Incumbent Fritz Kaegi leads in primary race for Cook County assessor; Toni Preckwinkle declares victory in push for new term as Cook County Board president
After a heated and expensive primary battle, Cook County Democratic voters went to the polls Tuesday to decide whether first-term incumbent Cook County assessor Fritz Kaegi would hold onto his seat, as well as whether longtime Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Sheriff Tom Dart should remain in their posts.
The assessor’s race pitted one-term incumbent Kaegi against Kari Steele, the president of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Chicago board. As of 8:15 p.m., Kaegi was leading with 54.9% while Steele trailed behind at 45.1%, with 56% of precincts reporting.
Meanwhile, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle declared a win over former County Board member Richard Boykin in her race to retain her post. The latest returns showed Preckwinkle well ahead with 75% of the vote with more than 60% of precincts reporting.
In a statement, she said she looked forward to another term in November: “I’m grateful that Cook County voters have entrusted me to run the nation’s second-largest county in the country for the past twelve years, and look forward to all the good work that lies ahead.”
In the assessor’s race, the campaign became both a battle over ethics and a referendum on Kaegi’s revamp of the office’s valuation practices.
Kaegi was swept into the county building on a platform of reform. His predecessor, Joe Berrios, oversaw an office that tended to overestimate the value of single-family homes in lower-income neighborhoods while underestimating the value of residential properties and big commercial buildings in wealthier areas. That put a disproportionate share of the county’s property tax burden on less affluent home and business owners and gave bigger properties a tax break.
Vowing to ensure “the very wealthy and big corporations are paying their fair share,” Kaegi has shifted more of the county’s property tax burden onto commercial payers. That rankled many big landlords, investors and appeals attorneys, who said he was harming investment and unnecessarily vilifying them.
Many of those interests lined up behind Steele, who said Kaegi had bungled his administration of the office, including problems with a technological upgrade that led to a dust-up with the county’s Board of Review and a likely monthslong delay in the delivery of the next property tax bill. Among Steele’s campaign donors were groups like the Building Owners and Managers Association of Chicago and trade unions representing construction workers, including the powerful International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150.
Kaegi’s reform platform extended to ethics practices within the office. Berrios, who also previously headed up the Cook County Democratic Party, fought continuous allegations of nepotism and pay-to-play. He fought to keep what ethics officials ruled were excess campaign donations from property tax appeals attorneys. He was also criticized for hiring family members.
Once elected in 2018, Kaegi fired many Berrios staffers and signed executive orders barring him from accepting campaign contributions from employees, forbade employees from doing work that could benefit them or their relatives, and prohibited lobbying or doing business with the office for one year after leaving.
Kaegi’s team sought to highlight the fact that Steele’s husband, Maze Jackson, lobbies for Onni Group, one of the most active real estate developers in Chicago in the last decade. Steele said Jackson would not lobby the assessor’s office and that she would recuse herself from “anything that appears to be a conflict of interest” involving his work.
The contest initially split members of the Cook County Democratic Party. Kaegi did end up winning the party’s support, along with endorsements from a slate of area progressives. A former financial manager, Kaegi also lent his campaign more than $2 million.
The winner will face libertarian candidate Nico Tsatsoulis in November.
Preckwinkle does not have a Republican challenger in the November general election, and as head of the Cook County Democratic Party, she said she would pivot to supporting the rest of the slate. In a text message, Boykin conceded and wished Preckwinkle well, saying “the voters have spoken and I stand by their decision,” but vowed “to fight for safe streets, and lower taxes.”
Preckwinkle, the chair of the Cook County Democratic Party, has led the 17-member Cook County Board since 2010. There, she oversaw the county’s now-$8 billion budget, reforms to the criminal justice system and its network of hospitals and clinics. Before that, she was the longtime alderman of Chicago’s 4th Ward.
Boykin, an Oak Park attorney, sought to push Preckwinkle on a public safety platform, saying the county was in a “crisis,” pledging to address gun violence, carjackings, retail theft and other crimes by imposing stiffer penalties on those carrying guns illegally. He promised to suspend the county’s gas tax and tried to remind voters of Preckwinkle’s short-lived tax on sweetened drinks, which he helped overturn. He also sought to draw attention to recent pay bumps the County Board members approved for themselves and other county elected officials just weeks before the primary.
Preckwinkle defended the public safety reforms she helped oversee, pointing to investments in violence prevention efforts and that bail reform was an issue of justice that kept low-level, non-dangerous offenders from being held in jail simply because they could not afford it. She likewise touted her fiscal stewardship, improvements to Cook County Health, and a raft of COVID-19 recovery programs as justifications for a fourth term.
The winner of that primary will face libertarian candidate Thea Tsatsos in November.
Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart was seeking his fifth term Tuesday, facing off against Chicago police Sgt. Noland Rivera. The victor goes on to face Libertarian candidate and sheriff’s office Sgt. Brad Sandefur in November.
With 43% of precincts reporting, Dart had 86.7% of the vote while Rivera had 13.3%.
Accusations that Dart was soft on crime amid a local spike in shootings and other crime were dampened as he successfully knocked several challengers off the ballot, winnowing the primary field down from five to two. Among those whose candidacies ended in recent weeks was a former top Dart aide who now works for the Circuit Court clerk’s office, Carmen Navarro Gercone.
Dart’s most recent term has been dominated by the pandemic’s impact on the jail. His sole challenger, Rivera, is a Chicago police sergeant whose wife was a Cook County correctional officer who died of COVID-19.
Not only was the jail deemed a one-time national hot spot for the virus, but the rise in violent crime during the pandemic jump-started a heated back-and-forth with city, county and state officials over the appropriate use of electronic monitoring. Dart did notch a victory in Springfield this past session, when lawmakers barred the creation and sale of untraceable ghost guns, legislation he proposed alongside state Sen. Jacqueline Collins.
Incumbency was also on Dart’s side: He’s been sheriff since 2006, and had the endorsement of the Cook County Democratic Party and a hefty campaign war chest compared with challengers.