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Preckwinkle disses Reagan as aides float governor bid
County Board president also won't rule out property tax hike

Saturday, August 25, 2012
Chicago Tribune
by Hal Dardick

As her political team pushes the notion of a Democratic primary bid for governor, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has been saying things that wouldn't seem likely to broaden her statewide appeal.

First she told a Champaign crowd of political types last week that the late Illinois-born Republican icon Ronald Reagan deserved "a special place in hell" for his role in stepping up criminal penalties in the war on drugs while serving as president.

Preckwinkle had barely finished dialing back that remark when she refused to rule out a property tax increase to solve a looming county budget shortfall. Raising property taxes doesn't exactly endear a politician to taxpayers, especially a politician whose biggest selling point has been keeping her promise to cut sales taxes.

The puzzling utterances come as Preckwinkle's political aides, emboldened by recent internal polling that shows her with strong approval ratings on her home turf, are suggesting she would make a strong candidate for governor in 2014 if beleaguered Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn can't turn around his battered political image. When asked in recent months whether he will seek a second full term, Quinn has ducked the question, though aides expect him to run.

For her part, Preckwinkle says she simply is conducting county business as usual and is not focused on higher office. All of the talk about governor is "speculation," she said in an interview Friday. "I like sleeping in my own bed, and I intend to run for re-election."

The first-term county leader and former Hyde Park-Kenwood alderman has built a reputation for frank talk and fiscal restraint. During her first two years at the county, she secured votes to phase out what remained of a controversial sales tax increase enacted under her unpopular predecessor, Todd Stroger; kept county spending in check; and handled a morgue crisis with little blame rubbing off on her.

That track record, supporters say, is evidence she would be a good choice for governor two years from now, when an income tax hike Quinn pushed through is set to expire and the state is still expected to be grappling with huge budget shortfalls.

The fate of the tax hike is expected to be a top issue in the 2014 governor's contest, and conventional wisdom says campaigning to extend a temporary tax increase is a losing battle. Although former Gov. Jim Edgar said he would make permanent a temporary income tax hike in 1990, when he won the first of two terms, the Downstate Republican was "playing against type," said Christopher Mooney, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

If Preckwinkle, as a Chicago Democrat, were to propose permanently extending the latest income tax hike, "that's going to play to type," and in a tougher economy to boot, Mooney said.

Preckwinkle's Reagan remark came at a luncheon that was part of the Edgar Fellows Program, which aims to foster cooperation among policymakers of different parties and backgrounds. Preckwinkle's feelings about the drug war have long been known, but her invective was unusual for her and aimed at a president whose appeal crossed party lines.

Within hours, she expressed regret. "If I had it to do over again, I certainly wouldn't say anything quite so inflammatory," she told the Tribune. "But my position basically remains the same."

Far less noticed was her refusal later in the week to rule out a property tax increase as a way to help close a projected $268 million county budget shortfall for next year.

"Everything is on the table," she said Thursday during an Internet town hall meeting when asked if she would consider a property tax hike. Closing the gap will require a combination of spending cuts and "new revenues," she added.

The county has not raised property taxes in 16 years. Preckwinkle did rely on some tax and fee increases to balance her last budget.

Raising property taxes would play to the Democratic tax-and-spend liberal stereotype, said Mooney, the political scientist, who noted that Preckwinkle's appeal in the suburbs where elections often are won is her budding reputation as a politician who is socially liberal and fiscal conservative. "Two years out, anybody's got a chance."

In a Democratic primary, Preckwinkle could attract a substantial number of African-American votes, one of the last bases of support for Quinn. The governor's approval ratings remain low, but Quinn scored best among black voters in a February Tribune poll.

Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson said the governor remains focused on policy, especially the need for comprehensive pension reform.

"It is not an easy time to be at the helm of state government. Very hard, sometimes unpopular decisions are required to repair the state's fiscal problems," Anderson said in an email. "Gov. Quinn will continue his work to restore integrity and fiscal stability to Illinois."

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