City Council’s retiring sergeant-at-arms preserved disorder with booming voice, moxie
By DAN MIHALOPOULOS Staff Reporter September 10, 2013 4:54PM
Christina Pacheco Butler
Updated: October 12, 2013 6:25AM
When Chicago politicians leave office, their patronage hires are often left to find themselves new clout or throw their careers in public service onto the funeral pyre of their bosses.
So the recent retirement of longtime Ald. Richard Mell also brings to an end the 10-year reign of Christina Pacheco Butler, the Chicago City Council’s pugnacious sergeant-at-arms.
It was up to Mell, as chairman of the council’s Rules Committee, to pick who’d hold the $91,980-a-year post of sergeant-at-arms, a nicely paid job responsible for preserving disorder at council meetings. Since 2003, it’s been held by Butler, a 32-year loyalist in Mell’s 33rd Ward Democratic organization.
Any out-of-line spectators at council meetings – or reporters in the press gallery – quickly learned not to underestimate the 62-year-old grandmother, who walks gingerly since having both knees replaced a few years ago. She more than made up for any loss in agility with her booming voice and moxie developed growing up half-Sicilian, half-Puerto Rican near Taylor Street.
Before summoning police officers, she would give any misbehaving members of the public a last chance to decide which of their three options to take:
◆ Shut up and be allowed to remain in the council chambers.
◆ Go into the hallway and listen to the proceedings over the loudspeakers.
◆ Or: “See it on the 10 o’clock news after bonding out.”
I realized it was best to stay on Butler’s good side during a loud disagreement she had with another Mell aide, one who’d previously worked for the city as a truck driver foreman.
“I give as good as I get,” she says of that bygone dispute. “I did talk like a truck driver that day because he talked to me like a truck driver.”
Their 33rd Ward family fight was overheard by Bill Beavers, an alderman at the time, who would go on to serve on the Cook County Board and to be convicted of corruption charges. Beavers, a gambler, told Butler: “Girl, my money was on you.”
She had to raise her voice again to order reporters away when another alderman, Burt Natarus, passed out during a council meeting and was treated by paramedics.
“I don’t see any news value in taking pictures of a guy on the ground with his BVDs hanging out,” she says. “Actually, he had Joe Boxers.”
That is about as close as Butler, a regular Democrat to the end, is ever likely to come to revealing any secrets of the mayor and the aldermen. She does let slip this: She dips into her own pocket to pay for the bottles of San Pellegrino water and almonds that Mayor Rahm Emanuel likes to have during council meetings.
She has only praise for the mayor who “never sits down in that chair,” and for the aldermen she calls “50 of the most diverse people in the world.”
She says there was nothing she could do whenever they turned on one another. Besides, she thinks much council feuding is just for public consumption.
“I never could wrap my mind around how they all were so cordial with one another, but once the cameras started, it was, ‘You racist this’ and ‘you racist that.’ ”
Butler is proud to point out that only three arrests had to be made at council meetings during her long tenure. And she says she never had to use the lead-tipped, police-issue nightstick she was given when she took the job of sergeant-at-arms.
Until she retired at the end of last month, the nightstick remained at the front of her desk. On the wall of her windowless office behind the council chambers were pictures of her family, including a grandson she and her husband raised after their daughter was killed 15 years ago by a drunk driver when the boy was just 7.
Butler took on volunteer work after that as a speaker for the Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists, aiming to move people, rather than move legislation.
When the drunk driver who killed her daughter got in touch with her years later to ask how he could honor her, Butler told him all she wanted him to do was to “kiss your kids every day and tell them you love them because you don’t know when you might not see them again.”
Butler cries and her voice breaks recalling the story. Don’t be surprised if she weeps again at Wednesday’s council meeting, when the aldermen plan to honor Mell and also Butler, a woman one council aide calls “the mother hen to all of us.”