Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle got a Halloween treat on Wednesday.
Federal judge Sidney Schenkier lifted a nearly half-century-old court order that aimed to root out politically motivated hiring, firing, and promotions in Cook County government and dismissed the county from the case.
Preckwinkle, who is running for Chicago mayor, now chairs the Cook County Democratic Party whose patronage practices led to the decree. On Wednesday, she said the county made strides to comply with the court order. She was beaming after the hearing.
“This is a great day for the Cook County government and for the people of Cook County,” Preckwinkle said after the roughly hourlong hearing at the Dirksen Federal Building in the Loop.
Then she let out a laugh and a deep sigh, noting how long the case took.
For decades, handing out government jobs to political loyalists kept the Cook County Democrats, known as the Machine, in power.
Then Chicago attorney Michael Shakman took on the Machine, and so-called Shakman decrees, or court orders, chipped away at patronage hiring and firing in government. Cook County first entered into a consent decree in 1972 that banned it from politically discriminating against workers.
In August, Preckwinkle argued the county had come into compliance and asked the U.S. District Court in Chicago to nix an outside patronage watchdog and dismiss the county from the case.
Preckwinkle ticked off a host of accomplishments. They included creating hiring plans for offices she oversees, as well as the public defender, the inspector general, and health system. The county banned workers from being retaliated against if they reported political discrimination, and empowered the inspector general to investigate such cases.
Mary Robinson was the longtime court-appointed patronage watchdog embedded in county government. She told Judge Schenkier she enthusiastically supported lifting the court order.
“What needed to be done was a major undertaking,” Robinson said after the hearing. “It took time. It took a lot of effort. It cost money. But I think that it gives the county a much better workforce, and it certainly eliminates an evil that had really restricted what the taxpayers could hope to get out of their government.”
The county spent at least $8 million since 2006 to comply. That paid for outside monitoring, but also awarding damages to workers or applicants for county jobs who were politically discriminated against.
County Inspector General Patrick Blanchard and other county employees will now take on Robinson’s responsibilities.
Shakman, who continues to fight government patronage, agreed the county should be released from federal oversight, and thanked Preckwinkle and her staff for their hard work. But he acknowledged his frustrations after the hearing, citing how long the case took.
“Sure, you’d like it to have been over right away,” Shakman said. “What we learned, and shame on us for not learning it sooner, is that you only bring about deep reform, real reform in government by getting inside government with representatives of the reformers.”
He’s referring to the courts, Robinson, and public officials who support getting rid of patronage.
Wednesday’s ruling doesn’t end political hiring oversight for all county offices. The Recorder of Deeds, the Assessor, and the Circuit Court Clerk are still being watched over by federal monitors.
Shakman had some advice for the three other county leaders whose offices are under decrees that bear his name: Do the hard work, and change how they do business.
Kristen Schorsch covers Cook County politics for WBEZ. Follow her @kschorsch.