Toni Preckwinkle Raises the Bar for Chicago Politicians
by dawn reiss
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle raises the bar for politicians in the Windy City and beyond.
Toni Preckwinkle admits that her height gives her an advantage, but that’s not the only reason she’s a towering figure in Chicago politics.
Some have called her “the Tower of Blunt.” At six feet tall, Toni Preckwinkle, president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, is a female force whose no-nonsense style has made her one of the most powerful politicians—of any gender—in all of Chicago. “If you’re going to be in public life and be female, it’s much better to be tall,” she says, “because it’s harder to patronize or dismiss someone who can look you in the eye or look down on you.”
These days no one is dismissing this 67-year-old grandmother of three. For the first time in her political career, which began with two unsuccessful campaigns for alderman, in 1983 and 1987, Preckwinkle will be running unopposed in November, so instead of focusing on re-election to her second term as board president, she is spending her time backing candidates for other offices and dodging speculation about a possible run for mayor. “I came into office with a to-do list, and we’ve worked our way through some of it, but I still have a lot to do,” she says. “I’m running for re-election for the job I’ve got.”
A quilt made by students in the 4th Ward when she was its alderman adorns Preckwinkle’s office.
Managing Cook County, the second most populous county in the country, isn’t easy, especially when it comes to public safety and health. Last fall, Preckwinkle asked the Illinois Supreme Court to intervene on behalf of the county and help move cases more quickly through the criminal justice system. Taking a two-pronged approach, she also filed a motion in federal court—the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois—to transfer executive responsibility for the Cook County Jail’s Administrative Release Program to her office in order to help alleviate jail overcrowding.
“The jail is at the intersection of racism and poverty in this country,” says Preckwinkle, who wants to reduce the number of individuals in jail awaiting trial for low-level drug offenses, petty theft, and other minor crimes. “You’re in jail often not because of the severity of the crime of which you are accused but because you’re poor.” She is also overseeing a comprehensive long-range transportation plan (something Cook County hasn’t had for 70 years); enhancements to the county’s healthcare system, designed to shift it from a “physician-focused system to a patient-focused system,” she says; and the ambitious Next Century Conservation Plan, intended to improve and add to the 69,000 acres of open space in Cook County’s Forest Preserve District, the largest in the US.
Preckwinkle’s upbringing may explain both her pull-no-punches style and her enthusiasm for public service. Originally from St. Paul, Minnesota, she grew up the eldest of four children in what she calls a “loud and rowdy” household. Having parents who were public servants—her mother was a librarian and her father worked in the veterans affairs office as a real estate appraiser—was a “big influence,” adds Preckwinkle, a high school athlete in basketball, volleyball, softball, and track. As a youngster she emulated her grandmother, “a very feisty person” who spoke her mind and “didn’t care much about what people thought.” When Preckwinkle was 16, a high school teacher invited her to work on the campaign of Katie McWatt, the first African American woman to run for City Council in St. Paul. “Unfortunately, Katie didn’t win,” Preckwinkle says, “but I decided I really liked politics.”
Preckwinkle, the first woman ever elected president of the Cook County Board, at a meeting in March.
After high school, she moved to Hyde Park to attend the University of Chicago, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and has been in the city ever since. Prior to winning election as Cook County Board president—the first woman to do so—in November 2010, Preckwinkle spent a decade teaching high school history, then served 19 years as alderman of the 4th Ward, where she fought for greater funding for education and affordable housing and sponsored the Living Wage and Affordable Housing Ordinances. As an alderman, she also supported Barack Obama’s run for State Senate in 1996 and his unsuccessful bid for a seat in the US House of Representatives in 2000. Eight years later she was an Obama delegate to the Democratic National Convention.
Recently divorced and a mother of two grown children, Preckwinkle was often at odds with Mayor Richard M. Daley and has been a vocal opponent of Mayor Rahm Emanuel on many issues, including last year’s massive public school closings. Indeed, it is Preckwinkle’s willingness to serve as an outspoken critic that has earned her a dedicated following on the city’s notorious political scene. “As a society, we have a lot of tough challenges,” she says, “and if you don’t tell people the truth—both the nature of the problems we face and the difficulty of solving them—it’s a disservice. So I try to be as honest and forthright as I possibly can.” Preckwinkle, who calls former US representative Barbara Jordan one of her heroes, adds, “The temptation is there to always say what’s soothing or what people find comfortable to hear, but that often is not the truth.”
photography by Katrina Wittkamp