Will a new mayor be the change Chicago needs?

November 13, 2018

Melissa Rakestraw looks at the record of the early frontrunner to replace Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel: "progressive" Democrat Toni Preckwinkle.

“I’M DOING this because I can.” That was Cook County Board President and Cook County Democratic Party Chair Toni Preckwinkle’s answer to the question of why she was running for Chicago mayor.

“There are those who have asked, and will ask, why I want to take on this job. I understand their thinking,” Preckwinkle told those gathered for her announcement for candidacy. “I’ve faced no shortage of challenges while in public office. Why would I want to tackle even more?”

Preckwinkle, Cook County’s chief executive since 2010, was at one time a teacher and gun control advocate, who first won elected office as a City Council member from Hyde Park, a post she held for 19 years.

She is currently the presumptive favorite to replace Mayor 1 Percent, Rahm Emanuel, who announced that he didn’t plan to stand for re-election in February. If she succeeds, she would be the first Democratic Party chair of Cook County to simultaneously hold mayoral office since legendary Chicago machine boss Richard J. Daley reigned over City Hall.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle announces her candidacy for Chicago mayor
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle announces her candidacy for Chicago mayor

At her campaign launch, Preckwinkle made a special point to thank Boss Daley’s son, who also became mayor: Richard M. Daley, who she served under in the council. Preckwinkle said she couldn’t have accomplished what she did without Daley’s “help and support.”

She didn’t mention Emanuel as she no doubt wishes to distance herself from the toxic tyrant, even though she chose not to run against him four years ago and failed to endorse her County Board floor leader, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, in his 2015 bid to unseat Emanuel. Sitting on the sidelines, Preckwinkle instead helped Emanuel preserve the thin support he had with much of the city’s Black political establishment.

WHILE PRECKWINKLE has in the past been critical of Emanuel’s school closings and his handling of police abuse cases, she has been far from a strong critic or opponent of Rahm. Preckwinkle has had a close relationship with the Clintons, endorsing Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in 2016. At the Democratic Party National convention in Philadelphia, she was prominently seated next to former President Bill Clinton.

In spite of her cozy relationship with the Clintons and being the head of Cook County Democrats, Preckwinkle insists that she’s a progressive, saying, “I am a progressive Democrat. I’ve been a progressive Democrat my whole life. I’ve worked hard to try to build the Democratic Party and move it in a progressive direction. When I became chair of the party, I did my best to knit it back together.”

She has been an elected Democratic Party politician since 1991, and if she’s tried to move the party in a more progressive direction, she has failed miserably. There’s no doubt she sees herself as the glue between the establishment Democrats who have run Chicago for generations, the neoliberal Clinton Democrats, and the notion of a left section within it.

As the city has seen a dwindling of patronage jobs to reward machine supporters, the Democratic Party has relied on people like Preckwinkle who talk about left reforms, but impose harsh austerity once they’re in office.

Preckwinkle’s record running the County Board has been anything but progressive. She helped push through one of the most draconian consumption taxes in the country, passing a penny-per-ounce sales tax on sugary and artificially sweetened beverages. This attack on working-class consumers had to be repealed over her protestations because of intense public opposition.

She has been a job killer who slashed the budget by laying off county workers and eliminating vacant positions at a time when living-wage jobs were in short supply.

She put forward a pension reform bill to the Illinois legislature that required higher contributions by workers, taking money out of their paychecks and raising the number of years they had to work before reaching retirement. Many considered the deal worse than the one offered by Rahm Emanuel and it failed to pass.

Her attack on workers’ pensions failed, but Preckwinkle was able to push through a higher sales tax, which has a disproportionate impact on poor and working-class people. This leaves one to wonder how she will court the support of labor unions, which are a key political force in the city.

She is unlikely to take the hostile posture that Emanuel took toward the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) before his election — one of the factors in the teachers’ strike that exposed him as an enemy of working-class Chicago.

The CTU’s contract will expire in June 2019 shortly after the next mayor takes office, so trying to cut budgets as she did on the county board while also negotiating a fair deal for the people who keep Chicago’s schools running would be difficult.

