Watching her conduct at a news conference last week reminded me of a conversation we’d had in early March, weeks into the worst embarrassment of her administration.
As we chatted over ice cream and hot tea at Preckwinkle’s favorite downtown diner, she recalled her visit to a cooler at the Cook County Medical Examiner’s office. “So I went in the cooler, um, and it’s pretty sobering. And it’s, uh, it smells like embalming fluid. . . .
And it was filled with bodies. Lots and lots of dead bodies.
Had she ever been inside a body cooler before?
“No, I can’t say that I have,” she replied in her trademark deliberate, yet understated way.
Did she think she would ever end up there?
“It wasn’t something that I would have predicted.” Pause. Wry chuckle. “Nothing I envisioned when I ran for office, no.”
Preckwinkle’s “tour” of the cooler at the county morgue followed sensational media revelations that detailed the morbid mishandling of hundreds of bodies, body parts and bodily fluids. In January, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that bodies were “piling up” in the morgue’s storage cooler. At one point, 400 adults and about 100 babies were stacked in a cooler designed for less than 300.
Last Tuesday, Preckwinkle called in the media to announce a sweeping overhaul of the examiner’s office. Chief Medical Examiner Nancy Jones was retiring. Kimberly Jackson, the morgue’s top administrator, was ousted. Preckwinkle has vowed to remake the “culture” of the office and clean up the patronage-laden, under-resourced operation.
Some might wonder what took her so long. Preckwinkle did not begin firing people as soon as the macabre news broke. She does not possess an itchy trigger finger, unlike a certain mayor down the hall.
Preckwinkle, an uber policy wonk, is as deliberative in her actions as her words. She detailed her chief administrative officer, Robin Kelly, to do an exhaustive review of the operation.
Preckwinkle never thought she would end up standing in that cooler. Yet she had to know that by succeeding Todd Stroger, she was entering an administrative House of Horrors. For example, Jackson was reportedly a Stroger patronage hire, a certified member of his friends-and-family plan.
The morgue, like many county agencies, is charged with caring for the indigent. Those adults and infants belonged to grieving families who couldn’t afford to pay for a proper burial. Public aid funds are designated to help cover such costs, but a combination of budget cuts, incompetence and finger-pointing allowed the bodies to pile up. It was a desecration of the poorest of the poor.
Stroger always proclaimed he was their champion, but it seems the only people he really took care of were his 8th Ward cronies.
Preckwinkle may be cleaning up the Stroger legacy for a long time to come.