Like the rest of the city, reporters wanted to know Thursday whether the Cook County board president is thinking about a bid for mayor. And while Preckwinkle again refused to rule it out, she also offered her clearest statement yet that she's not going to clear anything up until she wins reelection in November.
"I'm running for the job I have," she said.
You may have heard Preckwinkle say this before—many times. For more than a year she's been saying it whenever she's asked about challenging Rahm Emanuel for mayor, which happens almost every time she shows her face in public.
She said it a few more times after a much-ballyhooed speech to the City Club on Thursday.
The speech itself highlighted her accomplishments and upcoming challenges in the county. Preckwinkle noted that the county faces a $169 million budget deficit in 2015, which is $300 million less than when she took office in late 2010. She also restated her goal to reduce the jail population, which is made up almost entirely of black and Hispanic defendants who don't have the money to bail out.
"My bitter joke is that if you looked at the jail population, you'd think no white people live in Cook County," she said.
But she also avoided any mention of her political future, and no one in the audience asked her a question about it. That was perhaps overly polite of the business and political leaders there—it's a leading topic of discussion among the electorate, and recent polls have found that Preckwinkle is the favored alternative to Emanuel.
Even though her own reelection is a lock—she currently doesn't have an opponent—Preckwinkle is sensitive to accusations that she's got her eyes on a bigger prize. But she also can't stand Emanuel or his policies, and progressives, reformers, Rahm haters, African-Americans, and various other frustrated voters are calling on her to challenge him. Preckwinkle won't come out and say no.
So when she faced reporters and TV cameras after her speech, the questions moved quickly from budget and jail matters to election politics. Preckwinkle, in an unusually frisky and sarcastic fashion, was happy to avoid them.
One journalist noted that allies of Emanuel are setting up a political action committee to raise millions of dollars on top of the millions of dollars the mayor is already raising. Preckwinkle was asked about the widely held view that it's meant to scare her off.
"If you want to know what the mayor thinks, you should ask him," Preckwinkle declared.
Another reporter wondered why, in a city the size of Chicago, there's rarely any credible opposition to a mayor running for reelection.
"I don't know," Preckwinkle said. "I think you should talk to people who are thinking about running for mayor."
Wait, someone else said—does that mean you're not running?
"I've said that I'm running for the job I have."
But if you're not running, you just should say so.
"Thank you for the advice."
That got everyone laughing—though Preckwinkle wanted us to know she was serious. "When I ran for alderman I ran twice before I was elected. I ran because I wanted to be alderman. I saw the challenges that the Fourth Ward faced and I thought I could do a better job. Finally on my third try, the people of the Fourth Ward agreed with me. I worked for almost 20 years to try to rebuild the neighborhoods I served. . . . I didn't see the job as a platform for anything else. And I ran for this job because I thought I could make a real difference."
Sure, said another reporter—but one of your own political advisers has said that Rahm created this PAC to challenge you because he can't run on his own record.
"I'm responsible for myself and I just shared my views of the situation."
Have you conducted a poll to test your name against Rahm's?
So does that mean you're ruling out a run for mayor, or is that door still open?
"I'm running for reelection to the job I have. And I've also said that I've never run for an office as a platform for something else. I think that's pretty clear."
Are you telling us that people should look elsewhere for an alternative to Mayor Emanuel?
"I'm running for reelection to the job I have."
So what you're saying is—
"Thank you all for coming."