accept the position as president of Voices for Illinois Children – a move that is not a bad look for Cruzat in the scheme of things.

Summers, Mitchell, Foxx, Stratton and Cruzat are all solid examples of enhancing their talents and building their careers through the Preckwinkle “school of higher learning.”

This art of Preckwinkle’s of nurturing relationships versus collecting relationships is what will secure a lasting legacy in her name.

Of course the question everyone wants answered is, will she make a run for Mayor of Chicago in 2019?

The Cook County Board President quietly laughed off the question and answered, “I haven’t decided what I’m going to do. My term is up in 2018, but I have no intention of running for mayor.”

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