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Toni Preckwinkle hits goals, ruffles feathers in County Board

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle | Al Podgorski/ Sun-Times Media

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle | Al Podgorski/ Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 5, 2011 2:36PM

She’s publicly criticized Gov. Pat Quinn, battled with the sheriff over budget cuts and even taken a jab at President Barack Obama’s signature health-care plan.

Her critics, and even some of her fans, say the 64-year-old Toni Preckwinkle, president of Cook County Board, can be abrupt, even “autocratic” — a throwback to the iron-fist rule of the so-called machine Democrats that ruled the county for decades.

But feather-ruffling aside, Preckwinkle has managed to shepherd through two balanced budgets, advance a socially liberal agenda and even make a few power grabs — all with the support of the county board.

And she’s done it all in a year’s time, after taking office last Dec. 6 on a platform of reform and transparency following the ouster of past president Todd Stroger.

“I hope I don’t put too many people off,” Preckwinkle said, “but we’ve got a tough job to do,” — including closing budget deficits of nearly $1 billion while erasing an unpopular sales tax hike.

“She’s a task master, hard-driven,” said Commissioner John Daley, the board’s finance committee chair and a friend and political ally of Preckwinkle. She is a “true reformer,” Daley said.

Her supporters say she is an exacting CEO of a $2.9 billion government that bankrolls a public health and hospital system and the local courts and jail. Daley points out that she holds county workers accountable.

“In meetings, she’ll ask department heads questions,” he said. If “they don’t know she’ll ask, ‘Why not? It’s your job to know.’”

But Commissioner Larry Suffredin, a fellow Democrat, hopes the former 19-year Chicago alderman will lighten up and consider other views.

“I think that she has a certain rigidity that I hope with time will soften so that she’s open to new ideas,” said Suffredin, who said the former high school history teacher has difficulty at times veering from her lesson plan.

Indeed, Preckwinkle runs board meetings so tightly that they are scripted right down to which commissioner will introduce an ordinance — and which one will second it.

Suffredin also criticized her office for working out a series of union contracts that included pay raises — only to return to labor leaders a short time later to push them to take eight unpaid days off in 2012. The unions balked, and nearly 800 staffers are now getting pink slips.

Preckwinkle makes no apologies, and says bargaining with unions, commissioners or other elected county officials is a process of “begging, wheedling and cajoling” that doesn’t always pan out.

That’s when the public arm-twisting begins, something she hasn’t shied away from. During 2011 budget negotiations, Preckwinkle and Sheriff Tom Dart tangled, with Dart sarcastically suggesting he could save money by firing everyone, guarding the jail himself and patrolling the county on his bike. Eventually, the two reached a deal to avert layoffs.

Later, she told reporters she was “disappointed” in Quinn for the state’s failure to process $60 million in backlogged Medicaid reimbursements and applications owed to the cash-strapped county health system. Quinn still hasn’t delivered, but he did tell Preckwinkle he was “working on your issue.”

On social issues, Preckwinkle has used her bully pulpit to rip the “failure” of the war on drugs and how it has led to the overcrowding of the county jail. Commissioners are now taking a serious look at ticketing low-level drug offenders, instead of arresting them, or diverting them to drug-treatment programs. She’s urged Chicago Police to do the same.

And in taking on Obama’s health-care plan before the Union League Club in October, she said the nation “made a bargain with the devil” because undocumented immigrants were excluded from coverage — which means the county will continue to have to find ways to pay for their care.

Preckwinkle is equally outspoken about the importance of good manners, always offering a “good morning” or “good afternoon” before public meetings. She’ll even repeat the salutation at press conferences if normally emotionless reporters don’t reply.

“Part of this is a call and response in the African-American community,” she explains. “For my grandmother and for many people in the African-American community, still, the worst thing you can say about someone is that they’re a person who . . . treats you as if you’re invisible. And needless to say, this has happened to African Americans a lot in our history.”

Preckwinkle knows that history well. Her father headed the local NAACP chapter in Depression-era St. Paul, Minn., where she was raised. When President Franklin Roosevelt instituted the draft at the time, Minnesota’s governor pushed for Preckwinkle’s father to be at the head of the line. “They wanted him off the scene,” she said, noting he also ran into problems while serving in the U.S. Coast Guard after complaining of racism.

She’s also proved that she’s also a Chicago politician, raising eyebrows this year over a handful of political hires, including a long-time friend and campaign contributor who was given the Forest Preserve’s deputy superintendent job and a $43,000 raise. She also handed friend and former Ald. Shirley Coleman a job after her other county job was axed.

Preckwinkle maintains her hires are “qualified” for the jobs. She’s also moved to expand the power of her office, shifting some oversight of county contracts from commissioners to her.

But she failed in a quiet campaign to succeed former Mayor Richard M. Daley as the chair of the Public Building Commission, a panel charged with constructing and maintaining schools, police stations and other public structures in Chicago.

Preckwinkle dodged questions about whether losing out on that chairmanship to Mayor Rahm Emanuel chilled their relationship.

Overall, University of Illinois at Chicago political scientist and former Ald. Dick Simpson believes Preckwinkle’s leadership style has been effective.

“Some people may feel they get their toes stepped on, but she really believes in what she’s doing and that can also be very convincing when you’re arguing for something,” he said.

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