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Analysis: Why Chicago library commissioner had to go

Library commissioner Mary Dempsey who clashed with Mayor Rahm Emanuel left her post is shown 2011 announcing selectiOne Book One

Library commissioner Mary Dempsey, who clashed with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and left her post, is shown in 2011 announcing the selection in the One Book, One Chicago program she championed. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: February 27, 2012 9:48AM

Mary Dempsey — a tough-as-nails administrator with a passion for libraries — presided over the construction of dozens of new libraries under a mayor who shared her love of building and books.

She met her match in Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who was more concerned about cutting spending than he was about preserving library services.

Dempsey’s resignation — officially delivered to the mayor in November — was made public this week. She was apparently unwilling to preside over the dismantling of a library system she helped to build, but agreed to postpone her departure to minimize the impact of the cuts.

The only surprise was that she didn’t walk out the door sooner to protest the mayor’s October decision to single out a library system for 50 percent of the layoffs or the equivalent of 363 full-time employees — even though the system accounts for just three percent of city spending. The library layoffs were subsequently reduced to 112.

Dempsey will be replaced by Brian Bannon, technology guru for the San Francisco public library system.

“I have loved every single minute of this. … I thought I’d last two years and it became so intoxicating, I couldn’t leave. I stayed for 18,” Dempsey told a City Hall news conference Wednesday called to announce her successor.

“I’m grateful to Mayor Daley for asking me. I’m grateful to Mayor Emanuel for asking me to stay on [and] for working through our issues around funding and hours. I’m so grateful to him for the resolution he presented last Saturday [to reopen libraries on Monday afternoons] and for recruiting Brian as my successor….Chicago could not find a better choice for its next library commissioner. His understanding of library services and technology are outstanding.”

Emanuel also made nice, presenting Dempsey with a framed copy of a three-page resolution he plans to present to the City Council honoring her tenure.

“Since 1994, Mary Dempsey has transformed Chicago libraries and transformed the lives of millions of children,” the mayor said.

“She has built or renovated 44 libraries, taking them out of cramped storefronts … and bringing the Chicago library to the forefront of the nation’s library system.”

Despite the polite talk on both sides, sources said the tensions between Emanuel and Dempsey are palpable.

Sources said she’s livid that libraries were singled out for cuts that impact library services at all hours — and not at all placated that a City Council rebellion has forced the mayor to soften the cuts twice — once by reducing the number of layoffs and again with an end-run around the union representing library employees that will re-open libraries on Monday afternoons.

Sources said Dempsey was equally furious that, in an attempt to justify the cuts, Emanuel has insisted that Dempsey initially proposed closing a handful of libraries altogether. Dempsey denied ever making that suggestion.

For his part, Emanuel blames Dempsey for the never-ending stream of protests about his library cuts. Sources said he lashed out at Dempsey for daring to talk to aldermen about the cuts and literally forbid her from talking to the news media.

The end came when Dempsey, who is married to millionaire personal injury attorney Phil Corboy, decided that she no longer wanted to work for a mayor who, she believed, had treated her and the library system with contempt, sources said.

It’s not the first time Dempsey has flashed her independent streak.

In 2005, then-Mayor Richard M. Daley bounced his chief procurement officer and drafted a reluctant Dempsey to clean up a minority contracting program disgraced by scandal.

In the course of cleaning house, Dempsey made waves by taking on powerful targets. They included: Tony Rezko, the now convicted former chief fundraiser for now-convicted former Gov. Rod Blagojevich; Elzie Higginbottom, Daley’s chief fundraiser in the black community; construction giant F.H. Paschen and the O’Hare outpost of O’Brien’s restaurant, an Old Town institution.

Daley didn’t want Dempsey to go that far, but he allowed her to return to the library job she loved after a six-month stint. Daley even thought so much of Dempsey’s administrative skills, he asked her to become his chief of staff and Chicago Public Schools CEO only to be turned down.

Now, the woman who pioneered the popular program, “One Book, One Chicago” is leaving the library system she championed. The question now is who, if anyone, will pick up her mantle and protect libraries from further cuts.

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