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Toni Preckwinkle and President Joe Biden

President Joe Biden is greeted by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, left, as he arrives at O’Hare International Airport, July 7, 2021. Preckwinkle’s support of Democrats on Tuesday’s ballot will be put to the test.

Evan Vucci

Toni Preckwinkle flexes her political muscle as she backs Democrats in Tuesday’s election

There was little time for Toni Preckwinkle to wallow after a bruising loss in the 2019 Chicago mayoral race.

The former school teacher, who had already risen from Chicago alderman to head of the Cook County Democratic Party and president of the Cook County Board, got back to work.

From presidential tarmac visits to lauded policy decisions during crises, Preckwinkle focused instead on the power and influence she already had in two of the most important political roles in the region.

“She decided to step back, look at what she had and use what she had to show her power. That she was just as powerful as Lori Lightfoot, if not more,” said veteran political strategist Delmarie Cobb, who has known Preckwinkle for more than 20 years. “She didn’t have to flex her muscles publicly. She could go behind the scenes, use the tools she had at her disposal as the Cook County Board president and as the chair of the party, and still continue to amass power and to wield power. And that’s what she did.”

Preckwinkle, who turns 77 on St. Patrick’s Day, has amassed political prowess without always taking much credit. With a roster of mentees who used to work for her or alongside her in county government, from Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson to Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx and Illinois Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton, she has put her stamp on the next generation of Black and Latino leaders throughout Illinois politics.

The next test of her influence is her support for state’s attorney candidate Clayton Harris III in the March 19 primary against Eileen O’Neill Burke. Foxx is not running for reelection.

In a wide-ranging interview, Preckwinkle downplayed what she might get in return for the reach of that influence as she works the phones and wallets to get people elected. She said she simply wants “good people in public office.”

“I always tell people in a democracy your first obligation is to vote. Necessary, but not sufficient,” Preckwinkle said. “You got to work for and give money to the people that you believe in. Otherwise we leave the political game to the billionaires.”

Clayton Harris III

Clayton Harris III, who is running for Cook County state’s attorney, attends a ‘March to the Polls’ rally with different candidates for public office across the street from the Humboldt Park library on March 9, 2024. Preckwinkle supports Harris in the race.

Pat Nabong

Meanwhile, Preckwinkle faces reelection next month, when she plans to seek another two-year term as head of the Cook County Democratic Party from her elected peers.

“In the presence of someone who wields power”

In more than a dozen interviews from the Cook County board room to the White House, people who have watched Preckwinkle’s rise describe how she’s held onto power for so long. Much of it comes down to this: “In the world of public service, there are show horses and there are workhorses,” said Tom Perez, a senior adviser to President Joe Biden. “She is the quintessential workhorse. She gets things done.”

Part of Preckwinkle’s staying power is how long she’s been embedded in the fabric of local politics. For one, she has led the Cook County Democratic Party since 2018. She says she uses her influence to help make the party more diverse and inclusive, from judges on the Illinois Supreme Court to commissioners on the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District board.

Illinois state Sen. Robert Martwick, who is a vice chair of the Democratic Party, praised Preckwinkle’s ability to build consensus behind the scenes.

“What a job of herding the cats,” Martwick said. “I just told you what elected leaders are like. We’re all right. We’re all self-absorbed. We’re all going to get our way. And she has to somehow or another herd all those cats and get to a good outcome. And that is so difficult.”

Even if the consensus doesn’t go her way, she supports the decision, Martwick said.

Illinois state Sen. Robert Martwick portrait

Illinois state Sen. Robert Martwick praised Preckwinkle’s ability to build consensus behind the scenes.

Rich Hein

“That’s a true leader,” he said.

Kim Foxx recalled a meeting with Preckwinkle back in 2013, when she was applying to be the board president’s deputy chief of staff.

Foxx remembered telling Preckwinkle that she shared little faith and trust in politicians and watching Preckwinkle’s eyes tighten as she leaned back with an air of suspicion.

“I said to her, ‘But you know, I’m willing to work with you because I believe in what you are trying to do,’ ” Foxx said.

From there, an unofficial mentorship began — one that would eventually help steer Foxx in 2016 to become the first Black woman to lead the Cook County state’s attorney’s office.

Upon first meeting, Preckwinkle was, in a word, intimidating, Foxx recalled. But Foxx said she also immediately sensed that Preckwinkle was pragmatic, very smart and “seemed like a school teacher.”

