A Conversation with the 35th president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners Toni Preckwinkle (S3E07)
Chicago politics is historically a rough game. Listen to a Conversation with Toni Preckwinkle the president of the Cook County board of commissioners. She is a legend and she’s a groundbreaker. She continues to champion issues she has always worked on. She talks about all that during our conversation.
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Toni Preckwinkle: I’m hopeful that we can make a dent in it. And we can also and this is the other thing I’ve been working on, engage the business community, because I think it’s a three legged stool. It’s not just government resources, it’s not just philanthropy, but the business community has to step up and say this is important to us. The economic vitality of our region is impacted by the violence, and we have to, as a business community, try to address it as well.
When I came into office, we had a $487 million gap to close in our budget, and I asked every separately elected official to take a 15% budget cut, and some of them did it kicking and screaming and some of them did it voluntarily. But we got control over the finances. I’ve been blessed to have good financial managers, chief financial officers who work with us.
And I always say once you get control of the finances, then you can do some of the policy things that you like. The fact that we’re losing local newspapers, which have held government accountable for centuries in this country is very troubling for me. And we don’t seem to have a model for how we’re going to replace that loss or make up for that loss in terms of informing people.
And you can’t have a strong democracy without an informed citizenry. It’s important that you vote necessary, but not sufficient. You have to support good people. And if you don’t, if there’s nobody out there who’s running, then you gotta run.
David Martin: Welcome to the Good Government Show. I’m Dave Martin, and I’m about to have a conversation with maybe the most important county official in the nation. There are only a few legends in county government, and one of them is my next guest, Toni Preckwinkle of Cook County, Illinois. And that’s Chicago. So what makes a legend? Well, let’s start with the fact that she’s the first black woman elected president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, and that’s an office she’s held for 13 years.
In fact, she’s the first woman ever elected to that position. So right away, that that makes her a legend. Cook County is the second largest county in the U.S. in terms of population. And she’s, you know, arguably on equal footing with the mayor of Chicago. President Preckwinkle oversees one of the nation’s largest public health and hospitals system and one of the nation’s largest criminal justice systems using the Affordable Care Act.
She was able to create county care, a managed care program for Medicaid eligible residents. The county provides care to more than 500,000 individuals through the health system and the county health plan. Before she became president, she served five terms as Chicago city alderman, where she worked extensively on affordable housing. Also, criminal justice, reducing recidivism, mental health, economic development, and yes, in Chicago for US preservation.
Those are just some of the issues that President Preckwinkle is influenced in her time on Cook County. I could go on. Her bio is quite lengthy, as is her service to Cook County and to the city of Chicago and didn’t mention this. But listen, before she was in government, ten years, she spent as a history teacher. So I’m sure running a classroom was a really good warm up for Chicago politics.
Anyway, I had a great conversation with President Preckwinkle and you’re to hear that coming up right after the break.
The good government show is sponsored by NACO. That’s the National Association of Counties. County Government is actually the oldest form of government in the United States, and it touches more people directly. Roads, highways, hospitals, schools, recycling law enforcement, water and sewers. In most of the country, those services are maintained by the county that’s county government. Naco is a nationwide organization that represents all 3069 counties across the USA.
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Welcome to the Good Government show and a conversation with. And right now we are having a conversation with Tony Preckwinkle. And you are the president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners in Chicago, Illinois. Have I got thought? All right.
Toni Preckwinkle: Cook County.
David Martin: Okay. Cook County. And we are very honored to have you. You’re sort of a legend in and in county government, are you not? Why are you laughing? That’s who you are.
Toni Preckwinkle: I know. I don’t think so. But what?
David Martin: You don’t think so? No. Well, I read about you. You’ve your your a lot of. You’ve done a lot of firsts.
Toni Preckwinkle: Well, I was. It’s true. I was the first woman elected to this job, Not the first to serve, but the first elected. Okay. And, of course, the first African-American woman. So.
David Martin: So that that kind of puts you in a legendary status.
Toni Preckwinkle: Well, you know, anyway.
David Martin: One of the things I read about that you have done is you have created a program that covers people who have outstanding medical bills and you got that covered through COVID funding. Is that fair? Is that correct?
Toni Preckwinkle: That’s right.
David Martin: So tell them tell me how that came together.
