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Actually, Preckwinkle Is a Progressive

She’s the type of big-government liberal who made the Democrats unpopular in the 1980s. But 30 years later, her brand of leadership is getting a second wind.

Photo: Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune

Remember that hip teacher you had in middle school? The one who made you listen to Free to Be … You and Me, hung a photo of Malcolm X in the classroom, and suggested you read his Autobiography?

That teacher is now running for mayor of Chicago. Her name is Toni Preckwinkle, and for her entire career, she’s remained steadfastly dedicated to the liberalism of the 1960s and ’70s — her formative decades.

Preckwinkle believes that government has a responsibility to flatten out the inequalities inherent in a capitalist system — those which aren’t just economic, but racial, resulting from the starkest form of capitalism ever practiced in this country: the buying and selling of human beings.

That’s not everyone’s philosophy of government. It’s certainly not the philosophy of Rahm Emanuel, a neoliberal whose lodestars are social liberalism and the free market. But it’s what you’ll get from a Mayor Preckwinkle.

Preckwinkle’s outlook is a product of her generation, her occupation, and her place of residence. She’s a Baby Boomer who attended college in the late 1960s. She spent a decade as a schoolteacher, an occupation practiced by four times as many Democrats as Republicans. As an alderman, she represented Hyde Park, a neighborhood of independent freethinkers that has also been home to Paul Douglas, Barack Obama, and Bill Ayers.

Preckwinkle displayed her liberal temperament during her 19 years on the City Council, where she was one of the founders of its Progressive Caucus, which now has a dozen members. Among the causes she pursued as an alderman: requiring developers to set aside 20 percent of their units for affordable housing, and a “Big Box” ordinance requiring large retailers to pay a living wage. (On the first, she got 10 percent, in higher income neighborhoods. The second passed the Council, but was vetoed by Mayor Richard M. Daley.) In other words, Preckwinkle’s record indicates she’s not someone who believes the free market can be counted on to take care of everyone’s needs.

As president of the Cook County Board, Preckwinkle reformed the bail system, because, as she put it, “most people in jail are guilty of being poor.” Now, instead of having to post a cash bond, most arrestees are either monitored with an electronic bracelet or released on their own recognizance. That has led to a sharp reduction in the number of non-violent offenders in Cook County jail, which is all good with Preckwinkle, who has pointed out that 86 percent of the jail’s prisoners are black or Latino, compared to 50 percent of county residents.

Preckwinkle also pressed the Chicago Police to reduce drug arrests by ignoring low-level marijuana possession. “We invest more in our prisons than we do in our public schools, particularly in communities of color,” she said at a recent mayoral forum.

As a mayoral candidate, Preckwinkle has spoken out against Emanuel’s plan to build an $85 million police and fire training academy in West Garfield Park, saying the money would be better spent on “affordable housing and the business community.” She’s called on state officials to legalize marijuana and institute a progressive income tax. And in perhaps her most radical proposal, Preckwinkle is a proponent of rent control, calling it “an optimal solution to the problem of Chicago’s rising rents that are pushing families out of their homes and communities.”

Toni Preckwinkle is the kind of big-government liberal who made the Democratic Party so unpopular with voters in the 1980s. Her branch of the party was cast into the wilderness by the Democratic Leadership Council of Bill Clinton (and Rahm Emanuel), which tried to reconcile liberalism with Reaganism by promoting such policies as welfare reform and deregulation of the financial sector.

But Preckwinkle never wavered in her beliefs. Thirty years later — after the Great Recession destroyed a generation’s financial prospects, and at a moment when the gap between rich and poor is at its widest since the 1920s — Preckwinkle’s brand of liberalism is getting a second wind. After all, there may be five democratic socialists on the next City Council. Preckwinkle’s views are once again in tune with the times. As a result, that hip teacher could go from running a classroom to running a city.

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