Illustration by Lars Leetaru
Illustration: Lars Leetaru

“Do you drink soda?” I ask.

“Yes, occasionally,” says Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle. “Ginger ale. And my favorite cocktail is orange juice, cranberry juice, and ginger ale.” So let’s see: Under the county’s sweetened beverage tax, enacted this summer, there’d be a surcharge on the ginger ale, whether diet or regular. The orange and cranberry would escape—but only if they are 100 percent fruit juice. And cranberry typically isn’t.

Got that? Preckwinkle says she does. “It’s simple: If it’s sweetened, it’s taxed; if it’s not sweetened, it’s not taxed.”

If your head’s spinning, though, you’re not alone. Yet the bewildering intricacies of the tax are the least of Preckwinkle’s problems. The former alderman seemed politically invincible—until she pushed to passage last November what’s now known as the “Toni Tax,” the penny-an-ounce tax on sweetened drinks. The result was outrage, punctuated by an editorial beheading in Crain’s that bemoaned the “stomach-turning” sight of watching Preckwinkle “self-immolate before our very eyes.”

Now, instead of her cakewalking to a third term, two of her Democratic commissioners who voted no—Richard Boykin and John Fritchey—are poised to run against her in the primary. They likely smelled blood in the water: A mid-August poll of registered county voters put Preckwinkle’s approval numbers at just 21 percent; in another poll, 87 percent disapproved of the tax. “Kill it,” the Sun-Times pleaded.

No way, Preckwinkle told me: “I’ve tried to stand up for the people of Cook County, whether it’s the sustainability of our health care system or trying to make our criminal justice system more fair and effective.” An estimated 87 percent of Cook County’s budget goes to these two services—her top pet causes—and it’s a constant struggle to find the resources.

She sought a solution in a tax so toxic that it faces repeal efforts in the county board and the Illinois House. Opponents say they'll introduce a proposal to repeal it today. Bridget Gainer, who voted no on the original tax, told me, “My district is filled with small businesses—many of them bars and restaurants that will bear the brunt of this. They haven’t had time to absorb the sales and property taxes; it was too much too fast.”

First District commissioner Boykin blasted Preckwinkle for ruling like a “queen” and claims she threatened him after he rejected the tax. “She was clear that she wouldn’t support me in serving my constituents in any way,” says Boykin, whose district includes Austin and Oak Park. “She has not supported any legislation or ideas I have put forward since.”

Chicago-based political strategist Ken Snyder, who oversaw Preckwinkle’s TV ads in 2010 but has since had a falling-out with her, says her real failure was in selling the tax: “She needed to tie it to a popular program, and she didn’t. The health issue never works.”

In mid-August, billionaire and former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg swooped in to try to change the story line. Having failed to institute his ban on jumbo sodas in New York, he’s taken his crusade to Chicago, giving Preckwinkle more than $5 million to buy ads. The first commercial showed children approaching a vending machine offering choices such as childhood obesity, type 2 diabetes, and kidney failure.

University of Illinois at Chicago political science professor Dick Simpson predicts the ads will have some effect on public opinion but not enough to make up for the negative media attention. Poll numbers back his view, showing three out of four voters wouldn’t support Preckwinkle—no matter her opponent—presumably because of the tax.

March is far enough away, though, says Simpson, that the sting might subside. “Besides,” he adds, “losing would require a very strong opponent, and she doesn’t yet have one.” Snyder calls Boykin and Fritchey “B-tier candidates” but says if an A-tier candidate gets in—he names Mike Quigley and Gery Chico—that could pose a real threat.

DePaul political science professor Larry Bennett also gives Preckwinkle good odds of reelection because, in the end, voters will accept her assertion that the county needs the money. He believes they’ll see Preckwinkle as someone who could have won higher office but resisted climbing the political status ladder (she passed on running for mayor in 2015), which insulates her some from the heat.

Also in her favor: Bloomberg has promised to back the campaigns of eight commissioners, plus Preckwinkle, who voted yes. That rankles Fritchey: “If somebody from New York wants to attack me for standing up for my constituents, I’ll make my case to voters.” So how would he fill the county’s financial holes? Rework the budget from zero, focusing only on what’s absolutely needed. Boykin says he’d reduce spending by “eliminating vacant positions, consolidating duplicative agencies, and instituting a hiring freeze.”

Preckwinkle scoffs at the notion that she is vulnerable, that the pop tax could be her Daley parking meter mess. “We have a seven-year record of balanced budgets,” she says. “I run a responsible government without scandal.”

She’ll hit back hard at her opponents. She accuses Boykin of consorting with Republicans, noting that he supported Mark Kirk in 2010 and attended Trump’s inauguration. Preckwinkle, meanwhile, has aligned herself with the Democratic elite. At last year’s convention, it was Preckwinkle whom Bill Clinton invited to sit beside him in his box in prime time.

I ask if she’s toyed with running for a more glamorous office. “I didn’t run for this job because it was glamorous,” she responds. “I ran for this job because it focuses on things I care about: quality of health care that we can deliver to the uninsured, and the effectiveness and equity in our criminal justice system.”

There’s something to be said for authenticity and determination. Preckwinkle has plenty of both.