(MCT) — Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle bypassed a former top aide and endorsed state Sen. Toi Hutchinson in the 2nd Congressional District contest Monday, saying she feared a third candidate — former U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson — would win the Democratic nomination.
Preckwinkle acknowledged that she had "thought long and hard and frankly struggled" with the decision not to back Robin Kelly of Matteson, a former state representative who quit her post as Preckwinkle's chief administrative officer to make the run for Congress.
"It's not necessarily about the person that you know best or that you've known the longest, but the person you think is the strongest candidate and will win and I think that's Sen. Hutchinson," Preckwinkle said, calling Kelly a "friend" as well as former employee.
The endorsement came on the eve of the last day of voter registration for the Feb. 26 primaries.
Hutchinson accepted Preckwinkle's praise, calling her "a reformer and a leading progressive voice in our state."
Preckwinkle maintained polling she had conducted in November as well as a recent poll by Hutchinson showed Halvorson, of Crete, with a "tenuous lead." Preckwinkle called Halvorson too conservative for the South Side and south suburban district and said she had not been loyal to home-state President Barack Obama's agenda.
Halvorson, who saw Preckwinkle at an event late last week, appeared surprised by the criticism and denied she had voted against Obama on issues the County Board president cited, including an extension of unemployment benefits and Wall Street reforms. Halvorson said she voted to extend the Bush-era tax cuts in 2010 as a direct response to a phone call from Obama.
Halvorson has come out in opposition to a ban on semi-automatic assault weapons in favor of tougher enforcement of existing gun laws. She has received National Rifle Association backing in the past, as has Hutchinson, of Olympia Fields.
Preckwinkle, who has spoken often against gun violence, said she has talked to Hutchinson about the issue and noted that the state senator recently co-sponsored legislation to ban semi-automatic firearms in Illinois as well as large-capacity ammunition magazines.
But Halvorson said Hutchinson was sponsoring legislation that wouldn't pass the General Assembly. Halvorson called Preckwinkle "hypocritical" for backing Hutchinson, noting that Cook County has had a ban on assault weapons since the 1990s and "can't enforce" it.
Halvorson is the only white candidate among 17 Democratic hopefuls in the contest. When asked if racial politics were at play, Halvorson said, "Absolutely. How could it not be?"
Kelly's campaign said in a statement that while "Preckwinkle might be able to look past" Hutchinson's previous support from the NRA, "the voters in the 2nd District won't." Kelly's campaign, which has promoted her support of federal gun control laws being sought by Obama, called on Hutchinson and Halvorson to release previous questionnaires filled out for the NRA.