Road to the Runoff:
Q&A with Chicago mayoral candidate Toni Preckwinkle

By Tiffany Walden

Toni Preckwinkle

This story is a part of our Black mayoral candidate series, Road to the Runoff. Click here to read about Preckwinkle’s challenger, Lori Lightfoot, before hitting the polls on April 2.

A lot of Black folks still call her “Queen Sugar.” It’s become a community inside joke of sorts, one referring to the time Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s short-lived, penny-per-ounce tax on pop and other sugary drinks went into effect in 2017. In her initial messaging, she said the sugar tax would make for a healthier county.

Black Chicagoans, however, took the sugar tax as a personal attack. Condescending radio and TV ads warned Black and Brown people of the dangers of soft drinks in a failed attempt to win their approval. Meanwhile, Preckwinkle’s true goal was to raise millions in revenue to balance the county budget, which would have prevented cuts in public health and safety services. After the public backlash, she repealed the tax.

“I understand people were really unhappy. We listened to them. We repealed it,” Preckwinkle told The TRiiBE. “We cut 1,000 positions and reduced [Cook County] programs and services to meet our requirement to have a balanced [county] budget.”

Despite bumps late in her campaign, Preckwinkle advanced to an April 2 runoff against former Chicago Police Board President Lori Lightfoot to become Chicago’s next mayor. Since February’s general election, Preckwinkle has won the endorsement of Chance the Rapper, who initially put his coins and celebrity behind former mayoral challenger Amara Enyia, and Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), who initially endorsed former Obama chief of staff Bill Daley for mayor.

But those endorsements haven’t been enough to make Black Chicagoans forget the sugar tax or her ties to the city’s political machine. According to the South Side Weekly, Alderman Ed Burke — who is currently under investigation for extortion — has been paying for Preckwinkle’s political pursuits since she won the 4th Ward alderman seat in 1991. That includes a 2018 fundraiser at Burke’s home, which brought in $116,000 that allegedly came from his Burger King scandal.

Preckwinkle also hired Burke’s son for a county job in 2014 at the same time he was under an internal investigation alleging inappropriate sexual misconduct at his previous sheriff’s Office job.

Preckwinkle says she’s returned all of Burke’s fundraiser money and denies all ties to Chicago’s political machine.

“I got into office by beating the machine,” Preckwinkle says about her time as alderman. “I was working in my neighborhoods to try to improve our public schools, to build up the communities that have been struggling and to address the public safety challenges. That’s what I’ve spent my life doing. And that’s a pretty progressive agenda.”

A Chicago Magazine article affirmed Preckwinkle’s progressive agenda. As alderman, she voted against Mayor Richard M. Daley’s 75-year privatized parking meter deal. As Cook County Board president, Preckwinkle reformed the bail system.

“There are 4,000 fewer people in jail than there were when I took office,” Preckwinkle says. “And those [are] folks who previously would have probably been in jail for weeks or months as they waited for their hearings and trials.”

Earlier in her campaign, Preckwinkle spent $750,000 on a political ad touting her role in releasing critical autopsy details in the Laquan McDonald shooting. The activist community accused Preckwinkle of exaggerating her role in McDonald’s case for political gain.

Preckwinkle says that’s not the case.

“The autopsy report was delayed, by the way, because of a request from State’s Attorney [Anita Alvarez] to do additional toxicology screenings to see what drugs Laquan McDonald may have had in his system,” Preckwinkle told The TRiiBE. “As soon as [the report] was available, I made it available not just to his family but also to the journalists who were part of the effort to make public the videotape.”

Below is a look at our March 14 interview with Preckwinkle about her political stances. Read our conversation below.

(The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)

Everyone is vying for the Black vote. Rahm Emanuel get into office twice but we suffered a lot under his leadership. We’ve lost schools, there’s ongoing police brutality, and our population is declining. What is your plan to retain and rebuild Black Chicago?

Toni Preckwinkle: We have to have a city that focuses on growth, and it can’t be just downtown. There has to be growth in our neighborhoods as well. When I was alderman, one of the things I focused on was rebuilding the communities around the one I live in: Hyde Park and South Kenwood. So I spent most of my time in my office working in North Kenwood, Oakland, Douglas and Grand Boulevard. Those were the communities that had suffered disinvestment and neglect for decades. We built 1,500 units of housing. Most of it [was] affordable rental housing. We had a parade of homes and new market-rate housing. We also [worked] with small businesses to try to help and support them. We built a new shopping center at 47th and Lake Park. Neighborhood businesses are the ones that are most likely to hire community residents and provide employment opportunities for people in the neighborhood. People have to believe that there’s opportunity for themselves and their children.

It’s really important that we have good neighborhood schools. I’m a teacher. When I was alderman and people came into my ward office, they would [ask], are the streets safe? Are the schools good? We’ve got to have good neighborhood public schools, and we have to have a funding formula that reflects the fact that some parts of our city are privileged and some parts of our city are struggling. And in many of our schools, we need bilingual support. We need social workers. We need psychologists to help the kids do well and provide them with wrap-around services. You can’t have a per-pupil based formula and do that.

We saw Rahm Emanuel shut down schools over the years. Most of them were in Black neighborhoods. In your opinion, what do these closure say to Black youth?

Preckwinkle: I expressed my opposition at the time. Chicago Public Schools have been closing maybe 10 to 12 schools a year. One year they closed 50 schools. I questioned whether or not this was a process they could manage, given it was five times the number of schools that they had been closing on an annual basis. My view is closing the schools is a very public withdrawal of resources from a community. And I heard on WBEZ that 38 of the 50 schools are still vacant, which means they haven't been repurposed. The community hasn’t been worked with try to figure out alternative uses for those schools. That's a real nightmare because the young people who went to the school walk by it every day as they try to go to their new school. The adults in the community drive by and see this vacant building which was a very public investment in their neighborhood that now is no more. It has to be a priority to repurpose these schools and not just leave them vacant hawks in communities which they previously served.

How do you remedy what happened to Black families in the closing of Chicago Public Schools?

Preckwinkle: We’ve got to go back to the communities and talk to them about how they want the schools [to be] repurposed. That has to be a community conversation. The challenge we have is that many of [the closed schools] had deferred maintenance for years, if not decades. So bringing them back to life will not be an inexpensive proposition. So that’s a challenge.

Lori Lightfoot mentioned that the vacant schools could be turned into training facilities for Chicago’s police. Do you have any specific ideas on how you would repurpose these schools?

Preckwinkle: I’d go to the community and ask them what the needs are. In some of our communities, we might want social service programs there, and in other communities people might want recreational programs. I think it depends on the community, and it needs to be a community decision. In many of our communities, multiple schools were closed.

Chicago has become more and more expensive to live in over the years. We've seen a lot of Black residents and business owners starved out of the city, especially on the South and West sides. Why is it that Black neighborhoods never see quality grocery stores or any business outside of churches, liquor stores and funeral homes?

Preckwinkle: That’s true in some of our communities but not all. There was just a new Jewel opened at 62nd and Cottage Grove in the Woodlawn community. So there are some communities that have seen investment. And there will be a new grocery store in South Shore at the 72nd and Jeffrey site that was a was an old Dominick’s. But it’s hard work attracting national businesses to our communities, partly because of their own inability to see beyond the color of the residents.

For some reason, the West Side doesn’t receive that type of attention. How do you get people to look at North Lawndale, Douglas Park or Garfield Park and get them to bring thriving businesses, but not at the expense of pushing Black people out?

Preckwinkle: We have to rebuild our neighborhoods that are struggling. We have to invest in them. Because if we don’t, we can’t have a strong city. We can’t have a city in which only the privileged can afford to live. I was on the West Side this morning with ministers and I have been on the West Side visiting with business leaders and community residents. The message is, ‘we feel that we’ve been ignored. That West siders haven’t been brought into the administration.’ They haven’t been brought into the boards and commissions of the city. I’ve pledged that we’re going to be fair to everyone. And that means that we’re going to pay attention to the West Side.

What specific plans do you have to make sure that folks who are already in Black and Brown neighborhoods aren't pushed out?

Preckwinkle: We have two kinds of challenges in the city. We have communities that are gentrifying, for lack of a better word, and people who’ve lived there for generations [who] are being pushed out. There are renters being pushed out by dramatic increases in rent rates, [and] homeowners who are struggling to pay their property taxes as the value of their properties have increased. The other kind of problem is one which many of our West Side and South side communities face: there’s been no investment at all. So it’s not a question of gentrification. It’s just a question of no investment in the community. We’ve got to figure out how to build more affordable housing, how to make the affordable requirements ordinance (ARO) work because it’s not producing family housing, and how to change the laws. One proposal that I’ve seen from the development community has changed the laws in Springfield so that property owners have an incentive to devote a portion of their property to affordable units. [This] plan is called the 80/20: 80% market rate, 20% affordable, but you get a break on your property taxes for the 20% that’s affordable. That requires changing the law in Springfield, which I’m going to support.

Alderman Willie Cochran referred to the Black Caucus as gangsters this past summer. What does that say about how our Black aldermen operate and how City Hall culture could change under your leadership?

Preckwinkle: I wasn’t aware that Alderman Cochran made this statement. I can’t imagine why he would do so.

At their fundraiser in the summer, Willie Cochran told young organizers, “They must not know we got gangsters in here.” At the time, the organizers were yelling out, “No Cop Academy.” Alderman Carrie Austin came in after that and said, “If anybody else want to protest, you better take it outside because I guarantee you ain't seen no gangsters like this city’s aldermen.” That was recorded on a video and everyone saw this exchange on Twitter. I guess it's more of a question about corruption. How can we -

Preckwinkle: I don’t think that’s the definition of corruption.

If you're calling yourself a gangster and you’re already under investigation -

Preckwinkle: Well, leave Willie Cochran out of it for a moment. Let me just say that I’m sure if you ask either of them, they would probably tell you they regretted those statements.

Alderman Ed Burke is under investigation. He was re-elected because the Baby Boomers and older generations voted him in. Young people have disengaged due to the lack of faith and trust in politicians and politics. They feel that even if they vote someone in, that person is just going to end up being indicted for something. We’re asking this. Can you, as a leader, help rebuild trust and repair those broken systems?

Preckwinkle: You have to speak truthfully to people about the challenges we face. I’ve talked about public schools, and the challenge we face there. I’ve talked about the police department and the challenges we face there. In my view, the job of elected officials is to tell the truth about the challenges and try to work with people around the solutions. Hopefully young people will believe that they should be engaged in that process. I always say that democracy is at the same time the best and the most fragile form of government on Earth, because it depends on an active, engaged [and] informed citizenry. And young people have to take that obligation to heart. The success of our democracy is on them as much as it is on the Boomers. If you walk away from the table, and you don’t participate, then you leave the decision making to others.

People are afraid to put their trust in you after all of the news came out about your connection to Alderman Ed Burke, who is under investigation. You also hired his son amid allegations of inappropriate sexual comments in the workplace.

Preckwinkle: Let’s go back to Ed Burke Sr. He and I served in the City Council together for almost 20 years. Whenever there was a divided vote, we were on opposite sides.We were not friends and allies. There was a fundraiser. I returned all the money from the fundraiser.

Let me speak [on] his son. He worked for the county for 20 years. His resume went to the Department of Homeland Security. And he was hired for a similar position that he had in the Sheriff’s Office. So [he] moved from one part of [Cook] County to the other, but he worked for the county long before I ever got here.

How can Black Chicagoans trust that you will serve them and not align yourself with the Chicago machine?

Preckwinkle: I got into office by beating the machine. I beat the machine on my third try. So it wasn’t easy. And I was the first African-American woman to be elected alderman of the 4th Ward. When I got to the City Council, I was the sponsor and strong supporter of every single affordable housing and living-wage ordinance that came before the body. So I’ve always been focused on trying to rebuild our neighborhoods and being sure that our workforce had decent wages. When I was alderman, I was working in my neighborhoods to try to improve our public schools, to build up the communities that have been struggling and to address the public safety challenges. That’s what I’ve spent my life doing. And that’s a pretty progressive agenda.

When people hear the name Toni Preckwinkle, they automatically think of the sugar tax, especially within the Black community. What was your reason for implementing a sugar tax? And do you regret that decision today, after all of the pushback?

Preckwinkle: I understand people were really unhappy. We listened to them. We repealed it. We cut 1,000 positions and reduced [Cook County] programs and services to meet our requirement to have a balanced [county] budget. But I think it’s important to remember why we needed revenue. Half of our budget is healthcare. And not only do we have our hospitals, Stroger and Provident, we’ve got 16 clinics around the county. And we’ve also got a Medicaid expansion program, thanks to [former] President [Barack] Obama. [It] is part of the Affordable Care Act, [and now serves] 320,000 people who didn’t have insurance before. We’ve also worked on criminal justice reform. There are 4,000 fewer people in jails than there were when I took office. And those are people who were accused of nonviolent crimes. And those [are] folks who previously would have probably been in jail for weeks or months as they waited their hearings and their trial. Now [they] get to go to work, go to school [and] support themselves and their families because we focused on bond court and reforms in bond court.

Do you support the leadership of Supt. Eddie Johnson?

Preckwinkle: I like Eddie Johnson a lot. I’m concerned about the fact that he is unwilling to acknowledge that there is a code of silence in the [Chicago] Police Department and racism in the [Chicago] Police department. I think you have to acknowledge your problems before you can really solve them. I’ve said that we would make a change there and it surely wouldn’t be immediately.

