In the summer of 2020, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle appeared to nod to the cries for justice that spilled to the streets of Chicago when she broke with other top Illinois Democrats to announce her support for less police spending.

“I’m for reducing and redirecting our investment in law enforcement,” Preckwinkle said that July after the Board of Commissioners overwhelmingly approved a symbolic resolution titled “Justice for Black Lives.”

That measure says the county should “redirect funds from policing and incarceration to public services not administered by law enforcement.”

Two years later, Preckwinkle’s opponent in the June 28 Democratic primary, former Cook County Commissioner Richard Boykin, is quick to list her past remarks when arguing he is the pro-law enforcement candidate.

“She was pandering to the ‘George Floyd crowd,’ to that whole ‘defund the police’ movement,” Boykin told the Tribune. “And it was totally the wrong approach to take. The police need to know that we have their back.”

Preckwinkle chuckled recently when asked whether she stood by her words — which she stressed were not an endorsement for defunding police.

“Of course I believe what I said,” Preckwinkle, who’s been county board president since 2010, said in an interview with the Tribune.

She then sought to make the case that America’s latest explosion of gun violence was mostly triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It isn’t just us; it’s all across the country,” Preckwinkle said. “It’s just a really, really difficult moment, not just here in this country, but across the world. And I’m just hopeful that we’ll gradually work our way out of this.”

Preckwinkle argued the main purpose of the county resolution was to commit to community-based investments such as anti-violence programs, which will see a $65 million boost over the next three years — not to make cuts in what she said is the “modest” 500-member Cook County sheriff’s police.

Ultimately, the sheriff’s office more than recouped a 4% budget reduction from 2021 and now has $631.5 million this year.

“The sheriff’s budget has fluctuated,” Preckwinkle said. “It doesn’t reflect defunding. It reflects fluctuation from year to year.”

Recent crime fears have been a sticking point for Boykin, an Oak Park resident who represented the western suburbs and West Side of Chicago until losing reelection in 2018 to Preckwinkle-backed candidate Brandon Johnson. Last year saw levels of gun homicides not seen in Cook County since the 1990s, according to the medical examiner, though the total is slightly down this year.

Boykin’s reproach of the local criminal justice system often veers toward the responsibilities of other elected officials besides Preckwinkle — such as Cook County Chief Judge Timothy Evans and State’s Attorney Kim Foxx. But he maintains the board president is also at fault because she affirmed their policies and controls their budgets. Boykin voted for all of Preckwinkle’s budgets while serving on the county board from 2014 to 2018.

He singled out two initiatives Preckwinkle backed: slashing the jail population from its peak of over 10,000 about a decade ago, and the 2017 bail reforms under Evans that reduced reliance on cash bonds.

“(Preckwinkle) has been totally soft on crime and as a result of it, we almost have virtual lawlessness in Cook County,” Boykin said.

In 2017, in response to then-President Donald Trump’s suggestion that Chicago bring in the National Guard to combat crime, Boykin called for United Nations peacekeepers to occupy Chicago streets to address what he called the “quiet genocide” in the city’s Black communities. Boykin also helmed a gun violence task force alongside Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart in 2016.

Preckwinkle said Boykin’s critiques of her public safety record were “all garbage.”

“The jails in this country are at the intersection of racism and poverty, and the idea that just because you’re poor, you should stay in jail until your case is disposed of, it seems to me, is profoundly unjust,” Preckwinkle said. “We moved away in our criminal justice system from cash bail for those kinds of (petty) offenses. And I think that’s smart public policy.”

In pledging to crack down on crime, Boykin vowed: “I’m willing in the short run to increase the population of those detainees at the jail who are charged for the gun offenses. We’re not going to be releasing people with gun offenses.”

His stance evokes the approach of Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago police Superintendent David Brown, who have also taken shots at county officials in a recurring feud that escalated last week when the mayor said judges shouldn’t allow people charged with violent crimes out on bail because they are “guilty.”

Boykin said this public blame game should worry voters because it signals dysfunction. Preckwinkle, who unsuccessfully faced Lightfoot in the 2019 runoff election for mayor, asserted she is more focused on finding holistic solutions to crime, whether City Hall is with her or not.

“We have a system in which you’re presumed innocent until proven guilty,” Preckwinkle said. “You could acknowledge the moment we’re in and say, ‘We’re all working together to try to deal with this,’ and I’ve tried to do that. But it’s immensely frustrating when the mayor and the chief of police point fingers.”

Preckwinkle’s longtime ethos of tackling what she says are the root causes of violence and poverty received a big leg up last year when Cook County got $1 billion in federal funds under the American Rescue Plan Act. She committed about a third of that toward community initiatives, including a two-year $42 million guaranteed-income pilot and a new program to purchase medical debt.

The board president also touted balancing two pandemic budgets without new taxes and making strides in the historically fraught march toward funding pensions.

However, Boykin said Cook County residents shouldn’t forget Preckwinkle’s unpopular and now-repealed soda tax or that she restored a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax increase. And he said her refusal now to freeze county-imposed taxes on gas amid staggering prices shows the same proclivity for tax overreach.

“The current board president and the board has made Cook County an island of taxation,” said Boykin, who also serves as spokesperson for 2023 mayoral candidate and gas-giveaway architect Willie Wilson. Boykin did propose a tax on ammunition that the board later took up.

Preckwinkle retorted a gas tax suspension would be “bad public policy and shortsighted.”

“We haven’t made the appropriate investments in infrastructure over the last 50 years, and we have to continue to make those investments because good infrastructure is the foundation of a strong economy,” Preckwinkle said. “So no, I don’t support the idea of gas tax holidays, tempting as it may be politically.”

But perhaps the biggest apparent philosophical difference between Preckwinkle and her challenger can be summed up with Boykin’s response to the racial justice movement following Floyd’s murder.

“My thought is — and I’m an African American — everybody’s life matters,” Boykin said. “One life lost is too many. Whether it’s an African American, an Asian, a Hispanic, a white person, everybody matters in Cook County.”

Preckwinkle, who is also Black, said that position ignores the singular history of Black people in America that stretches from slavery to modern-day systemic racism, noting “the police in this country are rarely accused of shooting down white people in the streets, but they shoot down Black and brown people all the time.”

Her thinking seemed to reflect Boykin’s own sentiments back when he was on the county board and vocal about police violence toward the Black community, even sponsoring a resolution calling for then-President Barack Obama to detail best practices to reduce police killings of Black men.

However, Boykin said he isn’t ruffled by his critics from the left, and highlighted that he is a lifelong Democrat who grew up in Englewood and is now merely drawing attention to what he believes is a universal weariness of crime.

“Communities want the same thing: They want safety,” Boykin said. “Everything rises and falls on safety.”

The winner of the primary will face Libertarian Thea Tsatsos in the November general election.

The Tribune’s A.D. Quig contributed.

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