Does Toni Preckwinkle deserve the aura of inevitability?

Photo by April Alonso

Eight years ago, Mayor Richard Daley announced he wasn’t running for re-election. Chicago had an open contest for the mayoralty and a rare opportunity for a robust debate over the future of the city.

Instead, Rahm Emanuel came in, spending millions of dollars to overwhelm his opponents while refusing to engage community groups in mayoral forums.

“Civic organizations ranging from the NAACP to environmental groups, churches, parents, immigrants, housing advocates and neighborhood associations have held mayoral forums featuring all candidates – except Emanuel, who entered the race with seemingly overwhelming financial clout and now leads all polls,” I wrote at the time.

“For many, the refusal of the possible next mayor to engage organized citizens groups suggests his administration would continue the closed and autocratic style of the current mayor.”

And that’s exactly what happened. Under Emanuel, fifty neighborhood schools were closed despite thousands of parents turning out at hearings to challenge the premises of the administration’s plan. Emanuel even shut down annual public budget hearings – inaugurated by Harold Washington and continued by Daley – because he didn’t like hearing his constituents complain.

We’re at a similar turning point, and we deserve a fuller discussion of the critical issues facing the city at this moment. Finances, development, schools, public safety ­– all are burning problems that Emanuel took over from Daley with little debate, and that he now passes on to his successor.

The biggest impediment to that discussion would be anointing one candidate as inevitable. And that seems to be the approach of supporters of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, with the goal of scaring other contenders away. She has yet to announce – she’s still running for re-election for her current post in November – but she says she’s “interested” and is passing nominating petitions.

I’m not sure she deserves that aura of inevitability just yet. For one thing, she just took a big hit when her candidate, Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios, was defeated in the Democratic primary by reformer Fritz Kaegi. It’s not just the loss, it’s that Preckwinkle backed an incumbent widely derided for skewing assessments to favor the wealthy, for nepotism, and for taking huge donations from property tax law firms.

For another thing, Chicago has major revenue issues, and Preckwinkle’s record in this area is troubled. She won election as county board president in 2010 by promising to repeal an unpopular sales tax increase, but soon realized that “efficiency” wouldn’t be enough to fill the gap. She ended up restoring the sales tax – after failing to win pension cuts that were probably unconstitutional – and instituting an equally regressive and unpopular soda tax, which itself was quickly rolled back in a storm of public opposition. The budget gap, largely plugged with furloughs of county workers last year, remains.

Preckwinkle’s anti-tax campaign was an unfortunate departure from a progressive City Council career in which she was a leading opponent of Mayor Daley, advocating for affordable housing, a living wage ordinance, and police accountability. Four years ago I argued that, on the issues of public schools and police reform, statements and actions by Preckwinkle indicated she could provide a clear contrast if she were to run against Emanuel then. She didn’t, and she also didn’t endorse her County Board floor leader, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, when he challenged Emanuel.

And there are key issues facing the city where Preckwinkle’s record deserves greater scrutiny. Housing activists in her ward say that as alderman, she steadfastly represented developers’ interests and evinced no concern about displacement.  How will Preckwinkle frame a citywide agenda for equitable development?

In addition, as alderman she relied heavily on political contributions from developers, and she has not been a proponent of campaign finance reform. Will she reclaim her mantle as a reformer and back a small donor match system of public financing for city elections, including citywide offices?

There are declared candidates (not all of whom will get on the ballot) and potential candidates (notably Chuy Garcia) who would raise these issues and provide us with the full debate we deserve. We shouldn’t be in too big a hurry to usher them off the stage.

We may be used to autocratic politics in Chicago, but we don’t need to embrace it.