Getting ahold of Gery Chico’s campaign schedule is a little like prying a timetable out of President Obama for getting out of Afghanistan?
If you follow the Internet, you know Chico is a busy man. One tweet after another tells you he just left Domino’s pizza after picking up food for his phone bank volunteers. Or he visited an hour ago with Alderman Moreno’s lst ward Democratic organization. Or he really enjoyed his appearance at the Healthy Chicago candidate forum – yesterday.
But when I tried to get his schedule for last Saturday out of the press office, all I got were two meaningless photo ops – and no mention of three other meetings with real voters who might make a difference in this race. And that’s too bad. Because a day on the campaign trail with Gery Chico is one of the most instructive lessons in how city government works you will ever get.
The day began at Manny’s, the famous delicatessen just off Roosevelt Road where political photo-ops are so common the corned beef, apple pie and coke combination is called “an Obama Special”.
Chico met there with a few of his old friends from the Chicago Bears, Steve “Mongo” McMichael and Bruce Herron, for a little breakfast and table-hopping. Two cameramen from WLS and WGN, a Tribune photographer, a WBBM radio reporter and myself dutifully turned out to record their Super Bowl predictions and hear McMichael endorse Chico’s pie-in-the-sky plan to hold the 2015 Super Bowl in Chicago. (“But you know, they are going to need to build a dome.”)
Then the radio reporter grabbed a sandwich to take to the office, the cameraman left to shoot a Northwestern basketball game, and I followed Chico up to a 49th ward candidate forum Ald. Joe Moore was hosting in Uptown.
The Candidate Forum
The lunchroom of the Jordan Community School at 7414 N. Wolcott is the kind of place where, in the days before slick TV commercials, Chicago elections were won or lost. Candidate forums are where aldermen and committeemen typically present the contenders to their constituents, often with a wink or nod to their favorite, and anyone with a problem can bring it before the candidates.
On this day, there are about 100 people in the audience, a cross-section of a diverse ward. They have been listening to the politicians for about two hours but linger to hear Chico. He arrives late. He says it was because snow plows were still clearing Lake Shore Drive. (But it might also have had something to do with his picking up pizzas for his volunteers at a South Loop Domino’s.) He’s wearing a checked grey suit coat and open-necked white shirt, scuffed shoes and ill-fitting pants, hardly the image of the 54-year-old pinstripe patronage lawyer his opponents make him out to be.
With a warm acknowledgment of his friend Ald. Moore (“Joe and I could spend this whole hour just talking about the things we’ve worked on together”) he takes the stage and reminds the audience that he’s familiar with this school because he helped secure the site to build it. He ticks off other neighborhood improvements he’s been part of – a field house at Gale School, a playground at Pottawatomi Park, another new elementary school – all unsubtle reminders that Chico knows his way around because, for almost two decades, he has served as chief of staff to Mayor Daley, president of the Chicago School Board and the Chicago Park District and chairman of the City Colleges.
The rap against Chico is that he capitalized on that granular knowledge of how Chicago works to start a downtown law firm that traffics in City Hall influence. Chico & Nunes, the firm he started in 2003, has been the registered lobbyist for some 70 companies that do business with the city and has been very successful, with Chico himself earning $2.6 million last year.
But Chico says his experience – in and out of government – is just what Chicago needs. What other candidate, he asks, has put together a city budget, negotiated a city labor contract, built a school, or a park, or hired a teacher, or a policeman? Far from being embarrassed by his success, Chico boasts he went “from pumping gas at his dad’s gas station to chief of staff for the mayor, and from night school to chairman of the school board.”
A Kid From Back of the Yards
All in all, it’s been a pretty incredible journey for a kid from Back of the Yards. At Kelly High School in the 70’s, he dreamed of playing pro football. After a damaged hip forced him to stay home for a year to recuperate, he graduated and worked his way through Daley College and the University of Illinois-Chicago. Through friends in the 11th ward Democratic party, he got an internship in the city planning department and turned that into a full-time job as a researcher for Alderman Wilson Frost, who was then chairman of the city council finance committee.
