Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle painted herself as a proven leader forced to make hard decisions when her hands were tied by bureaucracy and politics, but her opponent in the upcoming Democratic primary, Bob Fioretti, argued all she had done was lead the county's residents to pay higher taxes.
The pair -- former Chicago City Council colleagues -- sparred frequently over Preckwinkle's eight-year run as chief executive of the county during an hourlong meeting with the Daily Herald's editorial board Monday in Arlington Heights.
Fioretti chided Preckwinkle over the failed penny-per-ounce sweetened beverage tax and her decision to reinstitute a 1 percent sales tax that she successfully rolled back after winning the seat in 2010.
"When the president ran eight years ago she really ran on one thing, that we were going to get rid of that 1 percent sales tax, and she did for a while. But she put it back in. She beat (former county President) Todd Stroger to the pulp on it," he said. "Remember Ben Franklin? A penny saved is a penny earned? Well, with her, eight years later, the truth of the matter is it's a penny taxed."
But Preckwinkle countered the tax hike was necessary only after Gov. Bruce Rauner and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan twice thwarted cost-saving pension plans, even after one was passed by the state Senate.
"We were accruing pension obligations at a rate of $1 million a day, and I felt it wasn't appropriate to pass these obligations along to our children and grandchildren," Preckwinkle said. "If the governor had not forbidden Republicans from voting for it, and the speaker said he wanted between 15 and 20 (Republican) votes, if we had gotten permission from the state to change our pension rules, we would not have had to raise the sales tax."
When pressed about the feasibility of the pension changes' standing up to a court challenge even with union support, Preckwinkle began to answer but was interrupted by Fioretti, sparking a brief argument.
"I'm not sure what the Supreme Court would decide, because we don't know," Preckwinkle said.
"It's pretty clear where the Supreme Court has been on this, and it's the same rules. And until we structurally look at changing ..." Fioretti began.
"Excuse me," Preckwinkle interjected. "Let me finish. Are you going to let me finish?
"You've talked for 15 minutes straight," Fioretti complained.
"Well, I listened to you talk about a bunch of stuff, so it's my turn now," she said and returned to her plans for pensions.
Fioretti said he supports moving toward a 401(k)-style retirement benefit, rather than continuing a pension system for county employees.
The pair also battled over management styles.
Preckwinkle noted the county laid off nurses, social workers, parole officers and other county employees in the wake of the sweetened beverage tax's repeal. Meanwhile, the 17-member county board spends more than $5 million each year on personal office staff and equipment, a luxury that is rare for other county boards in the region where staff and resources are frequently shared to keep costs low.
When asked why the board didn't consolidate some of those posts to save other jobs, Preckwinkle said it was a losing battle.
"If you can persuade them to cut their own budgets, God bless you, because I haven't been able to," she said. "We talked to them about the fact that it would be good if they set an example by making cuts. It didn't go very far."
But Fioretti believes he could get the board to do things Preckwinkle hasn't.
"You know, I think there are ways when you look at it, I don't think all the elected officials are as rigid as we're hearing. They're willing to make the necessary cuts," Fioretti asserted. "I think there's a certain feeling of how you approach them."
The primary is Tuesday, March 20.