Toni Preckwinkle: Sure. So I have a great staff and two of the young people on my staff said that we should be looking at medical debt because it was a real challenge to our residents, our constituents, particularly in communities of color, like the burden of unpaid medical bills, kept people from having good credit, kept people from sometimes seeking medical care for fear that they’d incurred more bills they couldn’t pay, and that we ought to try to do something about this.
And the providers sell the debt on collected debt to collection agencies for pennies on the dollar. Right. And there’s an organization called Rip Medical Debt that’s our partner and is implementing this for us. And our IP medical debt makes agreements with the providers to buy the debt instead of the collection agencies. So they buy it for pennies on the dollar.
They wipe it out and they send you a note that says your medical debt has been eliminated.
David Martin: And how has this changed? How is this affected people? How is it how is it just.
How we just started doing this in January? Okay. So this is the second month in which we’re engaged in this. Okay. So we’ve we’ve got work to do in terms of of analyzing and reviewing impact. But we know that’s been done elsewhere in the country, not by government, but by philanthropic organizations. And the results, of course, it lifts the burden of debt from folks.
It enables them to move forward in their life in a different way.
David Martin: Any estimates as to how much families are going to save or how much this is going to, how much money you’re going to put back in?
Toni Preckwinkle: Because the the providers sell the debt for pennies on the dollar and we buy it for pennies on the dollar. It’s a tremendous multiplier. So we’re spending 12 million and we think that it will be hundreds of millions of dollars that will be wiped out.
David Martin: I you’ve also been rather active in getting better health care for your constituents, for people in Cook County. Tell me how that’s come together.
Toni Preckwinkle: Well, one of the things we’ve always done for 185 years, almost 200 years, is provide health care to anybody who comes to our door, regardless of their race or religion or their ability to pay or their sexual orientation. And we’re continuing that work, of course. We have a new CEO, new two and a half years almost, Yisrael Rocha, who’s been a real proponent of increasing access to care for folks, particularly, again, in communities of color, where there are often disparities in terms of health outcomes.
So we’ve worked very hard to try to make our system not just accessible, but more equitable.
David Martin: Switching topics a little bit, when one hears about Chicago on a national level, you hear about violence, you hear about shootings, you hear about crime. Is this a problem that can be fixed in any way?
Toni Preckwinkle: Well, the first thing I’d say is that Chicago isn’t unique in the violence challenges.
David Martin: Whether or not I live in New York.
Toni Preckwinkle: So the 3035 largest cities in the country all saw spikes in things like carjackings and, you know, personal violence, murders and shootings when the pandemic hit and I think that’s a result of the economic collapse. People lost income and livelihood. Anxiety, depression, mental health challenges, all of that kind of was an awful stew that produced increases in violence.
And we in Chicago are trying to meet the challenge not just with philanthropy, but also with government resources. We put a lot of money into violence prevention, anti recidivism and restorative justice work. We always have, or at least since 2013, after the first couple of years in my book, my job, after we got the finances in order, we started working on some of the policy challenges.
And, you know, I think the investments we’ve made in those community based organizations that do that work. So we have we have a whole network of folks that do this work out in our communities will have an impact as the challenges from the from the pandemic recede. And I’m hopeful that we can make a dent in it. And we can also and that’s the other thing I’ve been working on, engage the business community, because I think it’s a three legged stool.
It’s not just government resources, it’s not just philanthropy, but the business community has to step up and say this is important to us. Economic vitality of our region is impacted by the violence and we have to, as a business community, try to address it as well.
David Martin: Can we get the guns out?
Toni Preckwinkle: I’m a history teacher, you know, and there are some people who believe that because we had a violent revolution in this country. Yes. And other places there were nonviolent revolutions. There is in us this endemic love of our weapons. Yes. Which, after all, resulted in our freedom from Britain long and far, long ago. And far away. Right. But.
But that other places don’t have. And our our willingness to tolerate personal possession of guns. I mean, think we have more guns than we have people in this country.
David Martin: I think that’s what I read recently. Yes.
Toni Preckwinkle: Yeah. I mean, it’s just in my view, it’s just crazy and we have to get a handle on it.
David Martin: Is it possible?
Toni Preckwinkle: I hope so. Okay, so I’m in government. I got to believe that things are possible. Good.
David Martin: All right. Well, and we want. We want hopeful, optimistic, elected officials.
Toni Preckwinkle: You can’t be in government and be a pessimist. You have to believe that the things you’re trying to do are going to make a difference, right?
