After weeks of being coy, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is making one of the biggest power grabs of her long career.
She’s jumping into the crowded race to succeed Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. She made the announcement Thursday flanked by supporters in a packed hotel conference room in Hyde Park. It’s the neighborhood where she launched her political career.
“I can think of no better place surrounded by so many neighbors and friends and colleagues to announce my candidacy for mayor,” said Preckwinkle, 71. Chants of her name filled the room.The former high school history teacher was a Chicago alderman for 19 years, and since 2010, she’s been CEO of Cook County government.
Here’s how her other political role might help her — or hurt her.
This spring, Preckwinkle became the first woman and first African-American to lead the Cook County Democratic Party. She took on all the history — some might call it baggage — that role brings.
If Preckwinkle wins, she would be the first person since Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley to be both mayor and head of the county Democrats. With its legacy of tightly held power, insider politics, and jobs for votes, the party has been known as “the Machine,” and Daley was Boss.
In fact, his face adorns the county Democrats’ Twitter page, along with his quote: “The strength of the Democratic Party of Cook County is not something that just happened.”
Before she even announced her bid for the city’s top job, Preckwinkle bristled when I asked her if she’s the Machine candidate.
“I think that’s ridiculous,” Preckwinkle said. “I’ve been a progressive Democrat my whole life. I will continue to be a progressive Democrat.”
She repeated that sentiment to the packed hotel conference room Thursday.
Certainly, the county Democratic Party doesn’t carry the same clout it used to. Patronage is officially illegal, though it still lurks in areas of local government.
"If there was an actual political machine in the traditional sense of the word, there wouldn't be 20 candidates running for mayor right now,” said Joe Moore, who’s both a Chicago alderman and a committeeman for the county Democrats. That’s what the party’s elected members are called.
The county Democratic organization, and therefore Preckwinkle, are still influential. Maybe it’s not handing out lots of jobs, but the party helps pick which Democratic candidates people vote for on election day, like judges who decide your fate in court. The organization has about $1 million to spread around to help get people elected.
Preckwinkle has continued to modernize the party, said Jacob Kaplan, the group’s executive director. She’s championed women and minority candidates and is boosting outreach efforts to get more volunteers involved — whether they know someone in the party or not.
“It’s not the old days 30, 40 years ago when literally the slogan was we don’t want nobody nobody sent,” Kaplan said.
Still, Preckwinkle will have to sell herself as a progressive mayoral candidate while running a Democratic Party some still think of as old-school and stuck in the past.
Some of Preckwinkle’s record could make that pitch easier. She’s pushed to lock fewer people up in Cook County Jail and embraced the Affordable Care Act, which helped the county-run health system expand medical care for the poor.
She publicly called for Cook County’s top elected attorney, Anita Alvarez, to resign for not bringing charges faster against white Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke. He shot to death black teenager Laquan McDonald in 2014. Then Preckwinkle helped her chief of staff, Kim Foxx, get Alvarez’s job.
But here’s where critics say Preckwinkle veered from her progressive chops.
She didn’t back popular reformer Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, her county board floor leader, when he challenged Mayor Rahm Emanuel in 2015.
And she’s stuck by Joe Berrios, the Cook County Assessor who’s padded his payroll with relatives.
“He and I disagree on some … matters, like hiring your relatives and so on,” Preckwinkle said in a previous interview with Andy Shaw, who used to lead the Better Government Association, a nonprofit Chicago watchdog.
“The main point for me as president is his office is run well,” Preckwinkle continued. “And frankly as chairman of the party, I’ve been very grateful to him because he’s opened the party to women and African-Americans and Latinos in a way that none of his predecessors has.”
Preckwinkle succeeded Berrios as head of the party in April. He’s losing his assessor job, too. He was defeated in the March primary, which critics note is another sign the county Democratic Party isn’t the machine it used to be.
Preckwinkle also took heat over a tax on sugary beverages she pushed through in 2016. Shoppers were so enraged, the county board later repealed the tax.
Still, Constance Mixon, director of the urban studies program at Elmhurst College, said Preckwinkle would be a bridge. She straddles both worlds — progressive and old-school.
“She’s kind of in this unique position,” Mixon said. “She’s somewhat comfortable with these, you know, both sides. With some of these old-school Machine patronage politicians, right? And she’s probably in a position where she can put together a ground game of ward organizations and precincts, but then she can also bridge the divide over being able to raise money.”
Preckwinkle might still have some convincing to do. If she ends up as mayor and head of the county Democrats, she would oversee people who are leaders for both the city and the dominant political party. They include Roderick Sawyer, an alderman who heads the Black Caucus on Chicago’s City Council.
“I guess it would be more uncomfortable if I was on the wrong side of President/Mayor Preckwinkle,” Sawyer said.
In other words, there could be retribution if a council vote doesn’t go her way.
Still, Sawyer stood behind Preckwinkle Thursday as she announced her run for mayor.
She would undoubtedly have more power if she leads both the city and the county Democrats. The question is how she would use it.
The mayoral election is in February.
Kristen Schorsch covers Cook County politics for WBEZ. Follow her @kschorsch.