Beating back a challenge from former alderman Bob Fioretti, two-term incumbent Toni Preckwinkle scored a decisive victory in the March 20 Democratic primary for Cook County Board president.
As she faces no declared opponents in the general election, Preckwinkle is all but certain to win a third term.
For a time, it seemed as if Preckwinkle would not face a serious primary challenge at all. In October 2017, however, the Cook County Board dealt Preckwinkle a major political defeat, repealing her signature penny-per-ounce soda tax by a whopping 15–2 vote less than three months after it went into effect. A well-funded campaign led by retailers and the beverage industry generated a groundswell of public opposition to the tax, which Preckwinkle had hastily proposed to close a budget deficit.
The Paul Douglas Institute, an undergraduate policy think tank at the University of Chicago, conducted a study on the failure of the Cook County soda tax. The study found that the manner in which Preckwinkle proposed the tax—as a revenue-raising measure to close an imminent budget gap, without prior groundwork from health advocates—was not conducive to sustaining popular support.
The unpopularity of the soda tax dented Preckwinkle’s approval ratings: A poll taken during the soda tax saga found that Preckwinkle’s job approval ratings were lower than President Donald Trump’s ratings. Hoping to capitalize on Preckwinkle’s apparent vulnerability, Fioretti declared his candidacy in December, making the soda tax his central issue. Though the wave of anti-tax sentiment did not propel Fioretti to victory, Preckwinkle’s win, 61 percent to Fioretti’s 39 percent, has a smaller margin of victory than in her past primary elections.
“The soda tax is behind us,” Preckwinkle said in a postelection interview with The Maroon. “I tried to make the case that I had been a good steward of the county for the last eight years, and people were prepared to agree.”
Preckwinkle is a University of Chicago alum (A.B. ’69, A.M. ’77) who began her political career as an alderman from Hyde Park’s 4th Ward, where she still serves as committeeman. In office, Preckwinkle has focused on progressive priorities such as enacting criminal justice reform and increasing quality of and access to healthcare.
In the interview, Preckwinkle explained that her bond court reform initiative to reduce the use of cash bonds, an alternative to releasing defendants on their own recognizance, has greatly reduced the jail population: “When I came into office, there were 10,000 to 11,000 people on the jail in a daily basis, but now [there are] less than 6,000.”
Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, Preckwinkle explained, Cook County was able to “vastly expand” healthcare services, including by extending Medicaid to cover an additional 325,000 people. “If the Republicans are successful in Washington at repealing the Affordable Care Act,” Preckwinkle warned, “we figure that [would be] a hit to our budget of $300 million to $800 million.” No major GOP effort has been made to repeal the Affordable Care Act since the most recent failed attempt in September 2017.
Some analysts have argued that Cook County’s stagnating tax base is a fiscal constraint on the need to maintain funding for County services, resulting in recurring structural deficits every several years. Preckwinkle said that she has “closed $2 billion in deficits” during her tenure. Although, according to Preckwinkle, $851 million of these savings have come through spending cuts, she has largely responded to deficits by proposing tax increases—such as a 1 percent sales tax increase in 2015—in order to maintain funding for programs she cares about.
The demise of the soda tax, which would have closed a roughly $200 million budget gap that imperiled funding for community health centers and the public defender’s office, left Preckwinkle pessimistic about the political viability of future tax increases.
“I don’t think there are the votes for tax increases [on the County Board]. There weren’t votes for tax increases in the fall [when the soda tax was repealed], and I doubt there will be in this coming fall; 328 people were anticipated to be laid off in the last budget, and I anticipate there will be more layoffs in the next budget.”
In lieu of future tax increases, Preckwinkle plans to continue generating savings through efficiency reforms in the criminal justice system.
“We’re going to continue to drive down the jail population, and hopefully we can continue to reduce the number of people employed by the department of corrections.[...] We’ve also got to look at how long it takes to try cases. We have cases that drag on for weeks and months.[...] We’re going to focus on bond courts and case management.”
Preckwinkle is also running for the Cook County Democratic Party Chair; the incumbent Chair, Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios, lost the Democratic primary election for Assessor.
Editor’s note: The author of this piece was also a lead author on the Paul Douglas Institute study referenced.