Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle Credit: Maria Cardona/Sun-Times

As gatherings of the Democratic Party go, Wednesday’s meeting of the Cook County Central Committee was a lovefest.

No insults. No accusations of betrayal. No threats of fisticuffs.

It almost made me miss the exciting days of yesteryear, when a Democratic civil war threatened to break out at any moment. Like the glorious 1986 showdown when committeeman John Stroger challenged Eddie Vrdolyak for chairman of the county party.

In contrast, on Wednesday the party’s city and suburban committeemen unanimously elected Toni Preckwinkle to replace Joe Berrios, who’s stepping down.

Paul Rosenfeld, committeeman of the 47th ward, had talked about mounting a challenge. But he wound up endorsing Preckwinkle.

As did state rep Luis Arroyo, who also talked about running. And the suburban committeemen, who talked about fielding a candidate.

In the end, everyone went for Toni.

What a year of extremes for Madame Chairman, whose day job is president of the Cook County Board. About a year ago she was on the proverbial ropes, taking a pounding for having muscled an exceedingly unpopular soda pop tax through the county board.

Over the summer she was forced to mount a strategic retreat as the board rescinded the tax.

Without the soda pop tax, her opposition had no issue to run on, and Preckwinkle wound up clobbering Robert Fioretti in last month’s Democratic primary.

Now she’s a virtual shoo-in for a third term as county board president, as she has no Republican opponent. Hey, you don’t have to be David Axelrod to know that it’s hard to lose when you’re running unopposed.

So congratulations, Toni—the first African-American and the first woman to chair the county party.

For those of us who remember how things once were, it’s hard to believe how far the party has come since that 1986 party showdown between Stroger and Fast Eddie.

Eddie Vrdolyak
Eddie VrdolyakCredit: Sun-Times file photo

To be sure, former alderman Vrdolyak had not always been a racially contentious party leader. No, no, when he first won election as county chair in 1982, Vrdolyak promised to unify the races.

One black committeeman—Niles Sherman of the 21st—got so excited at the prospect of Vrdolyak’s chairmanship that he proclaimed: “This is a coming together process to broaden the horizons for everybody so all can get to the rainbow and stick our hand in that pot of gold.”

I guess this is what passes for racial harmony in Chicago.

By 1986, however, black and white Democrats were at each other’s throats as Vrdolyak—and Alderman Ed Burke—led a faction of white aldermen against Mayor Washington.

Vrdolyak managed to win reelection as chairman of the party by getting all the whites (except for a few liberals) to vote for him, while the black aldermen voted for Stroger.

Near the end of the meeting, then-alderman Richard Mell, apparently having nothing better to do, started mercilessly taunting and teasing Alan Dobry, one of the few white committeeman who had voted for Stroger.

As the meeting went on, Mell leaned forward and, all but talking in Dobry’s ear, began likening him to the former president of apartheid-era South Africa P.W. Botha.

“Hey, Mr. Botha,” Mell said to Dobry, who represented the mostly black Fifth Ward. “I’m just going to call you Mr. Botha. You know, like the guy in South Africa. OK, Mr. Botha. OK, Mr. Botha. Mr. Apartheid, Mr. Botha.”

Well, like I said, in contrast, Wednesday’s meeting was a lovefest. After her victory, Preckwinkle talked about improving the party’s outreach to younger voters and more radical activists.

Sound advice. The more relevant the party is to its base, the more people will turn out for its candidates. A lesson Hillary Clinton and Pat Quinn learned the hard way in the last two major elections.

In an interesting sideshow to the meeting, the Tribune ran an editorial calling on Preckwinkle to be more progressive.

Man, you know the concept of progressivity has lost all meaning when the Trib’s editorial board—Bruce Rauner’s loudest cheerleader—has embraced it.

The Tribune noted that Preckwinkle failed the progressive test when she endorsed Berrios, the Machine guy, over Fritz Kaegi, “the reformer,” in the Democratic primary.

It’s true—Kaegi ran an efficient and well-funded campaign that championed all the right causes, especially progressive taxation.

But his victory was abetted by one of the oldest machine tricks in the book. Taking advantage of our byzantine election code, he challenged the nominating petitions of Andrea Raila, a third candidate in the case.

Tying Raila up in court for most of the campaign, Kaegi kept her from having any chance of winning.

You don’t have to be David Axelrod to know you can’t win if you’re not on the ballot.

It was straight-up hardball machine politics—Fast Eddie Vrdolyak would have been proud.

I guess to beat the Machine, you gotta be the Machine.

It’s a lesson Preckwinkle probably learned long ago. It will no doubt come in handy down the road as she battles Republicans endorsed by the Trib.