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Interview: Fourth Ward Alderman Toni Preckwinkle (Part 1)

By Kevin Robinson in News on Jul 7, 2009 4:00PM

2009_6_toni_preckwinkle_2.jpg Toni Preckwinkle has been the Fourth Ward Alderman for nearly 20 years. She ran for the post twice prior to winning, in 1983 and 1987, against incumbent Tim Evans. "I came to Chicago when I was 18 years old to go to the University of Chicago. That was 1965, and I've been here ever since. I usually describe myself as having a dilettante's major - I was a general studies and social sciences major and then I got a Master of Arts in Teaching degree. I'm a high school teacher by profession," she says. She got into Chicago politics after working with Paul Simon on his race for State Treasurer. "I started working on independent politics in the community in Hyde Park and South Kenwood, with the Independent Voters of Illinois. Larry Bloom, who was married to one of my college classmates, decided to run for Alderman of the Fifth Ward. I was precinct coordinator for him. So I kind of worked my way up from precinct worker to precinct captain to precinct operations. He won, unexpectedly. I think he thought he'd have to take a couple of runs at it before he got elected."

"I didn't think the incumbent was devoting his full time and energy to it. He had a law practice, and [being the alderman] was a job that he did on the side. So I pledged that I would be a full time alderman, and I have."

"I still thought (Evans) not a good alderman, and because I wanted to be sort of the heir apparent should anything change, and with Harold Washington's death it did change. In retrospect, in 1987, the fact that Evans was Washington's floor leader made it impossible for any challenger I think to defeat him. I didn't think it would help to give Tim Evans a pass, and although he was highly regarded in some quarters as the mayor's floor leader, I still didn't think he was paying any attention to the ward." Chicagoist met with Preckwinkle at her ward office in late May to discuss her time as alderman, the future of the Fourth Ward, and her run for county board president.

Chicagoist: Is being alderman different than you expected it would be?

Toni Preckwinkle: Harder work. It's one of those jobs in which you're expected to be on duty all the time. My joke is, you know, you step out of your house and it doesn't matter if you're walking your dog or you're taking your grandchildren someplace, people feel they can stop and talk to you and, which is a good thing, it's good for elected officials in a democracy to be accessible. My favorite story, my daughter, who's now 19, was a toddler, and I was in the grocery store, and it was like six or seven o'clock, and so we're running around trying to get things for dinner, and this woman stopped me and wanted to talk about some pothole or something in front of her house. And my daughter escaped from me and was running around giggling and screaming in the store. And I just told the woman, I said "I'm sorry, I have to catch my daughter, I have to get home and make dinner. You should call my office tomorrow and I'll be glad to try to help you with this." She got mad at me, like I wasn't being properly attentive to her as a constituent. And I thought, ugh, this is the downside to the job. (Laughs) On the other hand, I mean, the way politics work in the city of Chicago, it's a tremendous opportunity. If you're willing to work hard and know what you want, you can accomplish a great deal because aldermen have so much discretion - discretion over not just development but parks and recreation and the schools and how closely you work with the police. So you have a lot of opportunities to improve and assist the communities you serve.

C: What do you feel you've accomplished as alderman?

Preckwinkle: There's been a lot of physical redevelopment in the ward. When I was first elected there were 3,000 city-owned vacant lots in the ward. And now there's less than 10 percent of that. We've done a lot of in-fill housing. There are three big CHA Transformation projects in my ward - one is done, that's Jazz on the Boulevard, one is half-done, that's Lakefront Homes, and one is under way, although we've got 3,000 units we're supposed to construct, and we've constructed about 600 in the first two phases. I think I've worked hard to try to improve the quality of our public schools, to bring good leadership to our schools, to work with the police and the University of Chicago around public safety issues.

C: What are the things you feel you haven't been able to accomplish as Alderman? When you look back on your tenure, things you think "I wish I had done more, I wish I had known"?

Preckwinkle: I focused relatively late on commercial redevelopment. But frankly there wasn't much you could do early on, because there was the perception that there were so few rooftops that it didn't make sense to bring businesses in. I'm pleased with the opening of a shopping center in 1999 at 47th and Lake Park. But shortly thereafter our tenant, the Hyde Park Co-Op, went out of business. So the big anchor store there has been vacant since 2003 or 2004.

C: Would you have done anything differently, then?

Preckwinkle: About the shopping center?

C: Sure.

Preckwinkle: No. We tried to get Jewel and Dominick's and they weren't interested. Subsequently I think they would be interested, but they weren't at the time. And now, of course, we're in the middle of an economic downturn, so it's hard to get anybody.

C: You talked about affordable housing, bringing commercial development into the ward. You've been a voice for housing, planning and better oversight in the city. Specifically with the city's Olympic bid, what would you like to see come out of any Games the city might host.

