Assembling a list of the most powerful people in any city—particularly in a formidable yet fractured megalopolis like Chicago—is an undertaking of the most daunting kind. Who’s up and who’s down? By how much or how little? Calculating that is often as precise as forecasting the weather.
The exception is, and always has been, the top slot. Be it Da Mare, the Boss, Hizzoner, the Man on Five—there’s really only one choice. Mayors have ruled this city with an iron fist since that cow kicked the lantern—the Rahmfather, of course, included.
But some strange things happened on the way to this year’s selections. A judge forced the release of a horrific video of a police shooting. The city clocked up yet another year of nationally notorious gun violence. Chicago’s credit rating tanked to junk status. Its public school system was swallowed by a half-billion-dollar debt. … And one by one, Rahm Emanuel’s nine and a half fingers were peeled from the first-place trophy.
So, if not Rahm, who? In some ways, it could be argued that 2015’s most powerful person was a dead one: Laquan McDonald, the black 17-year-old whose killing was caught on that infamous video, triggered a massive, history-making fallout that put the city squarely in the crosshairs of black activists.
What about one of Chicago’s corporate titans? Not after last year’s fast-spinning revolving door in the executive suites at several of Chicago’s largest companies.
Perhaps Governor Bruce Rauner (dubbed “Ruiner” by angry Dems)? Or seemingly lifelong Illinois House speaker Michael Madigan? Nope. And nope. The mayor may have crashed into the wall of a NASCAR-esque power race, but those two are faring little better, ramming each other while peeling doughnuts on the public they’re supposed to be serving.
Drafting on all of them and streaking to the pole position is a powerful, ruthlessly determined, ever present, but somehow barely dinted force: Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle.
Doubt it? Consider first that, by virtue of the job title alone, any Cook County Board president—even Todd Stroger, he of the ignominious nepotism—wields a certain amount of influence over the city. But Preckwinkle, now in her sixth year in office, has marched directly into the void left by the once sure-footed but now politically kneecapped Emanuel. Steadily, methodically, savvily (and somewhat irritatingly to other local politicos), she has built a power base to rival City Hall’s and, more important, has cemented her own shiny political identity as a champion for competent, honest government. “She’s got the best brand of all the Democrats in town,” says one source. “She puts a lot of work into that.”
Last year, Preckwinkle slipped on this list when she passed on challenging Emanuel. In hindsight, not running for mayor actually looks like the power move of the year.