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Interview: Fourth Ward Alderman Toni Preckwinkle (Part 2)

By Kevin Robinson in News on Jul 8, 2009 4:00PM

2009_6_toni_preckwinkle_1a.jpg Be sure to check Part 1 of the interview here if you haven't.

If Preckwinkle's time in the council has been marked by her reputation as a critic of the mayor, her campaign for County Board President has overtones of reconciliation and cooperation. "I think the county has to take a leadership role in working with the other counties in the region. We have a lot of common interest. The county has an interest in trying to get people to be accountable for sending their residents to Stroger Hospital. The estimate I've heard is seven or eight percent of people who are served by the county hospital that are not residents. If [healthcare funding is] at 37 percent, more than a third of the $3 billion budget, that could be a lot of money. But things like getting people together just on principal in the region, but also to work on things like the high-speed rail network that's proposed, I think which would be good for the region."

Preckwinkle hasn't given up the reform mantle, though, either. She says she'd like to see better financial accountability in the county's delivery of public health care, delivering better, more efficient services to working poor and indigent clients, and a fairer criminal justice system, reducing the overcrowding in the county jail while tracking non-violent offenders into addiction counseling and job training. "For non-violent offenders it seems to me to make no sense to keep them in jail. Let's put them at home on electronic monitors. They can have their own roof over their heads and feed themselves."

Chicagoist: When did you first realize that you wanted to be Cook County Board President?

Toni Preckwinkle: I started thinking about it last summer. I talked to some people at the Democratic Convention, and then over the fall, around Christmastime I decided to do it, over the holidays.

C: Was there a particular event or set of events that spurred you to come to this decision? Why county board president? Why not senate, or say governor?

TP: Well, how much... I mean...?

C: That might be shooting a little high.

TP: It's a leadership challenge, and it's closer to home. I've never had any desire to be in Springfield or Washington. I've never been interested in running for congress, for example. Looking for challenges closer to home, the county board was one that jumped out at me. I've been a strong supporter of Todd Stroger, and I've been really disappointed.

C: How so?

TP: What I usually say is that I know Todd personally, he was a colleague in the city council, he's a really decent person, but I think this is not the job for him. Given that the county's main responsibility is healthcare for the indigent and the working poor, and the criminal justice system, those are things that heavily impact the communities that I've always served, which I think we desperately need to have running better than they are. So it was an opportunity to work on some tough issues that needed, I think, strong and fair leadership.

C: Can you give us an overview of your campaign, what issues you'd like to raise?

TP: [Healthcare] is where most of the county money goes, in addition to the forest preserve [and criminal justice]. Those are the big three things. I've had a number of conversations with Sister Sheila, who's on the independent board of the health care system, and I asked her what the new president should do, and she said basically stay out of our way. So one of the first things I would support is extending, making permanent the independent governing board. They have a three year lifespan. It's been about a year and a half now, so it's about midway through that. I think it would be a very good thing. But I also think you need to have not just a public health care system that works, you have to have a health care system that works. So I would try to use the county position to bring together the folks who are operating the safety net hospitals, we've got a lot of those, that serve predominantly Medicare and Medicaid clients. As those close, the burden on the public health care system rises, needless to say. So I think the county has to be the facilitator, the vehicle, the convener for all the safety net hospitals in the county. Talk about how we can work with them to support them and increase both the quality of care they can deliver and the resources that they have to do it. So work with them on lobbying at both the state and the federal level, to be sure that they continue to operate. And, likewise, bringing together the Federally Qualified Health Clinics and the public clinics to be sure that we don't have gaps in services in the county. So like I said, the convener, the facilitator, lobbyist on behalf of not just the public health system but for the safety net hospitals and the FQHC's. So everyone is providing care to large numbers of Medicare and Medicaid patients, as well as the indigent. It has to be a part of a group that insures their mutual survival and provide good quality of care. That's my health care side.

