'Keep Calm and Carry On': Preckwinkle Tackles First Term with History in Mind

Sep 1, 2011

Toni Preckwinkle
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues
Just before 4 p.m. on a midsummer afternoon, the entrance to Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s office is dark and silent, without a receptionist on hand.

Yet, unbeknownst to many who pass through the County Building’s marble halls at that hour, behind a door to the left, the Chicago Democrat is working, inside a personal space sparsely decorated with pieces of African-American art.

As she sifts through papers, she is lunching — late — on a takeout order of meatloaf and mashed potatoes from a cafeteria across the street, sipping water out of a red mug bearing the inscription, “Keep calm and carry on.”

“It was given to me by a friend,” Preckwinkle, 64, says with a chuckle, “with this position in mind.”

“Keep calm and carry on” was a British government motto during World War II, intended to raise morale in the event of invasion. Yet, it could easily translate to Preckwinkle’s approach to her early tenure at the helm of the state’s most populous county.

The former high school history teacher has faced the first seven months of her term with a stiff upper lip, unhesitant to tussle with those both outside and within her party in her efforts to dramatically clean up the scandal-marred office, using tactics she’d picked up over the years as a teacher and a Chicago alderman.

Preckwinkle was elected November 2 after trouncing then-board President Todd Stroger in the Democratic primary the February before.

On the campaign trail, Preckwinkle vowed to “cut taxes and clean up county government” and pursue a reform agenda in marked contrast to her predecessor.

As it became clear that she would decisively win the general election, with 69 percent of the vote compared with 27 percent for Republican challenger Roger Keats, Preckwinkle made a simple declaration to supporters at her election night party at the Holiday Inn at Chicago’s Merchandise Mart.

“The party’s over.”

Cook County Commissioner Larry Suffredin had , remarked at the end of 2010 that the board president’s office had deteriorated “almost to a point where it is nonfunctional.”

Stroger, a former city alderman and state representative, was put on the Democratic primary ballot in 2006, after his father, 12-year board president John Stroger, suffered a debilitating stroke while in office.

Like his predecessors, the younger Stroger’s singular term was beset by scandal, including the promotion of a cousin to county chief financial officer, the hiring of a busboy with a felony conviction to a $60,000 a year position as a human resources assistant and spending $13,000 on office furniture for his spokesman, a friend since childhood.

It was also marked with an unpopular 1 percentage point sales tax increase, something Preckwinkle vowed in her campaign to repeal after addressing the county’s growing deficit.

On December 6, when the former teacher assumed office, she approached her term ahead much like the rubric she used to plot her teaching plans — lesson by lesson.

“From December of 2008 when I declared my candidacy to when I got sworn in, you’re involved in a countywide campaign that’s pretty intense,” she says. “We knew we’d moved from that right to three months on the budget, and then right to performance management and the budget for 2012.”

The county faced a $487 million budget gap in 2011, and Preckwinkle received little help from Stroger’s office in making a transition.

“We tried to get him to work with us,” she says. “He wanted me to promise I’d keep some of his people on board. I wouldn’t do that.”

Bucking Stroger’s wishes, she began to build a new team led by 31-year-old chief of staff Kurt Summers, who had impressed Preckwinkle with his work on the city’s bid for the 2016 Olympics.

“Kurt was in charge of recruiting the people we’ve hired,” Preckwinkle says, noting her staff reflects a combination of “campaign people, transition people and recruited people.”

As she announced her appointments, she criticized examples of nepotism elsewhere in the county, including Assessor — and Cook County Democratic Party chairman — Joseph Berrios, who hired his son and sister.

Preckwinkle says she had never hired a family member during her two decades as a Chicago alderman, a standard she vowed to uphold as county president.

Stroger, Preckwinkle says, forced the office to “basically transition without his help and support.”

When her staffers requested budget information, they got piles of unorganized paper. When she asked for county inventory, she got vague lists.

On her own, Preckwinkle set to work slowly and methodically, looking at the previous year’s budget, bringing in department by department, elected official by elected official, with the goal of cutting an average of 16 percent across the board.

“We said, ‘We’ve got to do this; you figure out how,’” Preckwinkle says of her edict to the county’s various departments.

