Fourth Ward alderman Toni Preckwinkle isn’t known for her closeness with Mayor Daley. Even as she voted for the $6 billion 2009 city budget last fall—the first time she’d supported one of Daley’s budgets since 2004—she took a swipe at the way it had been pushed through the council in just a couple of weeks. “I don’t think it leads to a very thoughtful process,” she said. Not long after that she blasted the administration for rushing the parking meter lease deal through the council, and last month she cosponsored an ordinance [PDF] demanding that a “community benefits” plan be included in the city’s Olympics bid in return. Twenty-five of her colleagues have signed on.

But Preckwinkle is nothing if not practical, and before she decided to launch a campaign for Cook County Board president she went and sounded out the mayor.

“I didn’t think it made sense to go for it if he’d made commitments to anybody else or if he was discouraging,” Preckwinkle said in an interview. “It just made sense to me to talk to the mayor—he has tremendous resources, so if he’d committed them to someone else, there was no point in me running.”

Preckwinkle said Daley told her he hadn’t yet decided to back anyone, so she’s in. She said she’s got the backing of several City Council colleagues, received encouragement from U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, and reached out to committeemen and several other potential candidates, including circuit court clerk Dorothy Brown and assessor Jim Houlihan. Preckwinkle is now putting together a fund-raising operation—she thinks she’ll need $2 million to $3 million—and touching base with many people as she can. Todd Stroger has not been one of them.

“I’ve talked to Todd, but not about this,” she said. “Naturally, when you run for office, you start with the people who might be inclined to support you. Todd doesn’t fit in that category.” She added her carefully constructed evaluation of his performance the last three years: “I like Todd, but I think this is the wrong job for him.”

She’s already indicated that she’s going to campaign on reducing the inmate population at the county jail and shoring up the county health system at a time when thousands of area residents are losing their health insurance. Those are critical issues. They’re also smart ones, since if, as expected, Stroger does run for reelection, Preckwinkle’s going to be angling to take votes from him in African-American areas, which are disproportionately impacted by the public health and criminal justice systems. The many other issues Stroger is vulnerable on—tax hikes, patronage hiring, the maintenance of the forest preserves—may be more important to, say, white suburban voters, but those folks aren’t going to vote for Stroger anyway.

What’s not clear to most of us is how hard the old Democratic ward organizations will work for Stroger—whose administration has kept at least a few folks happy by doling out jobs—or, should one join the race, what white Stroger opponents like Forrest Claypool might do to Preckwinkle’s hopes of appealing to progressives. That’s obviously where she’s hoping the endorsements of some friendly lakefront aldermen would help. And if things get nasty in the precincts, I wouldn’t worry about alderman Preckwinkle—she’s been known to land a few blows herself.

Besides, if Daley does get into the race, he may even decide to back his frequent foe Preckwinkle. I can imagine him feeling all right about ushering the chief watchdog out of the City Council as he advances his Olympics plans—a prospect that’s already worrying some wary Chicagoans.

Preckwinkle, of course, doesn’t think there’s need for concern. “Before I leave I’d have to get through the primary in February 2010 and then the general election in November, and by then we’ll know if we’ve won the Olympics, so some of this will be in place,” she said. “But the Olympics wouldn’t happen until 2016 anyway. Any time you leave an office there are things in the pipeline and not yet completed.”