Toni Preckwinkle is in an excellent mood, especially for someone about to announce that her jurisdiction—the chronically strapped Cook County—would be spending $10 for every $9 it takes in next year.
“Good morning!” the Cook County Board president chirps. When the response from the roomful of reporters fails to meet her standards as a former history teacher, she demands—and receives—something livelier. “Good morning!” they chorus. “Much better,” she says.
Ms. Preckwinkle has reason for cheer. Yes, the county's continuing economic woes and her partial rollback of its much-despised sales tax are reducing revenue, resulting in a projected $267.5 million shortfall in 2013. Still, that would be much less than the $487 million deficit in 2011, her first full year in office. And standing by her side to endorse her “tough choices” budget this late-June day is John Daley, chairman of the county board's finance committee.
A year and a half after taking over the nation's second-largest county (behind Los Angeles), Ms. Preckwinkle, 65, is making progress toward fixing Cook County. Unlike the other new leader in town, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, she largely has done it in a low-profile way. Rather than pick fights, she has adopted a deliberate, lighter and more consensus-oriented style. You might even call her the anti-Rahm.
“I was an alderman for 19 years,” says Ms. Preckwinkle, who represented the South Side's 4th Ward for most of Mayor Richard M. Daley's tenure. “And one of the things I learned was that it was much better, when you were struggling with difficult issues, to bring everybody to the table. You're never going to get everybody on board, but if you work with people, you can get the majority.”
She wins praise from other elected officials and, for now, union leaders. “She's doing a good job of trying to keep the interests of workers and the general public in mind,” says Tom Balanoff, president of Service Employee International Union's Local 1.
Her work isn't close to done, however. Ms. Preckwinkle hasn't yet forged a deal with public employees to reform underfunded pension plans. Spending at Cook County's John H. Stroger Jr. Hospital, which consumes roughly 20 percent of all outlays, keeps rising.
And her team style has its limits. She was slow to take action at the chief medical examiner's office, which was scandalized last winter by photos of double-stacked bodies in the morgue.
At its core, the county remains a patchwork of clashing fiefdoms, as everyone from the clerk to the sheriff seeks to do things his or her way.
Ms. Preckwinkle's take: Time is on her side. She likes her job and intends to keep it. “I'm going to run for re-election,” forgoing a bid for governor or any other spot that's been dangled in front of her, she says. “I like to sleep in my own bed.”
Ms. Preckwinkle's biggest accomplishment—it's the first thing she mentions in an interview—is reducing the county's deficit while delivering on a campaign promise to phase out the 1 percent sales tax hike pushed through by her predecessor, Todd Stroger.
Mr. Stroger isn't impressed. “She's fired some people who had outstanding records to replace them with 28-year-olds who never have done a thing except come from the University of Chicago and read a book,” he says. Ms. Preckwinkle earned a bachelor's degree in social sciences and a master's degree in teaching from the University of Chicago before becoming a high-school teacher.
She shrugs off such talk: “What I said on the campaign trail was that we were going to roll back the sales tax increase because it gives us the highest sales tax in the country, and that was bad for business and bad for our working families.”
Her efforts to get along well with others have paid off. Last spring she persuaded state lawmakers and Gov. Pat Quinn to grant a Medicaid waiver that could net the county $100 million a year.
Almost in the same league, though not quite as successful, is her push to refocus the criminal justice system on locking up violent felons rather than drug abusers and those awaiting trial. Only last week, she released a report recommending ways to speed the processing of suspects who are too poor to post a cash bond. “It's been really helpful to have her focused so much on (reducing) the jail population,” says Sheriff Tom Dart, who at times has had a bumpy relationship with her but likes her direction.
However, a showdown with public-sector unions over pension liabilities seems inevitable. When it comes, labor could turn on Ms. Preckwinkle, as it did when, in a rare Rahmbo-like power play, she fired 1,000 workers in her first weeks in office to try to close the deficit. “She should have examined her budget before she decided she didn't need the (sales tax) revenue,” says Henry Bayer, executive director of AFSCME Local 31.
Another showdown may loom if she decides to get serious about merging redundant county offices that provide patronage jobs and suck up money the county clearly doesn't have. And despite promises to bring higher ethics and more transparency to Cook County, she continues to support a close ally, Assessor Joseph Berrios, who has been lambasted for putting several family members on the county payroll.
Mr. Berrios was essential to getting second-half county property tax bills out on time for the first time in decades, she says.
“She's grown since the City Council, but she's much the same,” says Victor Reyes, Mr. Daley's former chief lobbyist and now majority owner of Reyes & Kurson, a lobbying boutique in Chicago. “She'd rather get some reform than none.”