My criminal justice side is chief judge, the sheriff the public defender the state's attorney to work together to reduce the jail population, and to move people into programs that keep them out of jail until their trial and sentencing. And after their sentencing put them into alternative programs like electronic monitoring. For non-violent offenders it seems to me to make no sense to keep them in jail. Let's put them at home on electronic monitors, they can have their own roof over their heads and feed themselves. Because depending on who you talk to the jail costs are $20 to $40 thousand dollars a year. The Civic Federation says it costs $20 thousand dollars to keep somebody in jail, the people who work at the jail say it's more like $40. In any case it's a lot of money, and we're in trouble with the federal government for overcrowding at the jail. So we've got to bring the jail population down. The way to do it as at both ends. Diversion on the front end and alternative sentencing, such as electronic monitoring on the back end. And diversion programs, the day reporting program that I've heard a lot about that Sheriff Dart has, it involves 200 men, and they first get substance abuse treatment and then employment training and education. Because everyone that comes to the jail is dirty; it may not be a drug offense that brought them there, but they can't pass a drug test. So the first thing you do is help people with their addictions, and then you work with them on education and training. Because if they aren't clean and sober they're not over the long run going to have much luck making themselves into more productive citizens. So if you can offer those diversion and alternate sentencing programs to people, keep more people out of jail, bring the jail population down from eight or nine thousand people a day to about six thousand, we'll get out of trouble with the federal government, save a lot of money on detaining people, and I think that we'll have a real impact on the criminal justice system, especially if we can help people see more productive opportunities, rather than just putting them in jail.

C: It seems that a lot of the anger that's directed at the county right now stems from waste, mismanagement, corruption and taxation. What would you do to address those issues, if anything?

TP: Sister Sheila said that this new guy their bringing in to run the health care system, he's coming from California, his first job is to provide regular financial reporting, which hasn't existed previously. I don't how you can run a system effectively if you don't know how much money you're really taking in or how much money is... I mean, you know what the appropriation is, but how is it being spent? 36.9 percent of the county budget is health care, but there's no regular reporting by the health care system about what their doing with the money. And it makes it hard to do effective strategic planning for your institution if you don't where the money comes from or goes. And one of the problems is that the county wasn't billing people properly, not just that they didn't bill private insurers, but their software didn't match with the federal software for Medicaid and Medicare, so they weren't properly billing for that either. I don't think it's unreasonable to ask people to make some sort of monetary contribution, even if they're not insured, for their health care. This doesn't mean that you charge them the full cost, but you know. If you go to a minute clinic, you can get health care there for a relatively modest amount of case, and I think that should be true for our health care system, too. And the other thing we have to figure out is, seven or eight percent of the people that come to Stroger Hospital are not county residents. Now I've been told that in Lake County, for example, and in other counties, too, where there's no public hospital, the clinics there will give people directions to get to Stroger Hospital. Now Lake County is not a poorer county than Cook. It seems to me that if other counties are going to send patients to Cook, we ought to have a charge-back for patients. We'll treat your folks, but you've got to pay for their care. Working out the finances isn't just a matter of budgeting and financial reports, it's making sure that your billing system is working at high-efficiency, and you've got some agreements with the surrounding counties for provision of care for their residents, if they don't have public institutions to serve them.

At the county level, I talk about the nitty-gritty, but just as I talked about the county as the catalyst and the convener to bring together health care providers, I think the county has to take a leadership role in working with the other counties in the region. We have a lot of common interest. The county has an interest in trying to get people to be accountable for sending their residents to Stroger Hospital. The estimate I've heard is seven or eight percent, of people who are served by the county hospital that are not residents. If [healthcare funding is] at 37 percent, more than a third of the $3 billion budget, that could be a lot of money. But things like getting people together, just on principal, in the region, but also to work on things like the high-speed rail network that's proposed, I think which would be good for the region. And not just as a big infrastructure project that would provide lots of jobs, but in terms of economic development and growth over the long-term, connecting Chicago by high-speed rail to Detroit, Indianapolis, St. Louis and Kansas City, maybe Madison and the Twin Cities, I think is a great idea. Senator Durbin has been a champion of it, and I think we need some local folks to step up and talk about it and work on it, too. I've also had a number of conversations with the Chamber of Commerce about how the county can be a force for economic growth and envelopment, and not just a drag with high property taxes and sales taxes. Looking at how you can work with the business community, training that really compliments business needs. Those are the kinds of things I think you need to do in addition to the sort of ground level work to make sure the county operates smoothly.