In doing so, she went head-to-head more than once with several county officials, including Sheriff Tom Dart and State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, a fact she was unabashed in noting to editorial boards across the county, which she visited touting her budget cutting efforts.

“Part of this is I’m a history teacher, and you know newspapers and magazines are the first draft of history,” she says. “If you have any brains, you make yourself as available to the people who are writing the first draft of history as possible.”

Preckwinkle accused Dart of abandoning budget negotiations, telling editorial boards that he could meet her suggested cutback by reining in medical leave cases, a theory Dart’s office objected to.

Alvarez, too, initially rejected proposed cuts, noting such extensive cuts would be “catastrophic for victims of crime.”

Eventually, however, both offices came aboard.

Alvarez’s office and the public defender’s office were granted 10 percent cuts, and in a close-to-deadline compromise, Dart’s office agreed to a 12 percent cut. 

Again, the self-assured my-way-or-the-highway attitude of the high school teacher surfaced with Preckwinkle.

“You have to have a good sense of yourself cause you’re going to get buffeted,” she says. “You have to be on to hold people accountable for what they do or fail to do.”

With Alvarez and Dart, she notes, “you don’t need to be best friends with the people you’re working with. We’re moving ahead on our goals we all agree on.”

Preckwinkle in February proposed a $3 billion 2011 budget, down from $3.56 billion in 2010.

The plan called for an estimated 1,075 layoffs — about 4 percent of the county’s workforce of roughly 24,000.

Departments took cuts that averaged 15 percent, with most meeting Preckwinkle’s call for a 16 percent cut across the board. Her own office’s budget was cut by 17 percent, really 20 percent, she notes, because Stroger had been spending more than he had allotted.

Preckwinkle’s February 1 budget address was well-received by the county board and highly praised by government watchdog groups, including the Civic Federation of Chicago.

“I think what the president presented to us is pretty much what I’ve been looking forward to seeing for the four years I’ve been on the board,” Bartlett Commissioner Timothy Schneider remarked to the media at the time. Schneider said it called for “a return to fiscal responsibility, a return to efficient county government, cutting the waste, cutting the corruption, and I think we’re on our way to doing that.”

Several of Preckwinkle’s early decisions addressed a report she had backed more than a year before, shortly after her successful bid in the Democratic primary.

In February 2010, the University of Illinois and the Better Government Association released a joint report on the “pervasive pattern of corruption” in Cook County over the past four decades and called for a series of reforms.

“We’re not standing in front of Todd Stroger’s office because we’re blaming Stroger for four decades. He’s just the latest in a long line of county officials who weren’t minding the store properly or well enough,” BGA executive director Andy Shaw said at the news conference at the Cook County building in Chicago.

The report cited nearly 150 convicted county employees, including a ring of property tax “fixers” in the assessor’s office in the 1970s, and corruption in the Cook County Sheriff’s Office under James O’Grady and James Dvorak in the 1980s. It also cited several scandals in Stroger’s current office, including the hiring of convicted busboy Tony Cole for a $61,189 human resources job. Reforms the report suggested include limiting nepotism further, requiring a forensic audit of the county at all levels, putting contract information online and requiring accountability and transparency from the county’s inspector general. One of those reforms came in June, when Preckwinkle announced the ending of the failed, costly and controversial Project Shield — a $44 million Homeland Security program under investigation by the FBI.

Marking her 100th day in office in March, Preckwinkle released a “report card” in which she had graded her efforts in office thus far and looked ahead toward the rest of her term. 

Preckwinkle says she had completed one-third of 33 key initiatives, noting that government employees would likely have to share in sacrifice, accepting compensation cuts in health care and pension benefits.

She also said she would work toward annexing unincorporated Cook County areas to reduce spending, working with local municipalities to incorporate those areas into various suburban communities.

Preckwinkle has, over the past seven months, made a visit to each of the 17 Cook County districts, stretching from west suburban Bartlett to Beverly on the city’s southwest side.

“I think she’s starting to realize that Cook County is a lot broader than the city of Chicago,” Orland Park Republican Commissioner Liz Gorman says. “She is a regular out in the suburbs; she does know where the suburbs are at.” 