David Martin: Yeah. I know this is an issue that you’ve been working on. Do you feel like you’ve made any progress in, you know, getting guns off the street?
Toni Preckwinkle: Well, we’ve made I think we’ve made progress in working with and strengthening the community based organizations that do this work because we provided them with more resources to do it. Okay. There have to be national laws, I think, around like assault weapons. Right. Right. And more stringent requirements for people to possess guns in the first place. Right. So there has to be work at the national level.
But we are at the local level, have to do what we can. And in Illinois, we’ve banned assault weapons. We’ll see if that stands up in the courts.
David Martin: Is that where is that in the courts now?
Toni Preckwinkle: What’s being challenged and work its way through the court system in Illinois?
David Martin: Okay. I know that you’re pressed for time, so I’m going to get right to the questionnaire and we’re going to we’re going to learn your insight into government and you’re going to tell us all what is good government to you from where you sit as president. What’s defined good government?
Toni Preckwinkle: Well, the basis of it has to be sound financial management. When I came into office, we had a $487 million gap to close in our budget. And I asked every separately elected official to take a 15% budget cut. And some of them did it kicking and screaming and some of it voluntarily. But we got control over the finances.
I’ve been blessed to have good financial managers, chief financial officers who work with us. And I always say once you get control of the finances, then you can do some of the policy things that you’d like. And we’ve invested, as I said, in our health care system. That’s half our budget. We’ve also invested in in a variety of initiatives like the ones we’ve talked about, guaranteed income and medical debt, but we’ve also invested in affordable housing and all the other kinds of things that government does at our level.
David Martin: You mentioned something that I forgot to ask you about. Tell me how you got the guaranteed income program together and why. What how did it come up? Time to cut it to come together?
Toni Preckwinkle: Well, I should first acknowledge that my brother. Okay, your brother has been beating me up about this for a decade. Why wasn’t I since I was in a position to do something about it, supporting guaranteed income. And then, of course, some of the young.
David Martin: That’s a call. You have to take.
Toni Preckwinkle: Care of your brother and talk to your family. Yes. So there are also young people on the staff who said, you know, this is this is an idea that we ought to explore. So the combination of my family, my family advocacy and the young people on the staff, we came up with a guaranteed income program. And you have to understand, you know, Martin Luther King talked about this in the 1960s, and so did the Black Panthers.
The Black Panthers said everyone should either have a guaranteed income or a guaranteed employment. And this is a country which is rich. And why aren’t we supporting all of our residents and helping them take advantage of the opportunities that are there for them and their children? And one way we can do that is is provide them with a little financial support and help them along the way.
David Martin: How do you hold yourself accountable? How do you check yourself to make sure you’re doing what you say you’re going to do?
Toni Preckwinkle: Well, first of all, I’m a teacher by profession.
David Martin: Okay.
Toni Preckwinkle: And if you’re going to hold young people accountable, you have to hold yourself accountable. Right. Right.
David Martin: So how do you do that?
Toni Preckwinkle: Well, you know, you reflect on what you’re doing and whether that is consistent with your values and where you want to be at the end of your political life.
David Martin: And how do you want the people to hold you accountable?
Toni Preckwinkle: Well, that’s worrisome for me.
David Martin: Why? Because you don’t look like you worry about much.
Toni Preckwinkle: That’s good. You know.
David Martin: Full of all. You feel good?
Toni Preckwinkle: Well, you know, we got we’ve got a real problem this country, because we’re losing the critical resource of a free press. You know, in many of our communities across this country, the local newspapers are either shutting down or they’re going entirely digital. And that was the way in which leaders were held accountable to the people. You know, the reporters would go to the city council meetings or they’d go to the state legislature.
David Martin: They’d you know, that’s how they started watching.
Toni Preckwinkle: Yes. Right. Okay. But when people don’t have that resource and it’s it’s truncated as it is on your phone, you can’t possibly have on your phone all the things that are in the newspaper that you could read. Right.
David Martin: Right. And you. I agree. You might be in the minority, by the way, but I agree.
Toni Preckwinkle: I think it’s the gray hair that leads us to this possibility. But anyway, the fact that we’re losing local newspapers which have held government accountable for centuries in this country is very troubling for me. And we don’t seem to have a model for how we’re going to replace that loss or make up for that loss in terms of informing people.
And you can’t have a strong democracy without an informed citizenry.
