Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, in her office at the County Building.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, in her office at the County Building. Credit: Marc Monaghan

This time a year ago, Toni Preckwinkle was one of 50 aldermen, and her sphere was the Fourth Ward and its more than 50,000 residents. Now, as Cook County Board president, she directs a government with a $3 billion budget in a sprawling area home to 5.2 million—the nation’s second-most-populous county after Los Angeles County.

In her first four months, Preckwinkle has already won some big victories: she managed to repeal the unpopular sales tax hike that sunk her predecessor, Todd Stroger, and her first budget passed the County Board unanimously. But if her new role is a source of pleasure, she’s not letting on.

“What is my favorite part of the job?” She considered that question at lunch recently in a downtown restaurant. She tapped her plate with her fork and laughed. “What is my favorite part of the job?” The question went unanswered, and she moved on to other subjects.

The nonresponse is partly a function of Preckwinkle’s nature. A former history teacher, she’s often been described as humorless and schoolmarmish. It may also be due to the imposing task she faces—overhauling a government notorious for its bloat and corruption.

In the waning days of the Stroger administration, his deputy chief of staff, Carla Oglesby, was indicted on charges that she funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars in county contracts to companies owned by her or her associates. The FBI is reportedly investigating “Project Shield,” the county’s Homeland Security initiative. Designed to improve communications in the county in the event of an emergency, the project is millions over its original $31.5 million budget and more than two years past its deadline.

“I’m afraid either because [Stroger] wasn’t paying attention or he didn’t care, a lot of bad things happened to the county,” Preckwinkle said. And she said it even before the county inspector general reported last week that forest preserve employees cost the county more than $160,000 in unapproved overtime and stolen cash, and were drinking, sleeping, and having sex on the job.

Preckwinkle’s most immediate problem was the projected $487 million deficit she inherited. To balance the budget, she pressured elected officials and the independent health system board to cut their budgets by as much as 21 percent. She also used a $45 million line of credit, $23.7 million in TIF surplus funds, and $35 million in savings from mandatory furlough days.

But budget challenges remain. Last week the Civic Federation projected that the budget shortfall in 2012 will be $214 million, and it noted that some of the revenue generators the county tapped this year might not be available next year.

Cook County government provides services in three main areas: health care, criminal justice, and the forest preserves. It’s also responsible for maintaining some highways and for assessing and collecting property taxes. The government is structurally fragmented: Besides the president and 17 commissioners, another 11 officials are elected, including the sheriff, state’s attorney, clerk, and assessor. These officials oversee their own funds, and the health system’s independent board manages its $913 million budget. That leaves Preckwinkle in control of just 8 percent of the county budget, making broad reform difficult without the cooperation of the other elected officials.

Her administration has made some progress already. The County Board recently passed an ordinance pushed by Preckwinkle requiring quarterly budget reviews and reports from elected officials and department heads that summarize measurable goals and the progress being made toward meeting them. The county also has completed a desk audit she requested to determine which employees are performing duplicative tasks, and which ones don’t have job titles matching their work.

When the sales tax increase was repealed last month, staffers cheered as Preckwinkle marched from the county boardroom back to her office, but she didn’t pause to join their celebration; she passed them quickly and headed into a meeting.

State representative Will Burns, who with Preckwinkle’s support won the election to become the next alderman in the Fourth Ward, described her as “the classic north-south runner. She’s going to run straight up the gut and be honest and forthright.”

So far, county commissioners mostly speak well of her. Larry Suffredin, an Evanston Democrat, was one of two commissioners who publicly backed her bid for president. (Chicago Democrat Jerry Butler was the other.) The new administration is “refreshing” for Suffredin, who said he was ignored by Stroger: “I was used to having the press office tell department heads not to talk to me.”

But when Suffredin and commissioner Bridget Gainer, a Chicago Democrat, asked for a list of jobs slated to be cut to measure their economic impact, Preckwinkle’s office refused to provide it. Preckwinkle said she was waiting to find out from the unions who’d be laid off.

Suffredin said Preckwinkle’s performance so far has been “exceptional,” but that her response regarding the job list was unduly guarded, in the manner of past administrations. “There are still some rough spots here,” he said.

Commissioner Liz Gorman, an Orland Park Republican, criticized Preckwinkle in February for giving a $43,000 raise to the forest preserves’ deputy superintendent, Mary Laraia, shortly after naming her to the newly created position. Laraia had contributed to Preckwinkle’s campaign. (Preckwinkle said Laraia’s job has extensive responsibilities for which Laraia was uniquely suited, and she shouldn’t be discounted from working for the county just because she was a campaign contributor.) But Gorman said, “Overall, I do feel that the president is moving in the right direction. She is trying to build some type of consensus.”

Shortly before Preckwinkle’s election in November, the Civic Federation offered a series of recommendations designed to “create a more modern and streamlined” Cook County government. Last week the Civic Federation reported that “very significant progress” had been made on its recommendations in Preckwinkle’s first 100 days, though the county “is far from being able to be declared stable.”

Preckwinkle attributed her good grades in part to the recent administration with which she’s being compared. “The bar is pretty low,” she said with a hearty laugh.

