Updated: January 3, 2014 6:13AM
Toni Preckwinkle inherited enough low-hanging fruit to fill an orchard. Three years into her tenure as Cook County Board president, she is still picking.
Last week I met Preckwinkle for an exclusive chat on the eve of herDec. 6 anniversary as the county’s chief executive officer.
We met at her usual hangout, Petros, the low-end, vintage Greek diner near the county building.
She inherited the orchard from her predecessor, Todd Stroger, even as the nation was mired in a brutal recession. She campaigned hard for reform, and prevailed over Stroger in November 2010.
By that time, much of the county’s fruit was on the ground, and rotten to the core. “I knew things were going to be a mess. I didn’t realize how bad they would be, she recalled, with her trademark, exasperated giggle.
“I mean, you know, come on, you know the fiscal year starts Dec. 1 and you don’t have a budget, you don’t even have a plan?”
The Stroger administration was not good at planning, among other things.
Over chicken-and-rice soup, she laid out a meaty list of financial, administrative and policy initiatives. In her first year, she inherited a whopping $487 million deficit. Then and every year since, she has eliminated $100 million-plus budget gaps. The $3.2 billion budget for 2014 includes no new taxes, fees or fines.
Her team has streamlined and professionalized operations, refinanced the county’s massive debt, closed 2,400 positions, with an additional 1,500 county layoffs. While “we tried to be thoughtful,” she added, “that was the hard part, the personnel decisions.”
She applauds Dr. Ramanathan Raju, CEO of the Cook County Health and Hospitals system, who pushed for a waiver to expand the county’s Medicaid program under the Affordable Care Act. That reaped $278 million in new federal funds to cover costs for the uninsured and underinsured, and knocked off 64 percent of the deficit.
A half-hour into her recitation, I noted that she hadn’t mentioned what many view as a signature achievement — rolling back Stroger’s controversial 1-cent sales tax hike. “I made a promise that I would reduce the sales tax,” she said, “and I did.”
Keeping that promise made closing the county’s budget gap even harder. She has saved the taxpayers $1.1 billion, but, she noted with that giggle, “What that means is that government was denied $1.1 billion.”
That is especially daunting for a politician who believes big government can do good. Still, fiscal responsibility is her gold standard, and “it also gives you the credibility to tackle the tough issues that in the past may have been either shied away from or ignored just because they’re difficult and complicated.”
That credibility has inspired the anti-Rahm Emanuel camp to beg and plead that she challenge his mayorality in 2015.
She has announced her re-election campaign for board president in 2014. Might she segue to a mayoral run? I asked her. Four times.
The repeated reply: She’s running for re-election. “This is a job that I have signed up for, and it is not done.”
I detect a sliver of wiggle room. Politicians never want to say never.
Preckwinkle remains passionate about reforming the county’s pension and criminal justice systems, and ensuring quality health care for all, just a few of the fruits that remain, and hang high.
Preckwinkle should just keep on picking.