While working at City Hall, he took night classes at Loyola Law School and earned his degree in 1985. Through the turbulent times of both Mayor Bryne and Mayor Daley, he retained his post on the finance committee,under three different chairmen, Aldermen Frost, Tim Evans and Ed Burke. In 1987, Chico was ready to move on. Burke recommended him to the prestigious law firm of Sidley & Austin where he handled zoning cases until Mayor Daley brought him back to City Hall as a deputy chief of staff in 1991. Two years later, he was elevated him to chief of staff, where he served three more years. .
The longer the campaign goes on, the more Chico harks back to his roots in McKinley Park (and the thicker his South Side accent gets.) “I’m from the neighborhoods of Chicago,” he told reporters last week outside an Eckhardt Park appearance. “Let me just tell ya. I don’t have Wilco, I don’t have all these other Hollywood stars, these Wall Street bankers, former presidents. I’m a Chicagoan. I’m an underdog here, and I’m fighting like an underdog.”
But Chico is an underdog with a tangle of friends – in business, labor, ward organizations and community groups – and he knows he will need every one of them to keep Emanuel from closing out the contest February 22.
Chicago at a Crossroads
The gist of his campaign message, Chico tells listeners at the 49th ward forum, is that Chicago is at a crossroads in this election. The city’s finances are precarious. The projected deficit next year is $600 million. Educational reform has lost momentum. There aren’t enough beat cops on the street and the city’s social safety net meant to alleviate homelessness, hunger and other dire circumstances is threadbare.
The ultimate answer is to create more jobs to build the tax base. Since 80 percent of new jobs traditionally come from small businesses, Chico would like to streamline City Hall permit procedures and hire a new deputy mayor whose sole responsibility will be stimulating business development. There’s a fair amount of overlap in the positions of Chico and Emanuel (despite the tit-for-tat exchange in TV commercials) so for Chico, the real question is who can shake up the status quo at City Hall.
“This is not the time for small thinking,” he says. “This is not the time to let the status quo take hold and really get cemented.
“There’s another candidate running who is the status quo,” he continues. “He’s wanted by the status quo to maintain the status quo. And that isn’t me. I want to open it up, I want to change things, I want to turn things over and bring some different talent into city hall so that we get a city hall that is responsive to our neighborhoods. That’s what I’m about. “
Who is The Status Quo?
Chico’s presentation is a crisp five minutes. That leaves him time to take audience questions. This is where his knowledge of the details of city programs shines. It’s hard to find a program, or a topic, that he hasn’t wrestled with in some earlier position. As the questions wind down, a Loyola student lobs up a softball.
What does he mean by the status quo?
“Let’s go through a process of elimination,” he says. “It ain’t De Valle. It ain’t Braun. And it ain’t me. By process of elimination, it’s Mr. Emanuel.” The audience begins to applaud. He smiles and quiets them. “Hold on, I’m just getting rolling.”
Without Disruption, We’re Doomed
On Friday, only 24 hours earlier, Chico had been disappointed to see the Chicago Tribune join the Chicago Sun-Times and Crain’s Chicago Business in endorsing Emanuel. But losing the endorsement wasn’t half so maddening as the reasons the Tribune gave for it.
The editorial writers acknowledged that both Chico and Emanuel were well qualified for the job. (They did not do the same for Carol Mosely Braun or Miguel De Valle.) Nonetheless, they said that the Tribune favored Emanuel because he was the only candidate who could give Chicago a fresh start:
“The next mayor probably has a short window in which he or she can make agonizing choices and halt Chicago’s downward financial spiral. Standing in the way – some in pinstripes, others in blue collars – will be powerful beneficiaries of the status quo.”
“We do not see Chico as the candidate likeliest to disrupt a status quo of which he is such an integral part,” they added. “That is the realpolitik reason why public employees unions have been gravitating toward Chico. And without disruption, this municipal enterprise is doomed.”
Alice in Wonderland
“Why is he the candidate of the status quo?” Chico asks. “Mayor Daley is supporting him. The big money interests downtown have all lined up behind him. I read some editorials that told me they wanted someone who represents a fresh start. How can you be the representation of the fresh start if the guy in office now made you his guy?
“Is there anything in the background of my opponent that tells you he represents a fresh start?” Chico wonders. “I’m watching Alice in Wonderland here. I’ve been to every forum we’ve had in these communities. He’s been to none. What kind of fresh start are we talking about? How can you have a fresh start if he won’t look you in the eye and talk to you?”
