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posted: 2/4/2010 12:01 AM

Keats picks party fight with Preckwinkle

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It didn't take Roger Keats long to try to start tarring Toni Preckwinkle with the same tax-and-spend brush others used against her in the primary election for Cook County Board president.

"Toni Preckwinkle is a friend of mine," said Keats, the former state legislator from Wilmette and the Republican nominee who'll face Preckwinkle in the November general election. "But she's never met a tax hike she didn't like."

Metropolitan Water Reclamation District President Terrence O'Brien tried the same line against Preckwinkle in Tuesday's Democratic primary election, and it hardly slowed her down. The Hyde Park Chicago alderman claimed almost half the vote in a four-person race, leaving O'Brien to run second. Circuit Court Clerk Dorothy Brown came in third, with incumbent Todd Stroger bringing up the rear.

Why does Keats think he'll do any better than O'Brien with the tax-and-spend tactic against Preckwinkle? Pure party loyalty, for better and worse.

"The difference is, those are Democrats who are all part of the club," Keats said. "I'm not part of the club."

Calling House Speaker Michael Madigan "the 800-pound gorilla in the room," Keats said as a Democrat Preckwinkle will be beholden to party leaders like Madigan and Cook County Party Chairman and assessor candidate Joseph Berrios, who he says have larded the county payroll with patronage posts.

"The club will never let her do what needs to be done - i.e., clean the place up," he said.

Yet Preckwinkle ran against incumbent Todd Stroger as a different sort of progressive and wasn't about to let Keats indulge in guilt by association. "I've been an independent Democrat my whole life, including 20 years in the City Council," she said. "So the idea that I'm suddenly going to become a regular organization person is pretty funny."

Preckwinkle said that as she was about to start a handshaking session thanking city and suburban voters as they hustled through the downtown Chicago Metra station on Madison Street Wednesday evening. In that aspect, too, Keats was likely to find her a different sort of Democrat. Where the suburbs are usually considered the Republican stronghold of Cook County - if there is such a thing - Preckwinkle actually ran stronger in suburban Cook, amassing 53.5 percent of the vote.

Preckwinkle too cheered the likely addition of Jesus Garcia to the Board of Commissioners after he won the Democratic primary against Stroger ally Joseph Mario Moreno. That would add another progressive voice to the body and strengthen her ability to pursue that agenda.

"I was hoping he would win, and I'm glad that he did," Preckwinkle said. "I've always had a high regard for him and I look forward to serving with him."

No doubt about it, Preckwinkle made a tougher matchup for Keats. "Yes, anyone knows Todd Stroger was the one you wanted to run against," Keats said, "but that's not the point."

Keats ran a deliberately Spartan campaign in the GOP primary, and emerged the victor by a comfortable margin over Chicago police officer John Garrido. Yet Keats is expecting far more GOP financial help in the general election.

Preckwinkle didn't seem intimidated, having survived the Democratic Primary against three opponents. "I feel at this point that I'm lucky to be still standing," she said. "So we're going to take a few days to rest and recuperate and start planning for the fall. We're going to work hard and run a vigorous campaign in November."

Then she went off to shake hands.