CHICAGO — Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle always believed Kim Foxx would win the state’s attorney primary election.
But she never expected her former chief of staff would absolutely crush two-term incumbent Anita Alvarez at the polls.
“I was expecting Kim to win. I didn’t expect her to win 2-to-1,” Preckwinkle said when we chatted on the phone Wednesday.
Foxx’s landslide victory solidified Preckwinkle as one of the most powerful woman in Chicago history and a political boss who lived up to her rank atop Chicago magazine’s most powerful Chicagoans … whether she likes it or not.
“When I read that in the magazine, I couldn’t stop laughing. And when I did stop laughing, I thought if this were really true, my life would be a lot easier than it is,” she said with a chuckle.
Well, Foxx’s big win will certainly help make some parts of her job easier.
So will the countywide mandate to tackle a top priority on Preckwinkle’s to-do list: The monumental task of trying to reform the criminal justice system in Cook County.
When I asked the County Board president about the message Alvarez’s overwhelming defeat sent to public officials she said, “What impresses me is that people — not just in Chicago but across Cook County — were prepared to support a candidate who pledged to try to reform our criminal justice system, and I think that is very significant.”
Then, Preckwinkle’s dogs started barking. She excused herself to answer the door, and quickly returned.
“I apologize. … One of my neighbors wanted to complain about the fact we’re planning to chop down some of the weed trees in the back,” she said.
When you’re a big city ward boss, complaints never stop coming.
In a lot of ways Preckwinkle is just as unrelenting. She's a nose-to-the-grindstone politician who unceremoniously served as 4th Ward alderman for 19 years and put criminal justice reform high on her agenda.
“What will be different when Kim is elected and takes office in December is that the state’s attorney will have a similar commitment to criminal justice reform, which hasn’t been the case in previous years,” she said.
And to make real change, Preckwinkle said she and Foxx must work with Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
“It has to be a joint effort. Chicago is half the population of the county, but 80 percent of the people in the jail are Chicagoans,” Preckwinkle said. “So, policing strategies in Chicago have a big impact on our criminal justice system.”
That’s not the first time Preckwinkle has criticized Chicago Police Department tactics or pointed out the high percentage of Chicagoans locked up at 26th and California.
But one thing changed Tuesday night — Preckwinkle’s perspectives on Chicago police crime-fighting strategies actually matter now.
She offered one thing that needs to change in Chicago.
“Ending the school-to-prison pipeline. Schools need to try to handle their own discipline problems without counting on the criminal justice system,” Preckwinkle said.
“Kids [in Chicago Public Schools] are getting charged with battery for schoolyard fights. It’s ridiculous,” she said.
She’s talking about black and Latino kids who get thrown in the pipeline to Cook County Jail, where 86 percent of inmates are minorities in a county that is about 50 percent white.
At the heart of Preckwinkle’s criminal justice system reform agenda is what she calls the disproportionate way local law enforcement, and Chicago police specifically, police “black and brown communities.”
With Alvarez out of the way, Preckwinkle thinks Foxx — who worked closely with Emanuel’s top advisers when she was her chief of staff — can work with Emanuel to make real changes.
“Kim has experience working with the mayor’s people,” she said.
As for her own relationship with Emanuel, Preckwinkle realizes the reason people say she’s elevated in the power rankings, so to speak, is due to “a lot of bumps in the road for the mayor in the last year.”
To be clear, there’s only one bump in the road that counts for Emanuel.
That, of course, is the 13-month period his city Law Department fought in court— and paid a $5 million civil settlement before a lawsuit was filed — to keep video of the Laquan McDonald shooting secret.
The delay just happened to prevent Chicagoans from seeing the brutal dashcam video that showed Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke shoot Laquan with all 16 bullets in his gun before the mayoral elections that earned Emanuel a second term.
Alvarez didn’t have the mayor’s luck.
She suffered on Election Day by being the first elected official to ask voters for support since those same 13 months — about how long it took before Alvarez’s office filed first-degree murder charges against Van Dyke — culminated with angry protests when a judge finally ordered City Hall to make the video public. That's probably the biggest reason the state’s attorney got fired by Cook County voters on Tuesday.
Emanuel told reporters he didn't need election results to know Chicagoans expect reforms.
“I think the voters were clear they want to see a change, not just in that part in the sense of the prosecutor, but also at our Police Department, in our community relations and how we work together," he said.
The mayor has said he plans to push for nothing short of “total reform” in the Police Department.
Emanuel supporters say the mayor has plenty of time — until the 2019 election — to prove to Chicagoans that he doesn’t deserve the same treatment on Election Day.
The way things stand now though, as one Cook County Democratic Party insider put it, “You pick a name out of the phone book right now and beat him.”
Preckwinkle, though, said she and Foxx would work with the mayor on reforms.
The County Board president told me she will not challenge Emanuel if he seeks a third term, insisting that if she does continue in public life after this term "It will be to run for re-election.”
But you never can tell if in a few years the powerful Preckwinkle might know somebody who will.
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