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Emanuel’s chief of staff to quit, last day March 15

Chief staff TheresMintle will leave mayor's office March 15.  | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Chief of staff Theresa Mintle will leave the mayor's office March 15. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: April 2, 2013 6:31AM

What is it like to be the chief of staff for a hyperkinetic Chicago mayor facing intractable problems who has a national profile, possible White House ambitions and last served as chief of staff to the president of the United States?

Now that Theresa Mintle is stepping down as Rahm Emanuel’s first chief of staff, the truth can be told: It’s a lot more human and balanced than people think.

“He’s his own best policy person. He’s his own best political person. He’s his own best communications person. He is every idea that comes up here. ... [But], as driven, whip-smart and intuitive as he is, he’s a very, believe it or not, kind and gentle guy,” said Mintle, 48.

“He’s incredibly adept at striking a balance between pushing and driving and demanding and knowing when somebody needs a pat on the back or when we need to take a pause. … It’s not resting on our laurels. It’s just taking a moment and saying, ‘We’ve done a good job here.’ Those usually last for about three minutes.”

Mintle is a distant cousin of former Mayor Richard M. Daley. She occupied City Hall’s hottest seat during a deftly-handled NATO summit, an embarrassing teachers strike and a stubborn spike in homicides.

She announced Thursday’s that she’s stepping down from her $174,996-a-year job one month after her father’s death forced her to take an introspective step back.

On March 15, she will be replaced by Lisa Schrader, the 41-year-old chief operating officer whose rise from a budget spokeswoman under Daley to a powerhouse under Emanuel is a fascinating study in political survival and vacuum-filling.

“We’ve accomplished more than I ever imagined human beings could accomplish in a 22-month period. ... [But], I’m exhausted. ... I know when I’m tired and I know when I don’t have the 110 percent to give anymore,” she said.

Mintle said she knew of Emanuel’s reputation when she took the job and “kind of knew what I was in for.” What she did not expect — and was pleasantly surprised to find — was the humanity.

“The calls to the parents [of murdered children]. I’ve been with him, and he gets emotional. His frustration during the strike that it was really about the kids and not about historic battles between management and labor. He does this from the heart. A lot of people see him first and foremost as a politician or a message person when, in fact, he’s a true believer,” she said.

Mintle said she had a vacation lined up soon after signing on as chief of staff. She cancelled it, only to have Emanuel scold her that calling off the trip was “the dumbest thing” she had ever done and follow his own advice by taking periodic breaks.

“That’s what he knows how to do. He might call us the whole time he’s somewhere else, but he goes somewhere else,” she said.

In public, Emanuel managed to get through the mayoral campaign and nearly half his four-year term without uttering even one of the four-letter words for which he’s famous.

What’s it like when the door is closed and the mayor is frustrated, furious or disappointed in his staff?

“I don’t even notice anymore. ... It’s just part of the environment, and it’s not just him. He might use it with a different kind of passion, but I don’t think it’s any more or less than you find in other places,” Mintle said.

Did the mayor ever apologize for any tirades? Well, sort of.

“I knew it was part of the job, and he knew it was part of my job and he’d say, ‘Okay, this is one of those moments.’ And it was just sort of like, ‘I get it. Let’s move on,’ “ Mintle said.

Mintle joins Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, Fire Commissioner Robert Hoff, Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Tom Byrne, Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey and World Business Chicago chief Rita Athas as members of Emanuel’s original cabinet who have departed before mid-term.

Her departure is, in many ways, one of the most critical.

The chief of staff rides herd over city department heads and agency chiefs and generally keeps the ship of state running. When it’s smooth sailing, the mayor takes a bow. When there’s a political shipwreck, the chief of staff incurs the mayor’s wrath and, sometimes, gets thrown overboard.

Mintle flatly denied that her decision to step down was impacted by a series of controversies spearheaded by the Chicago Sun-Times and the Better Government Association.

The Sun-Times disclosed that Mintle was one of several clout-heavy investors in a Millenium Park restaurant whose cozy Park District concession deal Emanuel was trying to break. The financial stake was transferred to Mintle’s architect husband three days after Emanuel took office.

The BGA subsequently questioned the conflict posed by the fact that Richard Simon, president of a company that landed a controversial, $99 million O’Hare Airport janitorial contract, was a co-investor in the Park Grill restaurant.

The BGA had earlier accused Mintle of helping to engineer a CTA pension sweetener for herself and others in 2008 while she was serving as chief of staff to the CTA board chairman. Mintle has since announced that she won’t be accepting the pension boost.

VOA Associates, the architectural firm co-owned by Mintle’s husband Michael Toolis, was barred from competing for any new government contracts during her tenure as chief of staff. VOA had received roughly $20 million in government work during Daley’s tenure, the BGA has reported.

“My poor husband has been cut off from all government work for almost two years and … it wasn’t like I was hiring waiters and waitresses at the Park Grill. And for the record, after 27 years in government, I have no pension. Zero,” she said.

Why did she give up that CTA pension if there was no conflict?

“Because it was so ridiculous and it had taken on such a life of its own, it was the right thing to do at the time,” Mintle said.

Mintle said she is most proud of “the coup of getting NATO” within a month after Emanuel took office, then turning around a year later and “executing one of the most successful international conferences in the history” of that organization.

“There was so much that went into that. ... The business community, government, the host committee, the Police Department, all the businesses downtown that were effected. It really was a terrific group effort with awesome results, despite the doom-and-gloom that preceded it,” she said.

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