A local hero

Toni Preckwinkle combines the life of the mind with public service

By Jake Grubman

Toni Preckwinkle is cool because she's so uncool.

A fearless progressive on the City Council for the better part of the last two decades, Preckwinkle has emerged as a force for honest and good policy in a city hall that frequently struggles with the definition of those words. The Chicago Reader acknowledged as much in their rundown of the City Council a while back, noting Big T’s “persistence” and “smarts.” Her one weakness? She is “utterly humorless.”

At a step-dance fundraising event back in July, Preckwinkle stayed in the spotlight just long enough to thank her supporters before stepping off the dance floor to discuss policy with non-dancing contributors. “I have two left feet,” Preckwinkle said.

U of C enough for you?

Toni Preckwinkle is a bespectacled contradiction. In her methodical philosophy, she’s the ultimate U of C politician. But unlike the vast majority of U of C students, she has actually gotten involved in the community.

After earning her Bachelor’s degree here in 1969 and her Master’s degree in 1977, Preckwinkle has brought a new level of thoughtfulness to the City Council. People have taken a liking to her throughout her political career, even dating back to her first unsuccessful campaigns for City Council back in 1987, because she’s such a profound thinker.

That intellect shone through during her campaign for Cook County President. In considering how to fix a unit of government seemingly in need of political defibrillation, Preckwinkle put together a group of local leaders to produce a list of policy initiatives for her transition into office. It is precisely this level of methodical consideration for sound policy that seems to be a direct product of her U of C-influenced philosophy.

Now, when I first enrolled at the U of C, I saw Preckwinkle the same way I see every politician with the prefix of “Alderman,” “Committeeman,” “Chicago Democrat,” and so on. It’s hard to view politicians any other way here, with mayors as…hmm…“colorful” as Richard M. Daley and governors as…hmm…“outrageously corrupt and incompetent” as Rod Blagojevich.

But in the three years I’ve lived in her ward—and especially during the Cook County presidential race, which has gave us a side-by-side comparison of Preckwinkle and current president Todd Stroger—I’ve come to view her as a different kind of policymaker.

A look at her résumé as Fourth Ward Alderman since 1991 shows that Preckwinkle has continually and unabashedly spoken her mind in the City Council. On October 28, the Chicago News Cooperative cited a UIC study showing that Preckwinkle voted against Mayor Daley’s projects more than any other alderman.

Where you might find blind political loyalty in most aldermen—the kind that has helped many on the City Council keep their jobs over the years—you get only a sense of Preckwinkle’s thoughtfulness and independence. At a time when people just can’t wait to find a reason to be skeptical—myself undoubtedly included—Preckwinkle merits only confidence, a testament to what U of C-style thoughtfulness can do, even in a system as broken as Chicago’s.

That’s why I wish more students would get involved. Preckwinkle is not originally from Chicago (she’s a native of St. Paul, Minnesota), but she has been fully engaged with a community from which the U of C typically feels totally detached.

Instead of taking any kind of action, students here just laugh at the headlines. But our leaders are a reflection of us; if some of the most intelligent and capable members of the Chicago community just sit by and laugh at bad government, we’ll keep putting bad people in government.

As much as some of us might hate to acknowledge it, we’re not just students here.

The fact that we go to school here doesn’t excuse us from civic involvement. That the University is detached from the community is nothing new, and change on the institutional level is intimidating to say the least, especially for students who will only stay in the Hyde Park area for four years of college. But I’m not talking about community activism, per se. I’m not saying everyone should be as committed to Chicago as Toni Preckwinkle has been since coming to Hyde Park as an undergraduate. I’m talking about voting. I’m talking about having a basic understanding of what’s happening in Chicago, beyond what Rahm Emanuel is up to or when Barack is back in town for the weekend. Easy stuff, and especially beneficial if U of C minds are getting involved.

So is civic involvement sexy? In general, no. But Toni Preckwinkle has shown that it’s at least U of C-cool.

Jake Grubman is a fourth-year in the College majoring in Law, Letters, and Society.