Toni Preckwinkle is the front-runner in the race for mayor of Chicago, sort of. According to a Sun-Times poll conducted by We Ask America, Preckwinkle and Daley are “nominal” front-runners with Preckwinkle at 12.7 percent and Daley at 12.1. The We Ask America poll also found that in hypothetical runoffs, Preckwinkle would lose—though not by much—to both Mendoza and Daley.
“Every poll now has her in the mid to low teens. That is a disaster,” said Tom Bowen of New Chicago Consulting. He said that for Preckwinkle—a well-known African-American woman who was elected Cook County Board president by Chicago voters in 2010, 2014, and 2018 and maintained high favorability ratings—that is a red flag. (A partner in Bowen’s firm is a consultant for the Gery Chico campaign, though Bowen does not work with the campaign.) “She tried to be the front-runner to push other people out. None of that has worked.”
The projections are slim, but Preckwinkle’s got a war chest nearly $3 million strong and second only to the holdings of Daley, who as a former presidential chief of staff and commerce secretary and former president of SBC Communications has big-money connections both local and national—not to mention that he’s a Daley. Still, the 71-year-old Cook County Board president has hit a rough patch in her campaign.
In her first television campaign ad for the mayoral race she claimed to have been pivotal in exposing the killing of Laquan McDonald. The advertisement was criticized as exaggerating Preckwinkle’s role, particularly since she failed to push for the release of dashcam footage before a judge ordered the tape’s release. The Reader‘s Maya Dukmasova also reported on a Preckwinkle fund-raising e-mail that sought to capitalize on the case of Cyntoia Brown, a Tennessee woman serving a life sentence for killing a 43-year-old man who had solicited her for sex when she was 16 years old. She was granted clemency earlier this year.
Bowen—who worked as deputy campaign manager for Rahm Emanuel in 2011, has managed City Council and Senate campaigns, and worked on Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign—said that running for mayor of Chicago is more like a presidential campaign, with TV and radio stations and major newspapers putting a microscope to candidates. Preckwinkle positioned herself as a progressive working outside of the political machine. Yet the truth is more complex, and her campaign did not seem to be ready for the intense scrutiny that comes with an election, including allegations of “inappropriate behavior” against her former chief of staff. Preckwinkle has faced scrutiny for being the “Boss,” someone who is a part of and has benefited from Chicago’s giant, often corrupt Democratic apparatus.
Christopher Z. Mooney, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said that Preckwinkle’s position in local government in Chicago is a double-edged sword. It is job experience and has earned her a level of renown, but “the downside is [her job presents] a great opportunity to piss off people,” he said.
“You’re also going to probably bump up against some situations that you don’t necessarily want your mom to know about,” he continued. “Not necessarily that they’re illegal, but sometimes they’re unseemly.”
Enter 14th Ward alderman Ed Burke. He threw a fund-raiser for Preckwinkle at his home in Gage Park on January 19, 2018. Then federal officers raided his offices on November 29, 2018, and charged him with attempted extortion. According to the Chicago Tribune, Burke illegally solicited a $10,000 campaign donation from a restaurant executive for another politician, reportedly Preckwinkle.
Preckwinkle explained that while her campaign did receive the money, she returned the funds to the donor because it exceeded the state’s donation limit, which is $5,600 from an individual. In a public statement made earlier this year, Preckwinkle said she was “appalled by Alderman Ed Burke’s apparent abuse of his position for personal gain” and stated that she would give back the $116,000 she raised at Burke’s house in 2018.
“I won’t have my name dragged through the mud over the alleged criminal conduct of Susana Mendoza’s mentor, Gery Chico’s best friend, and Bill Daley’s longtime political ally,” she wrote in the statement, referring to Burke and throwing her mayoral contenders under the bus. “Cynics says that corruption and Chicago politics go together. I have never accepted that. I have spent my career taking on the good old boys’ club.”
Earlier this month, it was reported that Preckwinkle’s administration hired Burke’s son, Ed Burke Jr., for a county job that gave him a six-figure salary. Then it was revealed that Burke’s son was under investigation for sexual misconduct in the Cook County Sheriff’s Office at the time he was hired. Preckwinkle admitted to speaking to Burke about a job opportunity for his son and, in a press conference, said she only “had one or two meetings a year with Alderman Burke out of a thousand meetings.”
“It’s getting more complicated to show enough distance with Burke,” said Dick Simpson, professor of political science at UIC and former alderman of the 44th Ward. “Even if [Preckwinkle] did return some of the money raised at the fund-raiser.” (Simpson has endorsed and donated to the Lori Lightfoot campaign.)
Bowen said that there are a handful of nimble candidates out there ready to attack the presumptive front-runner at any chance, especially when she’s tried to knock them off the ballot. Last week at a mayoral forum at the Union League Club, Lightfoot accused Preckwinkle of being a boss behind a “corrupt organization that squelches innovation—doesn’t allow for independents to ever have a voice.” Preckwinkle replied that she was the most progressive candidate running.
“Preckwinkle and Mendoza have been losing ground on the public opinion polls,” Simpson explains. “It is too early to tell whether they will recover. But they have been hurt by the story of Burke.”
Betty O’Shaughnessy, a visiting lecturer in political science at UIC and coauthor of Winning Elections in the 21st Century with Simpson, said that the scandals around Preckwinkle and Mendoza look ugly. “It depends on how they handle all of this in the next week or two. Because what you’re going see is the other top candidates are going to be jumping on it.”
Bowen said that while the mayoral race is nonpartisan, it functions more like a Democratic primary because most of the voters are Democrats. “The hardest thing to do is to run essentially against people of your own party in a multicandidate primary,” he said. “Voters really do well when there’s a distinction between candidates, Democrats or Republicans. Voters need that signal to sort out where they should be.”
Some experts thought Preckwinkle was a sure thing after she entered the mayoral race in September 2018 after Rahm Emanuel announced that he wouldn’t be running for reelection. If the polls can say anything with confidence, however, it’s that some 25 percent of the electorate is still undecided. v
Additional reporting by Sujay Kumar