She’s butted heads with sheriff Tom Dart and state’s attorney Anita Alvarez over her proposed cuts. In January she accused Dart of ending budget negotiations. Dart said that accusation caught him by surprise when he read it in a newspaper, because talks at the time were continuing quietly. “Did we need to do it on the corner of State and Madison with a cast of thousands watching?” he said. Preckwinkle had initially suggested a 16 percent cut in the sheriff’s budget; she and Dart eventually settled on 12 percent.

“It’s been more difficult than it should be,” Dart said.

In demanding the unions accept furloughs or risk layoffs, she spurned the Service Employees International Union, which had given $700,000 to her campaign. She said she appreciated SEIU’s contributions, but won’t let their support stop her from doing what she needs to for the good of the county. Besides, she observed, SEIU contributed to her only after the polls showed her winning the race. “While I’m grateful for the unions’ support, I haven’t forgotten when it came, either,” she said.

The furloughs saved jobs—450 will be laid off instead of 1,300. But Christine Boardman, president of SEIU Local 73, which represents about 4,000 county workers, had a lukewarm assessment of Preckwinkle thus far: “I think that she’s listening, [but] I don’t think that she entirely understands what our dilemmas are. County workers are much more underpaid than our counterparts in other municipalities or state government.”

Preckwinkle’s staff is exceptionally young. The chief of staff, Kurt Summers, 31, was managing director of billionaire Pat Ryan’s investment management start-up, and chief of staff for the city’s failed Olympic bid. His deputy, John Keller, is 27. Preckwinkle’s policy director, Neil Khare, and spokeswoman, Jessey Neves, are 25.

“I have two jobs,” Preckwinkle said. “One is to run the county, and the other is to train the next generation of public leaders. It’s a teacher’s view of the world, and I’m first and foremost a teacher.”

Preckwinkle’s office, on the fifth floor of the County Building, is sparsely decorated. Her desk is bare except for a telephone and a jar of pens. Hanging on the walls are African masks and a framed box of arrowheads—she has hundreds of the arrowheads, a product of her fascination with Native American culture.

On a chest of drawers once owned by Dan Ryan, County Board president from 1954 to 1961, sit photos of her two children, Kyle, 29, and Jennifer, 20.

Preckwinkle wears neither flashy jewelry nor fashionable clothes, and she likes to kick her shoes off at meetings. After ten years of teaching, she ran twice unsuccessfully in the 1980s against Fourth Ward alderman Timothy Evans (now the county’s chief judge). She beat Evans in a runoff in 1991, and became a rare independent voice in the city council, often dissenting on Mayor Daley’s policies. She was one of the five aldermen who opposed the parking meter lease that Daley rammed through. Some questioned her independence when she backed the mayor’s Olympics bid.

During her 19 years as alderman of a ward that includes wealthy areas of Kenwood and Hyde Park and some poor stretches of Washington Park and Grand Boulevard, Preckwinkle managed to advocate for both public housing and new development.

In 2007 the Stroger administration commissioned her to write a report on juvenile justice, but then ignored it. She said that’s when she decided to run for County Board president. A darling of editorial boards across the county, she coasted in the Democratic primary and general election.

Criminal justice reform is a high priority for her, she said. She’d like to see lighter sentences for nonviolent offenders, with more money spent on home monitoring and treatment programs and less on incarceration. “I think the jail is a hellhole, and I’m going to try to keep as many people out as I can,” she said. She thinks the nation’s drug laws target minorities; she noted that in Cook County, blacks are eight times more likely than whites to go to jail for drug crimes.

But how much can the County Board president do to change this? Sentencing laws are the province of legislators and the governor, and increased use of home monitoring and treatment programs require the cooperation of many entities, including the sheriff, the judiciary, and the legislature. Preckwinkle declined to comment on drug decriminalization, saying only “We don’t have very intelligent drug laws in this country.”

To consider reforms, the administration has convened a task force consisting of representatives from the offices of the chief judge, public defender, sheriff, state’s attorney, and clerk of the circuit court.

She’d like to see more minorities in county government, and hopes to have a fellowship program for students in place by summer. The program isn’t currently in the budget, but Preckwinkle hopes to win foundation support to employ about 20 students who’d work on “strategic initiatives” within the president’s office, such as improving IT infrastructure.

The challenges ahead are daunting. A union fight is almost certain as next year’s budget process unfolds—Preckwinkle wants to reduce benefits for county employees and have them pay more for health care. Earlier this month, a state board shot down the county’s plan to turn Oak Forest Hospital into an outpatient clinic. The budget counted on the hospital’s inpatient facilities closing, so this is a further strain. The health system’s CEO, William Foley, resigned last week in the middle of the county’s efforts to implement massive changes in health care delivery.

Burns says Preckwinkle’s old job—the one he’s about to assume—offers tangible short-term rewards. “You want to see a street paved or a streetlight fixed, they’re done.”

Not so the position of County Board president. Preckwinkle said, “In this job, it’s much harder to have that connection to the work you do and the outcome. It’s not as rewarding as being an alderman.”