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Toni Preckwinkle Cook County Board President her office Chicago Ill. Thursday May 16 2013. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

Toni Preckwinkle, Cook County Board President, at her office in Chicago, Ill., on Thursday, May 16, 2013. | Andrew A. Nelles~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: June 20, 2013 4:26PM

Former school teacher Toni Preckwinkle may have only been trying to get Rahm Emanuel’s attention with a sharply worded rap on his knuckles on the front page of this newspaper Friday.

But in a city still unaccustomed to anyone talking back to its mayor, Preckwinkle’s public critique of Emanuel’s school closing plans reverberated loudly through the political community.

With Emanuel now midway through his four-year term, such a rare public airing of differences between two powerful Democrats served as a reminder that the 2015 election is just starting to come into view.

Preckwinkle’s complaints about school closings — and about the mayor’s approach to public schools in general — at the very least sent a clear message she isn’t afraid to challenge him. But would she challenge him on the ballot in 2015?

Preckwinkle denied any interest to the Sun-Times’ Dan Mihalopoulos, although as someone who is up for re-election next year, she’ll have to keep denying it right up until the day she officially changes her mind. That, by the way, was an approach followed by at least two previous county officials who became mayor, both named Daley.

Just two days earlier, I was among several reporters taken aback when Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) turned a routine speaking appearance before a group of public housing advocates into what sounded like the opening salvo of a mayoral campaign.

Decrying a city leadership “that has lost touch with the people and the citizens,” Waguespack said it’s time for those citizens to “stop throwing up the white flag” on public policy initiatives coming out of City Hall.

While never citing Emanuel by name, Waguespack’s anti-administration rhetoric was much stronger than what we’ve come to expect during his first six years in office.

When I caught back up to him Friday, Waguespack said he hadn’t intended to sound like a mayoral candidate, rather “just maybe planting ideas for someone else that might be listening.”

Waguespack said Chicago aldermen by law must give up their seat to run for mayor, which serves as a strong disincentive against someone like him taking on a well-financed incumbent like Emanuel.

“I think somebody could beat him though,” Waguespack said, adding: “If I won the lottery, I’d probably run.”

The self-styled progressive said he’s been trying to be more outspoken lately and to stop worrying about whether what he says will make somebody mad.

Toward that end, he voiced frustration with “a lot of the hypocrisy coming out of the fifth floor.”

“I think we have lost touch with a lot of people out there in the direction the city is going,” Waguespack continued, ticking off everything from the city’s privatization efforts to school closings to the proposed arena at McCormick Place.

Waguespack applauded former City Council colleague Preckwinkle for speaking out on schools.

“I was happy to see her do that,” he said.

Many of her fellow politicians see Preckwinkle as a candidate who would have a strong chance of beating Emanuel in 2015, not that they necessarily expect her to run.

If you had to make a bet right now, the smart money would still be on Emanuel winning re-election.

With the city’s power elite firmly in his corner, he’ll have whatever money he needs to wage a campaign. He also will still have key parts of the brain trust that elected Barack Obama to advise him, not that he needs a lot of help on the strategizing front, given his background.

But the fact is he’s got problems, chief among them that he’s not particularly popular at this point, as a Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll showed.

The African-American voters who formed Emanuel’s strongest electoral base in 2011, thanks in large part to signals from Obama, are now making up their own minds about him and having second thoughts.

And everywhere he turns, Emanuel is antagonizing one potential voter group after another, recently adding city retirees to the list to go with teachers and police.

The difficulty for Emanuel is that he inherited leadership of a city with even more daunting problems than most of us realized, leaving him — especially on the financial side — with policy choices in a range from bad to worse. It’s a tough time to be mayor of Chicago, and there’s no reason to expect the next two years to be any easier.

Regardless of the 2015 campaign, Chicago residents are well served when there is somebody, anybody, who will speak up to their mayor, whether it’s a County Board president or a lowly alderman.

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