On a broader level, Preckwinkle’s STAR — “Set Targets, Achieve Results” — performance management program now requires all county departments to have performance measures in place for budgeting purposes.

“Virtually no one in the county was keeping track of what they were doing and how long it took them to perform tasks,” she says.

Among the goals outlined are reducing county hospital wait time, getting property tax bills out on time and downsizing county jail populations. In setting such performance goals, the county is uncovering example after example of inefficiency, she says.

For instance, the county has discovered its revenue department has been, for years, devoting almost as many staff members to ensuring that residents in unincorporated areas had vehicle stickers, as it was to retrieving uncollected cigarette and alcohol taxes. 

“There’s a heck of a lot more money in uncollected cigarette and alcohol taxes,” Preckwinkle says. 

The plan calls for quarterly reports on each county agency’s performance, with progressive steps toward corrective action. Her budget office will use the data for allocating resources.

As she moved ahead in her efforts to trim the county’s budget, not every department was on board with the plan.

This time, Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans argued that his office was not under the scope of the county board, noting it has already launched its own separate set of reforms. 

“I’m not arguing we should tell any judge what sentence to deliver or how to run the court system ... we need his cooperation on how we’re going to measure progress. We need to speed up our process, and that saves jail time,” she says.

Evans did not respond to interview requests, and Preckwinkle says in recent weeks, their exchanges have been limited to her sending his office a copy of STAR’s July performance report.

In the past seven months, Preckwinkle has reached out to leaders at the state and federal levels, along with those within the county.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Preckwinkle have begun to work together on common issues, announcing in July a plan to enhance city-county cooperation, aiming to save as much as $140 million a year. Their Chicago offices are just yards apart, but in the past, former Mayor Richard M. Daley kept a distance from the county board his brother John served on. 

“We both agreed it made sense to work together,” Preckwinkle says. “I think we’re going to be able to develop a historic partnership. It’s unfortunate the city and the county haven’t worked together at all in the past.”

It has also made sense, she says, to get to know Springfield lawmakers, something they say is a departure from her predecessor’s practices.

While Preckwinkle, who calls herself an independent Democrat, considers herself to be politically similar to former political gadfly Gov. Pat Quinn, her work with the governor was the source of another tussle.

The county asked a state panel for permission to turn south suburban Oak Forest Hospital into an outpatient clinic in June. That request was ultimately rejected because Quinn was slow to fill panel vacancies, resulting in a shortage of votes .

Preckwinkle was vocal not only about the panel oversight but the fact that the state had failed to process nearly $40 million in Medicaid applications by the Cook County Health and Hospital System during Quinn’s tenure as governor.

Keeping calm and carrying on ultimately prevailed. 

After Preckwinkle expressed her disappointment, the governor’s office and her office got together to prioritize applications. And Quinn later filled the board’s vacancies. 

“I need to have good relationships with people at the state level,” she says. “I’m working on that.”

Don’t expect her to get warm and fuzzy, Gorman warns.

“She’s obviously one of the strongest leaders I’ve had the opportunity to serve with,” the Orland Park commissioner says.

While Preckwinkle has made various outreaches to commissioners on budget issues and performance management, she has not attempted to develop personal relationships with her commissioners. “On a personal level, no, there’s nothing,” Gorman says.

“I think her demeanor is perfectly appropriate to the job she has in front of her and the gravity of that job,” says Oak Park Democratic Sen. Don Harmon. “The county has a horribly difficult set of responsibilities with health care, criminal and civil justice and the jail. It’s an unbelievable difficult burden.”

Republican House Leader Tom Cross of Oswego says his relationship with Preckwinkle is “night and day,” compared with Stroger.

“It’s no-nonsense. It’s kinda the old-fashioned way,” Cross says, detailing a recent conversation about pension reform. “We live in this world of emails and texts. She picks up the phone and says, ‘I need this.’ She says thank you. That’s refreshing.

“I served with Todd in the House, I don’t think he ever called me on an issue.” 

Kerry Lester is politics and projects writer for the Arlington Heights-based Daily Herald.

Illinois Issues, September 2011