Toni Preckwinkle, the Cook County board president, says thanks but no, thanks, on a mayoral bid.
  • Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times Media
  • Toni Preckwinkle, the Cook County Board president, says thanks but no thanks to a mayoral bid.

As recently as this weekend, when the Sun-Times released a poll showing Toni Preckwinkle ahead by a whopping 24 points, her campaign spokesman indicated that she was seriously considering a challenge against Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

“Ultimately she will or she won’t, but it won’t be based on poll numbers,” Ken Snyder told the paper. “She’ll just make the decision based on what’s in her heart.”

And whether she felt up for an expensive street fight. On Tuesday afternoon, hours before she was to release fund-raising totals that will likely pale next to Emanuel’s, Preckwinkle issued a statement saying she would not run for mayor.

“I have decided to rule out a run for Mayor of Chicago in 2015 because I made a commitment to reform Cook County’s criminal justice system, transform our health care system, and ensure the viability of our pension system,” said the county board president, who is running unopposed for reelection in November. “I appreciate all of those who have expressed confidence in me by urging me to run for Mayor, and I hope you will continue to support me going forward.”

Not surprisingly, one of the first people to vocalize his renewed support for Preckwinkle was Emanuel. He responded to the news with his own statement that, while praising Preckwinkle’s work at the county, read like a long sigh of relief. “Toni Preckwinkle has been a strong partner in tackling many of the challenges facing Chicago neighborhoods, and an outspoken voice for criminal justice and pension reform. . . .”

For months Preckwinkle had insisted that she was focused on her work at the county, starting with her goal of reducing the population of low-risk defendants locked up at the county jail at a cost of $150 per person each day.

Yet it was impossible for her not to consider a run for City Hall as Emanuel’s popularity continued to tank, starting in the black neighborhoods hit hardest by school closings and crime—but not limited to those areas either. I was tipped off to the mayor’s problem connecting with Chicagoans when his mere image on the scoreboard inspired a stadium of boos during a Northwestern football game last fall.

Preckwinkle was the obvious alternative. Not because she’s the perfect reformer—while fighting for the poor and slowly rolling back sales taxes, she’s made plenty of alliances with Democratic Party insiders who’ve practiced the same kind of machine politics and nepotism that she decries—but because she, unlike almost every other occasional critic of the mayor, might actually be able to win.

Emanuel not-so-subtly tried to shame her out of the race, telling the Sun-Times that she had privately assured him that she was staying where she was—a way of letting voters know that if she decided to run after all, it was because she was greedy and untrustworthy.

Instead Preckwinkle continued to be courted, pressured, begged, and heckled to take on the mayor. And she refused to rule it out—over and over. When a reporter recently suggested that she say outright whether she was considering a run, she responded, “Thank you for the advice.”

Preckwinkle is serious about what she’s doing at the county and didn’t want to be seen as bailing on it before it was done.

But let’s be frank: whether they admit it or not, every politician in Chicago at least thinks about occupying the fifth floor of City Hall. And Preckwinkle was definitely mulling it over.

It says something when a candidate drops out of a race the day after a poll shows her with a commanding lead.

“There were furious lobbying efforts,” says Snyder. “But she wanted to end the distraction. She couldn’t even pick up the phone to conduct business.”

Money isn’t everything, even in politics, but it’s a lot, and I’m told that Preckwinkle didn’t want to get into a fund-raising arms race or even the perception of one.

Not just because of the money itself—with her popularity well beyond her south-side base, she wouldn’t need as much as Emanuel to compete. But she’s always been a cautious, consensus-seeking politician, even in her push for reforms, and the specter of dividing the Democratic Party, alienating powerful business interests, and potentially entering office wounded—if she were to win—could not have been appealing.

Emanuel has his problems, but he’s undeniably good at smelling blood. While Preckwinkle declined to take herself out of the race, some of the mayor’s allies and aides set up a new political action committee that, under our loose campaign finance laws, can receive an unlimited amount of money. The PAC, Chicago Forward, raised $1 million from a mere eight donors in a week. After a few days off, it collected another $325,000 from six more Emanuel supporters.

If the city were made up entirely of investors and hedge fund managers, the mayor’s poll numbers would look pretty good.

Even as it is, the mayor is suddenly in better shape than he was yesterday.

Not that he’s in the clear. Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis, who also led Emanuel in the Sun-Times poll, says she’s formed an exploratory committee. I’d expect to hear from Alderman Robert Fioretti soon as well.

Can they win? Only if they run.