Former Chicago alderman looks to oust Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle

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CHICAGO -- Toni Preckwinkle, the two-term Cook County Board President and Democratic Party powerhouse, has drawn a primary challenger.

Former Chicago Alderman Bob Fioretti says he can do a better job.

"You know, you look at the history of what she’s done through the course of this last eight years, it’s all been aligned with big money, big dollars and cents. Her alignment with Joe Berrios," Fioretti said.

Preckwinkle is standing by Cook County Assessor Joe Berrios despite questions about widespread errors made by his office providing tax breaks to the wealthy at the expense of the poor.

Preckwinkle applauds Berrios for getting tax bills out on time, and she says Berrios has a plan to make the system better.

"This is a five-step process, we’re in the second step which is beginning to look at how we’re going forward. We’re about to invest $150,000 in new software," Preckwinkle said.

When WGN asked if Berrios is the man to get the job done, Preckwinkle said: "He’s the one who’s taking the leadership on the progress that we’ve made thus far, and I think he’s the person to take us forward."

"The only thing that they’ve said is that Joe Berrios has got the most discriminatory, unjust bills out on time. That’s why she’s backing Joe Berrios," Fioretti said.

Preckwinkle points to two major accomplishments during her tenure: making the county health care system stronger and criminal justice reform.

Preckwinkle says the county hospitals are serving more people and the finances are in the black.

"When I came into office in 2010, the taxpayers of Cook County were supporting our health care system to the tune of $400 million, and that tax allocation is now about $110 million," she said.

On public safety, Preckwinkle is holding up the effort to reduce the jail population.

"When I came into office there were 10,000 people in the jail on a daily basis. The overwhelming majority there awaiting trial, not convicted of a crime, but awaiting trial on nonviolent charges, so things like low level drug offenses, shoplifting, prostitution, the things that people do to get money for their drugs," Preckwinkle said. "So working with the stakeholders, particularly the Chief Judge, and the Public Defender, and the State’s Attorney, but also the Clerk of the Court and the sheriff, we’ve reduced the jail population to fewer than 6,000."

Facing a $200 million budget shortfall last year, Preckwinkle won approval for a penny-per-ounce sweetened beverage tax.

But there was a revolt. The beverage industry and county retailers joined forces to wage war against the tax.

The battle was fought on television and in the streets.

In the end, the County Commissioners voted to repeal the pop tax.

When asked what she learned from the pop tax experience, Preckwinkle said: "Sometimes good public policy is neither popular nor possible."

With the tax gone, the county was forced to make $315 million in cuts and layoff more than 300 people. And Preckwinkle is not ruling out raising taxes in the future, even though there’s no support for it now.

"We had no votes for revenue this fall. I don’t imagine we’re going to have votes for revenue this coming fall. So we’re in a really challenging spot," she said.

Fioretti is proposing collecting more unpaid hospital bills and finding more items in the budget to cut.

"We’re gonna have no new taxes under my administration. We’ll have no new taxes. But I think there’s many ways we can start making sure Cook County government lives within its means," Fioretti said. "A hiring freeze on those that are not covered by collective bargaining. We’ve gotta take a scalpel to the whole of the budget and see what’s good, what’s bad."

For Fioretti, who ran for Chicago mayor back in 2015, this is a remarkable personal comeback. He’s been in remission from throat cancer for eight years.

"I’m in good health, but my struggle on the cancer front is to show that people can have hope. And like we should have hope in our government, too, to reach out," he said.

Fioretti says the county must find a way to keep taxpayers from moving to other Illinois counties or to Indiana.

For the Republicans, there is no candidate this time.

This is Part 6 of a 10-Part series where WGN profiles the candidates running for office.

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