“I think I feel like a lot of people do. That you are in the presence of someone who wields power and when I say power, I mean, like, someone who stands at the head of the class. Like, she very much gives the authority of a teacher,” Foxx said. “She is not the warm and fuzzy type when you meet her. She’s very matter of fact.”

In staff meetings, Preckwinkle frequently asked for voices in the room, even when junior-level staffers trickled in and tried to hide along a wall.

“Toni would say, ‘Make room. Make room. Everyone is at the table,’ ” Foxx said. “ ‘Everyone speaks.’ ”

Preckwinkle noticed who was absent from the room.

“ ‘Where are the women? Where are the people of color? Where are the people who have been formerly incarcerated as we’re talking about issues related to criminal justice policy?’ ” Foxx recalled. “She is constantly scanning to not just see who’s there, but who’s not there.”

Preckwinkle is indeed a political godmother to many: Add to the list her former Chief of Staff Kurt Summers, who went on to become city treasurer, and another former staffer, Christian Mitchell, who became an Illinois deputy governor. But Foxx deemphasized the power dynamic of Preckwinkle’s mentorship.

“People want to label that king-making or you’re queen-making. It really was more than that. Like, these were smart, thoughtful, competent people that she believed had something to give to all of us,” Foxx said. “Whether it was a city treasurer, a lieutenant governor, a state rep, a state’s attorney. Find me another elected official that’s done that.”

Preckwinkle says she has supported Foxx because she is trying to reform a broken criminal justice system with a legacy of wrongful convictions.

“We’ve allowed the police, particularly in the city of Chicago to, you know, beat people, torture people, shoot us down on the streets without accountability,” Preckwinkle said. “This is a profoundly racist country. … To have somebody who’s prepared to acknowledge the harm that’s been done to individuals and communities by wrongful convictions and police misconduct and prosecutorial misconduct is refreshing.”

Kim Foxx hugging Toni Preckwinkle

Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx hugs Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle before announcing she will not seek reelection during a speech at a City Club of Chicago luncheon on April 25, 2023. Preckwinkle has supported Foxx’s efforts to reform the criminal justice system.

Ashlee Rezin

On the government side, Preckwinkle spent almost 20 years as a Chicago alderman of the 4th Ward on the South Side, then was elected president of the Cook County Board in 2010. She oversees a roughly $9 billion budget that funds the vast social safety net of the region — the circuit court, jail and public health system.

She uses her muscle and progressive values to shape how the county spends money. Her focus: making the region a more equitable place to live and work through programs like guaranteed income for low-income residents and plans to erase up to $1 billion in medical debt. The latter has caught the eye of the Biden administration. Perez and Gov. JB Pritzker call Preckwinkle a national leader on medical debt.

More recently, Preckwinkle has put the county on the map for being the main medical provider for the tens of thousands of migrants arriving mostly from South and Central America. She and Pritzker recently jointly pledged another $250 million. Noticeably absent from the announcement was a pledge from Johnson.

“She is who she appears to be,” Pritzker said in an interview. “When she gives you her word about something she’s good to it.”

Potential downsides of this power

Critics say Preckwinkle’s long-standing influence can mean fewer choices for voters, and fewer voices of dissent. On the county board, Preckwinkle has helped whittle the number of Republican commissioners to one: Sean Morrison.

“She’s a masterful politician,” Morrison said. “This isn’t a negative. Toni can throw a left hook just like any other of her counterparts in the Republican or Democratic Party.”

Still, Morrison has voted in favor of several of Preckwinkle’s annual county budgets. They’re balanced and often without new taxes or tax hikes.

Heading into Tuesday’s election, there’s another test for Preckwinkle and the Democratic Party: loyalty. Democrat Iris Martinez, clerk of the Cook County Circuit Court, has been on the outs for backing candidates the party doesn’t support. In 2020, the longtime former state senator beat the party’s endorsed candidate.

Now she’s facing a fierce battle to keep her seat. The Democratic Party has endorsed her opponent, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner Mariyana Spyropoulos.

It’s the price Martinez is having to pay, she recently said in an interview, “when you don’t go with the flow, when you don’t kiss that ring.”

Preckwinkle put that lack of support right back on Martinez, for failing to be loyal to the team and back Democratic Party picks.

“It’s not surprising that in 2024 when she came back to the party to ask for support, she didn’t get it,” Preckwinkle said.

Tina Sfondeles is the chief political reporter for the Sun-Times. Kristen Schorsch covers public health and Cook County for WBEZ.

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