Under her leadership, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has reined in the once "fractured and rebellious" board of commissioners and has improved county government "considerably," say political scientists at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC).
"Preckwinkle took over a board that in the previous four years under former President Todd Stroger had a level of conflict approaching that of the 'Council Wars' period of the Chicago City Council," reads a new report from UIC's political science department, making reference to the infamous political conflict between former Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, the city's first black mayor, and an oppositional bloc of white aldermen.
"By the time Preckwinkle assumed office, Cook County ... had the highest sales tax and the largest county jail population in the nation, a bloated payroll, a serious pension dilemma and a high level of corruption," the report adds. "While there is still much to do, county government is considerably improved after her first three and a half years in office. The board of commissioners has consistently supported her initiatives and she has passed all three of her budgets with never more than a single dissenting vote."
During her first three years and four months in office, the 17-member Cook County Board aligned with Preckwinkle, a Democrat, 73 percent of the time when roll call votes were divided, according to the report. The board voted with former Board President Todd Stroger 68 percent of the time, the report showed.
Researchers cited Preckwinkle's leadership style, which is "considerably more assertive" than Stroger's and "much less antagonistic" than Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's, as a key reason she has been able to gain control of the previously "fractured" legislative body.
Preckwinkle, a former high school history teacher and Chicago alderman, also "sits comfortably in the catbird seat" politically, explained one of the study's authors, UIC political science professor and former Chicago Ald. Dick Simpson.
"She avoided any opposition in last March's Democratic primary and neither the Republicans nor a third party have yet selected candidates to challenge her in November's General Election," he said.
While Preckwinkle, who was elected as board president in November 2010, says she's running for re-election, she has not officially closed the book on a possible bid for Chicago mayor in 2015. Preckwinkle is seen as "the most formidable possible opponent" to Emanuel, the team of four UIC researchers noted in the report.
During Preckwinkle's time as board president, she "has not lost a single significant vote," Simpson said. He pointed out that Preckwinkle also "persuaded the board to roll back the second half of Board President Todd Stroger's 1 percent sales tax increase," one of the most contentious issues under the Stroger administration.
In all, there were 42 divided roll call votes under Preckwinkle's more than three years as board president. And each year, Preckwinkle has faced increasingly "fewer challenges to her agenda," according to the study. By comparison, there were 35 split decisions in just one year when Stroger was in charge. The son of long-time Board President John Stroger served one term, between 2006 and 2010.
Under the younger Stroger's leadership, the board was often "split in two" on divided decisions, the study noted. For the most part, Preckwinkle has had only one or a few commissioners voting against her position on divided roll call votes, according to the report.
Preckwinkle's floor leader Commissioner Jesus Garcia (7th) represents the president's position on the board. As such, Garcia has sided with Preckwinkle 100 percent of the time. Preckwinkle's second top supporter is Commissioner Edwin Reyes (8th), who has backed the board president's position 90 percent of the time, followed by Commissioners Robert Steele (2nd) at 86 percent, John Fritchey (12th) at 83 percent, Bridget Gainer (10th) at 83 percent and John Daley (11) at 81 percent. Daley is the brother of former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. All six commissioners who supported Preckwinkle at least 80 percent of the time are Democrats.
Notably, Preckwinkle's least supportive commissioners are also Democrats. Those board members include Commissioners William Beavers (4th), Earlean Collins (1st), and Joan Patricia Murphy (6th), who voted with Preckwinkle 41 percent, 42 percent and 54 percent of the time, respectively. All three commissioners were strong Stroger allies, the report noted.
"In the instances in which she lacks support, it is most often due to long-standing political feuds rather than concerns over a substantive policy issue," the report states.
Beavers lost his job as commissioner last year after he was convicted of taking money from his campaign fund for personal use, including gambling, and failing to pay taxes on the money. Stanley Moore, who was chosen last year to fill the 4th district vacancy, won and retained Beavers' former seat during the March primary election.
Since Moore took over the seat, he "has consistently voted with President Preckwinkle in contrast to Beavers’ constant opposition," the report noted.
Collins is retiring at the end of the year and will be replaced by Democratic nominee Richard Boykin, who is expected to back Preckwinkle more often than Collins did, according to the UIC experts.
Commissioners Peter Silvestri (9), a Republican, and Larry Suffredin (13), a Democrat, both voted with Preckwinkle 73 percent of the time. The remaining three Republican board members, including Gregg Goslin (14), Timothy Schneider (15) and Elizabeth Doody Gorman (17), were supportive of Preckwinkle's position more than 60 percent of the time.
"Each year of the Preckwinkle era has seen fewer divided roll call votes and more unanimity," the researchers wrote. "The 2014 elections are likely to increase this trend."