Chico tells the crowd that Emanuel’s approach to the race would bring “a new level of elitism and arrogance at City Hall . . . Is that the kind of fresh start we’re referring to? I hope not. Because I believe a mayor has to walk the streets of his city.”
A Monkey’s Uncle
The $12 million Emanuel has amassed for his campaign make this the one of the biggest money races for mayor in history, he says. “I’m shocked. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago and I’ve never seen anything like it. If that’s a fresh start, I’m a monkey’s uncle.
“When I see people say he represents a fresh start, I think ‘all right, I’m a former chief of staff. I worked for Mayor Daley.’ But I left every government I ever had the privilege of leading with a balanced budget or a surplus. Sixteen of them. And Mr. Emanuel? He just left Washington, D.C. with a $1.5 trillion deficit.”
Chico winds down as the applause winds up. “Okay, we’re having a little fun here, but the bottom line is this is serious business,” he concludes.
“We can do this. If you want somebody at City Hall who truly is going to be a fresh start, and challenges conventional wisdom, and has the record to prove what I say can be accomplished, I would love your support.”
The Organization of The Northeast
After he leaves the 49th ward forum, Chico steps next door to Pottawatomi Park for another meeting with leaders of The Organization of The Northeast. (This one was also not on the schedule.) ONE is a powerful coalition of North Side community organizers that has registered over 3,000 new voters in the last few months. But many members are still undecided on a candidate.
Chico opens with brief remarks about the snow, the congested side streets versus the pristine downtown sidewalks. He tells of “three or four aldermen“ (he declined to name them) calling him to complain their equipment was re-directed downtown. It’s just another sign of a disturbing tendency for City Hall to favor downtown over the neighborhoods. “We don’t need the downtown streets so clean you can eat off of them while the neighborhoods are out there in snow that’s drifted shoulder high.”
The candidate is running late, so he jumps directly to questions. Leaders of various community organizations that provide food, job training, nursing, drug counseling and mental services in Uptown have specific concerns on the fate of their funding, and Chico has specific answers. He suggests ways that one program might be expanded by shifting resources from another. He doesn’t leave until every question has been answered, and I leave impressed that he knows as much about some of their programs as they do.
Finding the Fault Line
Chico’s next stop is all the way across town at the site of the old U.S. Steel Southworks, now a vacant 600-acre parcel of land along the lake slated to become a new Chicago Lakeside community of 17,000 residences. 10th Ward Alderman John Pope has chosen the site to announce his endorsement of Chico and about 50 of his followers, many unemployed steelworkers, cram into the marketing center to loudly cheer his choice.
The unions are being courted by both Emanuel and Chico, but they are shaping up to be a bastion of Chico support. Earlier, the police and firefighters unions endorsed him. On Monday, six other union heads rallied around Chico to denounce an Emanuel TV ad charging “city government is not an employment agency” because, they said, it demeans city workers.
Saturday’s relentless push into the neighborhoods, his attempts to distance himself from Mayor Daley and brand Emanuel as the candidate of the “status quo” downtown business interests all seem aimed at creating a blue collar-white collar fault line between himself and the front runner.
If he finds the wedge, he has three more TV debates left to hammer home the point: A Fox 32 debate this Thursday (9:30 PM) at Kennedy-King College a WTTW-Channel 11 forum Monday, February 14 (7 PM) and a two-hour ABC-League of Women Voters debate at the Oriental Theater Thursday, February 17 (6-8 PM).
Time Running Out
According to an ABC News poll taken over the weekend, Emanuel has opened a commanding lead over the field: 54% versus 14% for Chico, 8% Del Valle and 6% Braun (with 15 % undecided). If it holds up, Emanuel will win outright on February 22.
With time running out Chico is the only one of the challengers who can credibly mount the resources to force a run-off. To do that, ironically, he will have to peel off Emanuel votes directly. (Del Valle’s supporters are diehards and there aren’t enough Braun backers left to matter.) That means highlighting their differences in style, temperament and background. (Forget platforms and issues.) Who speaks for the people? Who represents downtown? Who represents the neighborhoods? Who stands for reform?
And, of course, who is the status quo?