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Q&A with Miguel del Valle: Touting a scandal-free resume

Updated: February 7, 2011 12:14PM

City Clerk Miguel del Valle was the first candidate to declare for mayor. Almost alone among the top candidates, del Valle has no scandals or controversies to answer for.

For decades, he was the soft-spoken but effective leader of the independent bloc of Hispanic legislators in Springfield, tackling education reform, college affordability and protecting day laborers.

From his childhood in a cement-block house in Puerto Rico, he later earned a master’s degree and rose to become Illinois’ first Hispanic state senator.

He talked with the Sun-Times during a break from fund-raising calls at one of his campaign offices in Little Village.

Q. Why do the polls not show your candidacy catching fire-

A. For one thing, I won’t take money from people who have contracts with the city. People say, “Well, he’s not a prolific fund-raiser.’’ That’s true. Look at the connection between the contracts and the decisions that get made. I tell people my phone didn’t ring in four years [as City Clerk] from people trying to get a contract with the city because people know where I stand. And in this campaign, I said from the very beginning all candidates ought to [refuse money from city contractors]. