Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle on Wednesday is expected to become the first African-American and woman chosen to lead the county Democratic Party, a sign of a changing political landscape and her ability to weather a storm.
Just a few months ago, Preckwinkle was viewed as politically vulnerable, given her headlining support of the much-loathed and now-repealed pop tax, but then she easily won the Democratic primary and the commissioner candidates she backed also prevailed.
Now Preckwinkle is the favorite to be elected party chairman when 80 city and suburban committeemen meet at 2 p.m. to pick a successor for Joseph Berrios, who lost his assessor re-election bid and isn’t running again for the party job.
“I certainly intend to vote for her, and it’s my understanding that she has the weighted votes to be the chair,” said Recorder of Deeds Karen Yarbrough, a west suburban committeeman who plans to seek re-election as the party’s sergeant-at-arms. “Toni has been true to the party. She has always been true to her voice of seeing diversity in the party, and she’s a prolific fundraiser.”
The chairmanship is an insider post, but the politician who holds it runs slating sessions where Democrats battle for coveted endorsements on the party ticket. Judicial candidates, who otherwise get little publicity, particularly benefit from that leg up.
Last month, 22 of the 26 candidates that county Democrats endorsed won their primary elections. Berrios, however, was one of the four who lost, defeated by Fritz Kaegi, who made much of revelations of widespread problems with the county property tax assessment system chronicled by the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois. “The Tax Divide” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Preckwinkle has pledged to work toward “lasting change,” but she is viewed as a transitional leader, given that she doesn’t plan to seek re-election to her County Board post in four years. That’s seen as a potential plus among some backers: If she comes under fire as the party’s leader, she has no re-election effort to harm.
Preckwinkle also is viewed as comfortable with two sometimes-divergent camps within the county Democratic Party: old-school politicians who have seen their strength slip as the power of patronage politics wanes, and self-styled progressives who rely more on issues than political troops to win elections.
When Preckwinkle announced her bid for the top spot last month, she pledged to “reject politics as usual. Our Democratic Party cannot and must not be a good old boys’ club.” Preckwinkle also said she would promote diversity, embrace “openness” and make changes from the bottom up.