Preckwinkle: Well, working with Communities for an Equitable Olympics, and the Urban League and SOUL, which is an organization of South side churches, we pushed for a community benefits agreement, and what came out of that was a Memorandum of Understanding which has now been blessed by the City Council in its meeting in April. And it calls for MBE (Minority Business Enterprise) participation at a 30 percent level, WB participation, and this is not just construction but all across the board at 10 percent. So the city's numbers for MBEs are 24 percent, and for WB are five percent. So this is higher than the city's numbers. So we've got a private entity pledged to do better than the city requires. And then 30 percent of the housing that results from the reuse of the Olympic Village will be affordable. 10 percent of the hours worked on the construction site will be for apprentices, and that's normally the way in which people of color and women get into the building trades. So there's a lot of opportunities there, both for business and for individuals in terms of employment, and improving the supply of affordable housing, through the affordable living requirements and the reuse of the Olympic village. I think the MOU really laid out a good framework for huge developments in the city. I hope we'll continue the benefits for the residents of Chicago for a long time. Hopefully in conjunction with the Olympics, should we get them, there will be improvements in transportation, public transit. If we're going to get people back and forth from the Olympic sites it would be great to have some transit improvements we've talked about.

C: Are you comfortable with the City's bid and the agreements that you've negotiated as they are, or are there other improvements you'd like to see?

Preckwinkle: I'm just hopeful we win in Copenhagen in 2009.

C: Given the city's history of fraud associated with minority hiring and fraud associated with infrastructure contracting are you comfortable that the guidelines laid out in the MOU will be met, and that they'll be done honestly and fairly?

Preckwinkle: I think there will be tremendous scrutiny, and I think that that is always helpful in getting people to adhere to the rules.

C: The city's Olympic bid centers so much on this ward and you've been a voice for the people in the community, and what's going to happen in the ward. What happens to the ward residents that you've spoken on behalf of should you win County Board President? Will there continue to be a voice for oversight?

Preckwinkle: I think whoever is alderman of the Fourth Ward Has to be a voice for oversight. I'm alderman until 2011, and winning in November of 2010 means you take office in December of 2010, so there's still a year and a half that I will be alderman. I mean best case scenario. A little longer in the worst case scenario, in which case I'll have to stand for re-election.

C: But if you win County Board President, are you confident that your successor will be as watchful in holding the city accountable to those agreements?

Preckwinkle: I will do everything that I can to make sure that's true. In addition to which there are two state legislators who worked very hard on this. Will Burns, who's the state rep, he's been very involved in the community benefits agreement. And Senator [Kwame] Raoul who's our state senator. We have people at multiple levels of government who have a vested interest in making sure that the agreements are kept.

C: Speaking of other players, what happened to the independent caucus?

Preckwinkle: It still meets occasionally. We spent a lot of time working on the budget in December. We've only met once or twice since, although there are a bunch of things coming up at the next Finance Committee meeting, so we may try to meet before that, about things related to transparency and accountability.

C: How do you feel about your success, or lack thereof with the independent caucus as a voice for progressive change on the city council?

Preckwinkle: The best thing that happened to support reform measures in the city council was the parking meter deal. The ordinary citizen reaction to that has been outrage. I've gotten, and I'm sure it's true of my colleagues too, I get calls all the time about the parking meters. And you know, I share with people that I didn't support it, which seems to dampen down their enthusiasm for putting me in the stocks in the public square. But I think for my colleagues who did support it it's been a real embarrassment, and the push to support measures that, for example, I think there was a unanimous vote on Tom Allen's ordinance that said we should have at least 15 days before we pass these big asset sales. Actually I think it needed to be longer than that, but 15 days is what we've got, we'll see if we can use that as a wedge in the door to make it longer. There are TIF ordinances that Alderman Flores and Alderman Waguespack introduced about TIF transparency. So I think a lot of things have kind of bubbled up since the parking meter brouhaha, so I think that's been helpful.

C: Do you think that's been the result of the independent caucus, or...?

Preckwinkle: No, actually I think the independent caucus worked hard along with the labor unions and the city in the fall to try to figure out how we could save money in as many ways as possible without taking people's jobs. And ended up working with the labor unions and the city to reduce the planned layoffs by about 50 percent. Which I thought was a real accomplishment, because the progressive caucus made it clear that it was a priority to try to not to put people out of work in the middle of one of the worst recessions in the last 50 years. So I thought that was a real victory for us, along with the labor unions. And now there will probably be more discussions about layoffs and hopefully we can bring the caucus together again to see what impact it can have.

Tomorrow, part two, where we discuss her candidacy for county board president.