Preckwinkle 2010

Then-Ald. Toni Preckwinkle celebrates after winning the February 2010 Democratic primary for the presidency of the Cook County Board of Commissioners

Toni Preckwinkle's political staff has instructed her not to say whether or not this campaign for reelection will be her last run for office.

She's 75 years old. "Clearly I'm an anomaly, because I took this job when I was 63, which is the point most people in their lives are seeking retirement, and I took on the toughest job of my political career," she said in an interview.

Preckwinkle was first elected as President of the Cook County Board of Commissioners in 2010. She said she decided to run because didn't think the incumbent president, Todd Stroger, would win reelection, and thought that someone who cared about "access to health care for people who really need it and the inequities of the criminal justice system" should hold the job. 

When she took office that December, the slow recovery following the Great Recession weighed on local government finances nationwide. “For a number of years, things were a real mess,” Preckwinkle said at the Cook County Democratic Party's headquarters, across Washington Street from City Hall in the Loop.

"When we came in, we had a $487 million deficit to close, and next year, I think the projected deficit is less than $20 million. But it's been a slog to get there," she said, laughing. "I'm proud of the good work of our team." Over the years many financial staffers have moved on to work at the University of Chicago and the Obama Presidential Center.

"When I talk about the last 12 years, I usually talk about fiscal responsibility, transparency and improved services," said Preckwinkle. "Basically, you can find out whatever we're doing online . . . Everything from our contracts to our policy documents," producing great bound reports of the county's expenditure of American Rescue Plan Act dollars for good measure.

She said Cook County Health has tried hard to improve the quality of health care it gives and the access to that care. "We've had a hospital system for 180 years; however, we've had some real challenges about operations in terms of maximizing revenues — which doesn't mean we turn anybody away at the door. It just means we work the system to get as much reimbursement as we can from the federal government for the services we provide," she said.

Preckwinkle added that the Affordable Care Act has been a boon, because many people the system cared for who did not previously have insurance now do.

There are 400,000 people in County Care, the Medicaid-managed care program — a function of the COVID-19 pandemic recession, which made a lot of 18- to 64-year-olds eligible, but that meant a lot more young and healthy people were suddenly in the county's Medicaid program. The program gets a per-person per-month reimbursement, and Preckwinkle said to the extent that those people do not need care, that reimbursement is a "cash cow."

The county also got $1 billion from the federal government through the American Rescue Plan Act, which it is using for behavioral health investments. One such investment is Preckwinkle’s plan to create a Department of Behavioral Health Services.

In terms of criminal justice reform, there are currently around 6,000 incarcerated people compared with 11,000 when Preckwinkle, an advocate for ending cash bail, took office. "And that's because we've tried to make sure that people who are accused of low-level, nonviolent crimes didn't have to pay cash bonds to get out, because a lot of people couldn't even pay bonds of $100," she said.

She also created the county's Bureau of Economic Development from the departments of Capital Planning, Community Development, and Building and Zoning. (The Workforce Department was spun off into the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership in conjunction with the city, under Mayor Rahm Emanuel.)

Asked again whether this will be her final run for office, she said, "Look, what I've done is laid out what I'm going to do for the next four years. That's where I am."

Preckwinkle’s challenger is former county Commissioner Richard Boykin (D-1st). Her reelection campaign has been endorsed by the Tribune editorial board. 

Ultimately, Cook County Democratic primary voters will have their say this month whether or not she keeps her job.

That job is different, and harder, than the City Council position she held from 1991 to 2010, which was oriented around constituent service and entailed people stopping her as she walked her dog, at the grocery store or in her ward office.

"You know all the people who you're helping, but when you have this job, you can help a lot of people, but you don't know any of them," she said. "There isn't this sort of personal affirmation that you get from helping people and knowing them personally."

Preckwinkle has been a politician for far longer than she taught school — her first, unsuccessful election was in 1983, and she was a teacher for 10 years — but she said dealing with teenagers, parents and faculty is good preparation for public life.

"Politics is public education," she said. "The challenge is to try to figure out first of all what you want to do, how you're going to do it, and how you're going to translate it to the public in a way that you can understand, appreciate and hopefully get on board."

Asked about the race to replace U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-1st), Preckwinkle said she will “probably not” make an endorsement and declined to say whom she will vote for. But she spoke favorably about two candidates in particular, Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) and state Sen. Jacqui Collins (D-16th)

"I'm a person who's always believed that experience matters, and particularly experience in government matters,” said Preckwinkle. “People who have proven records of constituent service and commitment to issues that I care about, like Pat Dowell and Jacqui Collins, are people I'm more inclined to support than someone who doesn't have a track record nor very well thought-out positions issues. And this goes for everybody."

She is, however, supporting state Rep. Curtis J. Tarver II (D-25th) in his contested primary against Josef Michael Carr of South Shore.

Preckwinkle also commented on the upcoming mayoral election, with local political figures having announced or rumored to consider runs “in (her) own backyard.” One such candidate is local state Rep. Kam Buckner (D-26th), who announced his campaign in mid-May.

"That will be an interesting situation," Preckwinkle said, adding that she anticipates seeing a “cattle call '' similar to the mayoral election of 2019, where she placed second out of 14 candidates. 

Regarding the 2019 mayoral election, Preckwinkle said it was a miserable experience for her and an excruciating one for her children, one she would not subject them to again.

"Sometimes there's a perfect storm in your favor, and sometimes it's the perfect storm that drowns you," she said. "Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong."

"I got portrayed in that election as some sort of machine hack," she said. "We're at a point in this country where if you run for office, you better have a spotless personal life — not just you but everybody around you, family, friends and neighbors — and you better be prepared to be pummeled. 

When Preckwinkle leaves public life, she expects to go back to teaching at some level.

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