David Martin: Right. So if people don’t think they’re getting good government, if they think their leaders aren’t being responsive, what should they do?
Toni Preckwinkle: Run for office or find good people and support them? I mean, I always say, look, it’s important that you vote necessary, but not sufficient. You have to support good people. And if you don’t if there’s nobody out there who’s running, then you to run.
David Martin: That’s hard. You know, I mean, not everybody can make that commitment, right?
Toni Preckwinkle: That’s true. But you can work for people who you think are good candidates and you can give them money so ordinary citizens don’t have to run for office, although clearly, I think.
David Martin: That’s more they.
Toni Preckwinkle: Should step up and do that. But you can you can, in addition to providing people with your vote, support them with your time and your money.
David Martin: As an elected official, what would you like people to know about what it’s like inside government?
Toni Preckwinkle: That it’s hard work and the people who do it often get less pay than they would if they were in the private sector? Of course. And they do it out of.
David Martin: You’re a teacher, so maybe not.
Toni Preckwinkle: And they and they do it because they’re committed to the mission.
David Martin: Who is your political hero?
Toni Preckwinkle: When I was a young teacher, Richard Nixon was being impeached. And so my one of my heroes is Barbara Jordan, because I’m on the Judiciary Committee. I thought she exemplified, you know, thoughtful, courageous leadership.
David Martin: For a minute there, I thought you were gonna say Nixon. No.
Toni Preckwinkle: Barbara Jordan. All right. That’s Jim Jordan.
David Martin: You’re from Chicago. What is your favorite dish? What’s your favorite Chicago cuisine?
Toni Preckwinkle: It’s not Chicago cuisine. And my favorite. My favorite is Pizza Capri. I like Italian food.
David Martin: Pizza Capri is now. Is that. I’m not familiar. Is that that deep dish? Chicago pizza?
Toni Preckwinkle: No, they. They serve thin crust. But. All right. I like. I like Giordano’s thick crust pizza.
David Martin: Growing up, did you always think you were going to be in politics? Was this something that you thought about the presidency in your class?
Toni Preckwinkle: No, I didn’t. I didn’t grow up in Chicago. I grew up in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
David Martin: Okay.
Toni Preckwinkle: And I, I was active in sports and I was active in the World Affairs Club, but not in government.
David Martin: All right. And what made you get into government?
Toni Preckwinkle: My teacher, Richard Harmon, invited me to be in the campaign of Katie McQuay, who was the first African-American woman to run for city council in Saint Paul, Minnesota. And so we got people to put out yard signs and we stuffed envelopes and we called folks. And I loved it, even though, unfortunately, Katie McGuire didn’t win. And actually she passed away just a couple of years ago.
But a community activist all her life and a great woman, I’m proud to have supported her. And when I came to Chicago to go to school, I continued to work in political campaigns.
David Martin: Last question for you. Tell me something great that’s happening in Chicago you’d like everybody to know about.
Toni Preckwinkle: Well, the two things that we’re involved in, which I want people to know about, is the guaranteed income program. We’re spending $42 million, the largest guaranteed income program in the country, to support 3250 families for two years. And this is with our full money American Rescue Plan Act money. When that money is gone, we’re going to use our own resources to continue the program.
And the other is medical debt. The fact that we’re helping people, they don’t have to apply. They have to do anything. What we’re going to do is eliminate their debt and send them a letter.
David Martin: All right. I know you’re pressed for time. Thank you so much for talking with us. A legend from Cook County. Thank you very much. Thanks.
Toni Preckwinkle: Pleasure meeting you. Thank you.
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So that was my conversation with President Tony Preckwinkle. We certainly got to keep our eyes on this new medical bill payment program. It does sound like a future episode for the good government show and we hope she continues to make Chicago safer with less guns. As she said, she’s not a pessimist and hopes to continue to make changes.
And I guess that’s part of what makes Tony Preckwinkle a legend and a practitioner of good government. So thanks for listening. I’m Dave Martin. This was a conversation with. Join us next time for another conversation with someone else giving us their version of how good government works. The good government show and a conversation with is produced by Valley Park Productions.
Jim Ludlow, David Martin and David Snyder are the executive producers. Our editor and producer is Jason Stershic. This is the Good Government show. Thanks for listening.
**This transcription was created using digital tools and has not been edited by a live person. We apologize for any discrepancies or errors.