C: Realistically, what can the county do to be an economic catalyst?

TP: The county has money for employment training. There's the President's Office for Employment Training, POET. There's some question as to whether those funds are being used in a way that really makes sense in terms of long term job trends in the county. In my conversations with [Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce President and CEO] Jerry Roper, he's talked a lot about logistics, and the need for people, not just air travel, passenger travel, but trucking, rail, freight. Chicago is, of course a big transportation network, and how can be support the job growth that's going to be inevitable there. So there are ways to tailor your employment training to needs both long term job trends and immediate needs in sectors of the economy. And like I said, support things like the high-speed rail system which will have a positive economic impact not just on our county, but on a region. So there are things you can do, I think, that will make the county an actor in economic development in ways that it isn't now. And as I understand it the county doesn't work closely with organizations like CMAP, with is the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. That's an agency that the county needs to be working very closely with, because they're the folks with the data, and I think you need both to assist them in disseminating that data and providing technical assistance and support to entities within the county on the basis of that data. I think a close working relationship with them is important.

C: Earlier you talked about how aldermen have a lot of say in what goes in their ward, and there's a lot of discretion and power that aldermen have. I believe constitutionally Illinois is a weak executive state. It seems that the county board president is equally weak, in procedure and how legislation is created. Talking about these reforms and accountability in criminal justice and health care, realistically how much authority are you going to have to institute these reforms from the position of Cook County Board President?

TP: Well, I mean, if you're an alderman in the City of Chicago, it doesn't mean that you have absolute power in your ward. It just means that you have a lot of discretion. For most of us, we make decisions by talking to as many different constituencies as possible and we have to work with wide varieties of individuals and groups and business organizations. And what we learned is how to work with varying constituencies and interests and I think that's something you need to bring to the county board as well. It's a body, unfortunately, which has been characterized for a number of years by a lot of contention and personalization of substantive issues. Hopefully one of the things we can do is ratchet down the ill-will and bad feeling and get people to work together. That would be the goal, and it's one that I describe as being a diplomat as much as anything else.

C: Talking about ill-will and personalization and the division across the county, you've long been a critic of the Chicago mayor.

TP: I don't think that's fair to say. 95 percent of the time we agree, things are routine and non-controversial. On the five percent of the things are not routine or non-controversial, I'm often on the side that gets rolled over. (Laughs) It's a crazy idea to say that because you occasionally disagree with the mayor you're a critic. This is a democracy in which people have different interests and ideas, and ideologies, and so not everyone is always going to agree, that's crazy to think that they would.

C: Some would argue that that viewpoint puts you at odds with the mayor.

TP: I'll stand by my statement.

C: How, as cook county board president, would you reconcile your reputation as an independent and a critic of the mayor of Chicago, especially with having to have relationships with suburban mayors and putting those groups together?

TP: I think there's already a mayor's organization that the mayor of Chicago is involved in. Earlier this year I went to an event for South suburban mayors, I think it's the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association. They bring people together to share thoughts and opportunities, but best practices. I just think they're very useful and helpful. So the extent that it's possible, it's important for the county board president to be a part of those organizations and to be present, both to provide personal accountability of what the county is doing, and to maintain contacts and personal relationships.

C: How would you address secession in the Northwest?

TP: I think people are unsatisfied with what they see as bad government. So being there personally as much as possible, going to town hall meetings and other events and activities, and providing an example of responsible leadership will damp that down.

C: A recent poll by SEIU shows you splitting the black vote with Todd Stroger, and puts you in third place in a race with Todd Stroger and Forrest Claypool. Does that concern you?

TP: Well, I think it's pretty early to have polling matter very much. I'm not sure what Todd's going to do in the final analysis. I'm not sure what Forrest Claypool is going to do. We'll see.

Ed's Note: Since the interview, Claypool has dropped out of the Cook Co. Board President's race. - M.G.

C: Do you have a plan going forward in the event that you have the South side, the West side, the South suburbs split between you and Todd Stroger?

TP: I only have control of myself and my own actions, so I'm going to run hard across the county. And I've been working hard to raise money, to talk to as many people as I can, both my colleagues, and fellow democratic committeemen.