So what would be your plan, if elected mayor? To keep Supt. Eddie Johnson or to let him go?

Preckwinkle: I think there would be a transition period.

About how long would that transition period be?

Preckwinkle: [It] remains to be seen. We’re heading into the summer. The summer is the most difficult time for the officers on the street and I think it’d be the wrong time to make a change. So there would be a transition period.

What was Rahm Emanuel's biggest mistake in office and what would you have done differently?

Preckwinkle: When he came into office, he made disparaging remarks about teachers. I think he said something like, ‘the teachers were just in it for the money.’ Since I’ve been a teacher for a decade and never met a teacher who’s in it for the money, I was particularly offended by that. But I think closing the 50 schools is one of the biggest mistakes [he] made. And I also think not immediately releasing the videotape in Laquan McDonald’s case was a terrible mistake.

What would you have done differently in the Laquan McDonald case?

Preckwinkle: I think the videotape should have been released more or less immediately. When the autopsy report was available, and that was early in 2015, the videotape should have been released as well.

The activist community gave you some pushback on using that information as a part of your campaign. Can you clarify for the community what your role was exactly in the Laquan McDonald medical examiner situation?

Preckwinkle: Sure. First of all, I’m very grateful to Laquan McDonald’s family for continuing to keep this issue in the forefront of public attention, and for all the activists who work so hard to keep it on the public radar. [Cook] County expeditiously released the autopsy report because the narrative of the police department was that McDonald was lunging at the officers and he was shot. The autopsy report was delayed, by the way, because of a request from State’s Attorney [Anita Alvarez] to do additional toxicology screenings to see what drugs Laquan McDonald may have had in the system. As soon as [the report] was available, I made it available not just to his family but also to the journalists who were part of the effort to make public the videotape. We moved along the process of getting this before the public and finally getting it released. The autopsy report said he was shot 16 times — nine in the back. And that didn’t fit with the narrative that the [Chicago] Police Department was providing, which said that they shot him as he lunged at them. You don’t shoot somebody nine times in the back who’s lunging at you.

How do you address transparency and all of the corruption that’s going on within the Chicago Police Department?

Preckwinkle: Here’s the thing. If there isn’t transparency, people won’t have confidence in the police. And if they don’t have confidence in the police, they won’t work with them to solve crimes. And we’ll be in the terrible position we’re in now. We have communities where police are viewed as an occupying force and not as those who serve and protect them.

How do you remedy that issue between the police and the community? We have the consent decree, but there's no guarantee that that's really going to be enforced. How do we hold the police accountable?

Preckwinkle: No. It has to be enforced. That has to be one of the first priorities of the new mayor. And the second thing is we’ve got to invest more in community policing, and trying to get police and community residents to sit down and talk with each other and work with each other. When we had community policing, both the police and the community could see the humanity in the other side. They got to know some of their officers by name. The officers got to know people in the community that were concerned about about public safety and community residents were willing to share with the officers. As a result, we were able to tackle some of the most difficult challenges we faced.

When was that?

Preckwinkle: It was in the 1990s and early part of 2000, and then-Mayor [Richard M.] Daley started devoting fewer resources to it and [Mayor] Rahm Emanuel was never committed to it.

Because in the 90s, that's when the murder rate was at its highest. So was the community policing effective in your opinion?

Preckwinkle: Well, I think it was effective in dealing with crimes on the street. The murders and the shootings are a different category of issue. And they require, in particular, a strong detective core because that’s who’s responsible for trying to deal with finding the people who commit the murders and commit the shootings. What I’m talking about is the more generic [crimes]. Who’s selling drugs? Who’s breaking into cars? That kind of thing that officers on the street have to deal with.

I think if you talk to a lot of folks in the black community, they wouldn't be able to say that they've had this confidence in speaking to the police, even in the 90s or early 2000s. Growing up in North Lawndale in the 1990s, I don’t know anyone on my block that talked to the police.

Preckwinkle: Here’s the thing. This varied by community. In many of the communities that I served, that worked.

Preckwinkle on education

Studies have shown that school closings actually widen the achievement gap between black and white students. Toni believes that it’s not enough to promise a temporary moratorium on school closings – we need to secure a long-term funding resource to help us make real investments in the schools that have been chronically underfunded.

Preckwinkle on public safety

Preckwinkle will take direct ownership of various aspects of the city’s criminal justice and public safety efforts through the creation of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice alongside working with community stakeholders and the Chicago Police Department to restore trust and accountability between city’s police and the people of Chicago. 

More on