Toni Preckwinkle runs the second-largest U.S. county, a storied sewer of corruption whose embrace of the dark side began more than 140 years ago when commissioners accepted bribes for a contract to paint the seat of local government in Chicago -- with whitewash.
Burying this legacy of malfeasance is just the start of Preckwinkle’s challenge as Cook County’s chief executive. While two state lawmakers have proposed separating the county from Illinois and creating the 51st state, the board president’s problems are more serious: She recently closed a $316 million deficit in a $3.1 billion budget that mainly covers the cost of tossing people in jail and providing health care for those who can’t pay for it.
Preckwinkle, 64, a self-described progressive Democrat, former high-school history teacher and the first woman elected to lead the county of 5.2 million, is following a new script dictated by political realities. She’s rolling back sales taxes, pushing for the release of 1,000 nonviolent inmates and, in a departure from the take-care-of-your-pals heritage, laying off 800 employees.
“This is a terrible time to be in government, especially a terrible time to be a chief executive,” Preckwinkle said in a Nov. 21 interview in her fifth-floor office at the City and County Building, 175 steps down a corridor from her more famous colleague, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Preckwinkle, who will complete her first year in office on Dec. 6, inherited a $487 million deficit from her predecessor, Democrat Todd Stroger, son of the late, longtime board president John Stroger. She presented a 2012 fiscal year budget on Oct. 25 that cut spending to recognize what she called the “hard truths” needed to change the culture of Cook County. The board of commissioners approved the budget Nov. 18.
The financial strains aren’t unusual, said Jackie Byers, research director at the National Association of Counties. Home foreclosures and unemployment have eaten into two primary sources of revenue, sales and property taxes, Byers said in a telephone interview from Washington.
“Nothing’s recovering,” Byers said. “Have counties bottomed out yet? No.”
For Preckwinkle, the financial challenge is magnified by corruption. Between 1971 and 2009, almost 150 Cook County politicians and government officials were convicted of bribery and other offenses, according to a 2010 report from the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Better Government Association.
“Criminal convictions are just the tip of the iceberg,” the report said, pointing to contracts being awarded to the “friends, family and political cronies of public officials.”
Like Emanuel, Toni Reed Preckwinkle represents a break from the lineage of Chicago power. Born and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota, the daughter of a librarian and a federal government worker, she represented Hyde Park on the City Council for almost two decades. The South Side neighborhood, home to President Barack Obama, is best known for producing self-styled reformers who harass mayors and county board presidents.
By one measure, Preckwinkle fits the profile of invisibility for officials who run the nation’s 3,100 counties. Big-city mayors get the Sunday morning interviews on Meet the Press; they get mentioned as possible presidential candidates. County executives, supervisors and board presidents oversee the un-sexy business of tax collections, road paving and dealing with people who get in trouble.
Tower of Blunt
The 6-foot Preckwinkle -- “stature is an advantage,” she says -- is blunt, outspoken and sometimes scolding when discussing county matters and her ability to govern.
“She sort of tells it like it is,” said Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman who teaches political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago and was co-author of the public-corruption study.
At public appearances, Preckwinkle typically devotes more time to questions from her audience than delivering her speech. She’s one of the few Chicago Democrats to criticize the city’s most famous son, President Barack Obama.
On immigration, which has made Chicago one of the nation’s most diverse cities, Preckwinkle is “embarrassed” that this year the Obama administration will be “deporting more people than George Bush did,” she said at a Union League Club of Chicago gathering in September.
She also doesn’t shrink from poking Emanuel, who has backed a proposal to bring casinos to Chicago. Government financial reliance on gambling is “distressful” because it takes advantage of residents, she said.
“I play the lottery sometimes, just for fun,” she said in the interview. “And I would tell you right off the bat that it’s stupid and dumb.”
Every adult “ought to be ashamed” that 45 percent of the students in Chicago Public Schools don’t graduate, she said in a Nov. 3 appearance before a community development group. “His public schools,” she said, referring to Emanuel, “are feeding my jails, and I don’t like that much.”
Preckwinkle devotes her strongest words to the jailing of nonviolent offenders, who make up 70 percent of the 8,500 to 9,000 daily inmate population in Cook County. Each costs the county $143 a day to house. Many are in jail getting no help while they should be receiving drug treatment, she said.
“These crazy ideas have drained our coffers and destroyed our communities,” Preckwinkle told the Union League audience. “It’s very hard for elected officials to talk about this because the environment for a very long time has been, ‘Damn it, you’d better be tough on crime.’ ”
She’s not alone in her criticism of the handling of drug cases. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie this week criticized the “warehousing” of nonviolent offenders, saying it “makes no sense.”
Preckwinkle has become a portrait of a progressive in an age of austerity. The county can’t support the workforce as it has for several decades, she said, adding that employees must pay more for their pensions or have them cut.
The county health-care system, in which 58 percent of those treated don’t have insurance or don’t qualify for Medicaid or Medicare, is headed for collapse without more money, she said.
Preckwinkle is the second woman to lead the county. Commissioner Bobbie Steele was appointed to fill out the term of John Stroger after his death in 2006. Steele’s four months as interim president allowed her to double her annual pension to $136,000.
The county’s reputation for waste as well as corruption makes it impossible to simply boost revenue to fix the problem, Preckwinkle said.
“You’ve got to go a ways before you can put that behind you and talk about taxes,” she said at the Nov. 3 appearance. “Raising taxes across the board is not something you can do until you’ve built up the credibility that you’re managing well and that you’ve cut the fat.”