This is also why it’s possible that the CTU may see the futility in endorsing any mayoral candidate and instead focus on mobilizing their members and the communities they serve to fight for the schools that Chicago students deserve, including reduced class sizes, fully funded neighborhood schools and fairly compensated teachers and paraprofessionals.

WITH PRECKWINKLE’S record on the county board so glaringly bad, it was startling to see her receive the endorsement of 35th Ward Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, a prominent Sanders supporter who was elected to the City Council in 2015 and joined the Democratic Socialists of America in 2017.

Before that, Ramirez-Rosa was a staffer for Democratic U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez. He became Democratic Ward Committeeman in the 35th Ward after his aldermanic victory. In his October 18 endorsement, Ramirez-Rosa stated:

I’m proud to endorse Toni because she and I understand that the only way to bring about bold progressive change is by working with and listening to our city’s grassroots community organizations, movements for justice, and all working-class Chicagoans fighting for change.

No doubt Preckwinkle did a lot of listening to the workers whose jobs she cut — but decided to leave them jobless anyway. There’s nothing progressive about neoliberal austerity enforcement.

Ramirez-Rosa’s statement went on to say: “We are committed to moving forward a bold progressive agenda for Chicago that includes affordable housing, criminal justice reform, removing the carve outs from our sanctuary city ordinance, TIF reform, an elected school board, lifting the ban on rent control and a $15 living wage.”

TIF stands for the city’s tax increment financing system — a slush fund of diverted property tax revenues that Chicago mayors control and routinely channel to fat-cat developers who are gentrifying neighborhoods at the expense of communities in dire need of funds.

Notice that Ramirez-Rosa said “TIF reform,” and not elimination, which is what Chicago activists have been demanding for years. For her part, as 4th Ward alderman, Preckwinkle worked with Daley to create TIF districts, and she has failed to endorse eliminating TIFs.

Any plan for “bold progressive change” in Chicago must not just reform the TIF status quo, but get rid of it. Tax dollars must be allocated and used in a transparent process with public input, and that can never happen with TIF districts in place. We can’t simply trust that some politicians will be better stewards of the corrupt TIF system.

To his credit, Ramirez-Rosa has been one of the lone voices opposing the city’s plan to allocate $95 million to a new police academy to train the next generation of racist torturers and murderers. But Preckwinkle’s voice has been nowhere to be found in that particular fight.

While endorsing Preckwinkle wouldn’t seem to have much positive impact on Ramirez-Rosa’s re-election in his ward, withholding it could hamstring his political future as a figure within the Democratic Party.

UNLIKE RAMIREZ-ROSA, Preckwinkle hasn’t challenged the current mayoral appointed police review board either. Following the guilty verdict for killer cop Jason Van Dyke, Preckwinkle was asked if she supported an elected civilian police review board, to which she replied, “The police answer to the mayor.”

Trying to assure people that she personally would hold police accountable is no reassurance to the movement for Black Lives in a city that has been demanding an elected board.

If Preckwinkle isn’t willing to have an elected police review board, one must question her commitment to an elected school board as well. Will she be willing to give up these two key mayoral powers? There’s nothing in her record as a public office holder that would indicate that to be the case.

Yet at a recent Socialist Alternative meeting titled “Rally to Put Socialists in City Hall,” Ramirez-Rosa had this to say about his Preckwinkle endorsement:

I can endorse her, but I do not want the people in this room to endorse her. Because if we are going to build progressive power, we need to learn the lessons that those in the countries where they’ve won and seized socialist power have learned; change always comes from below and we will always need movements connected to the grassroots pushing our elected officials.

Why would a politician who claims to be of the movements like Ramirez-Rosa support someone like Preckwinkle who has never been accountable to any movements? And what is the point of endorsing someone you don’t want the people you represent to endorse?

If we simply take their word and gift them our support, neither Preckwinkle nor any other mayoral candidate will deliver on their promises. Change doesn’t come from the politicians making promises. It’s created when movements from below make demands and engage in direct actions to win those demands from whomever happens to be holding office.

If we want radical transformation of an unjust and unequal system we must disrupt the status quo until we win. We must imagine and demand a Chicago that works for the many, not just the politically connected and the rich.

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