Toni Preckwinkle: 2022 candidate for Cook County Board President
Occupation: Cook County Board President
Previous offices held: Cook County Democratic Party Chair, Chicago 4th Ward Committeeperson, Chicago's 4th Ward Alderman (1991-2010)
Q. Why are you running for this office, whether for reelection or election for the first time? Is there a particular issue that motivates you? If so, what?
A. I am proud to have held this office since 2010 and have worked to transform County government through fiscal responsibility, transparency, and improved services. This campaign is particularly important to me because it is an opportunity to share with residents the once-in-a-lifetime investments Cook County will make using the $1 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funding over the next five years. I am proud of the work of my administration during the last term, as we guided the County's 5.2 million residents through the pandemic response and recovery and look forward to engaging residents and voters this campaign cycle.
Q. If you are an incumbent, describe your main contributions. Tell us of any important initiatives you've led. If you are a challenger, what would you bring to the job and what would your priority be?
A. My administration oversees one of the nation's largest public health and hospital systems. During my administration, Cook County used the Affordable Care Act to create CountyCare, a managed care program for Medicaid-eligible residents. Cook County provides quality care to more than 500,000 individuals through the health plan.
I am committed to re-imagining our criminal justice system and taking an approach that also addresses mental health issues, substance abuse and addiction as illnesses to be treated, not crimes to be punished.
My administration created the Bureau of Economic Development in 2011 to lead and promote equitable economic growth and community development throughout Cook County.
Over the next five years, I look forward to Cook County's ongoing plans to invest $1 billion in American Rescue Plan Act funding.
Q. Cook County was alone in the six-county Chicago area to require proof of vaccination against COVID-19 to enter restaurants, bars and other establishments earlier this year. Did you agree with that decision, and would you support reimposing that requirement should the region face another surge in infections?
A. Since the beginning of the pandemic, my administration has followed the advice and expertise of health experts with the Cook County Department of Public Health, as well as the City of Chicago, State of Illinois and national health protection organizations like the Centers for Disease Control. Earlier this year when cases were surging due to the Omicron variant, we made the difficult but informed decision to require proof of vaccination to enter some establishments and businesses. This was the best way for people to continue living their normal lives as best as possible, while also balancing public health and safety, particularly for working people in these establishments. Our decision allowed many businesses to remain open.
Since COVID-19 vaccines became available in December 2020, our priority has been to get as many people vaccinated as possible. I'm proud of the work we've done in getting vaccines to people and will continue to make booster shots available as needed.
Q. Did the county do enough to support businesses negatively impacted by the pandemic. If yes, please name one specific program you supported that did that. If no, please name one specific action the county could have taken to help.
A. Yes, I'm extremely proud of how Cook County supported businesses and workers during the pandemic. In Spring 2020, the Bureau of Economic Development launched the Community Recovery Initiative, a suite of programs to provide financial relief to residents and small businesses. We maximized the impact of these programs by directing resources to businesses and communities with the greatest need. We launched a small business loan fund, providing $1.4 million to gig workers and $7.6 million to small businesses. We also launched a $4 million job training and placement program to provide resources to individuals seeking new jobs during this period of high unemployment. When Cook County received CARES Act funding, we allocated an additional $16.9 million in small business grants. Through this program, 1,690 suburban small businesses received $10,000 grants for payroll, operating expenses, lease or rent payments, modifications to comply with reopening guidelines and other expenses.
Q. There's been a concerted effort within the county's criminal justice system to incarcerate fewer pretrial defendants in the county jail. Some, particularly in the suburbs, blame this for a rise in crime. Do you support these policies? If not, what would you suggest instead?
A. My priority has always been to create a fair and equitable criminal justice system that increases access to justice for all. I support incarcerating fewer pretrial defendants in the Cook County Jail, as research shows that defendants who pose no danger to the public can safely be released from custody pending trial.
An independent study by Loyola University found that Cook County's 2017 bail reform order kept hundreds out of jail and did not contribute to an increase in crime. Additionally, this policy saved residents from having to post more than $31 million in bail in just one six-month period.
Both nationally and locally, we are seeing increases in crime, but it is misguided to blame pretrial release policies when the data and research do not support it. I empathize with the need to balance public safety and individuals' rights and remain committed to working with the Cook County criminal justice stakeholders to create a fair, equitable system.
Q. In July 2020, the county board passed a resolution that called for, in part, the county to "redirect funds from policing and incarceration to public services not administered by law enforcement." Did or do you support this measure and the philosophy behind it? Why or why not?
A. I supported the Justice for Black Lives resolution, which proposed several ways for the County to commit to increasing funding for programs and policies to support residents and address the root causes of violence. The resolution is not, and was never about, defunding law enforcement, cutting services or laying people off. It was about better envisioning how the County can provide more alternative responses to law-enforcement to address crime and violence including allocating its funding to support residents in meeting their basic needs in housing, health and wellness and economic opportunity. Research shows that investments like these provide better outcomes for individuals and their families and in turn, reduce rates of violent crime. I'd also add that the resolution was supported overwhelmingly by the Board of Commissioners in a 15-1 bipartisan vote.
Q. How would you manage the overall county budget, particularly as it relates to controlling the expenses of county offices that report to the county board but control their own budgets?
A. I've presented a balanced budget for every year of my tenure, even during COVID-19. My administration has solved for more than $2.87 billion in budget deficits and provided supplemental pension payments of almost $2 billion above the required contribution
My office works closely with the 10 separately-elected offices to coordinate with their independent budgets. My finance team works throughout the year to understand their operations, identify areas of efficiencies and ensure that their budgets reflect any operational savings of those efficiencies when implemented. During the budget process, the Board holds a series of hearings with the separately-elected offices to ensure there is communication and transparency related to budgeting decisions. I have a proven track record of working with the separately-elected offices to ensure they have the necessary resources to continue providing quality and governmental services, all while being good fiscal stewards of taxpayer dollars.
Q. Some elected officials have proposed a "gas-tax holiday" to ease the burden of rising gasoline prices on county residents. Would you support such a proposal for Cook County? Why or why not?
A. I understand the burden that rising gasoline prices is placing on county residents and am open to exploring proposals for Cook County.
However, I believe we can also mitigate the rising gasoline prices by improving public transportation. In January 2021, Cook County launched the Fair Transit South Cook pilot program to reduce Metra fares and increase ridership. The Department of Transportation and Highways will continue working with other transit agencies to improve transit and create more solutions.
Q. What other issues, if any, are important to you as a candidate for this office?
A. There are a few programs in particular I look forward to implementing with ARPA funding. First, we plan to invest $42 million to create the nation's largest guaranteed income program. This program will build on the success of our $11 million direct cash assistance program and provide monthly payments to qualifying suburban Cook County residents. Second, we also plan to launch a new program to abolish medical debt using ARPA funds. This program is the first of its kind and will partner with a qualified non- profit to purchase and retire up to $1 billion in debt of Cook County residents unable to cover their medical bills. Third, we will make investments in behavioral health services, including creating a new Office of Behavioral Health within our Cook County Health system and expand personnel and mental health support at CCH clinics. This is particularly important following such a challenging time for people during the pandemic and I'm grateful that we will be able to provide support.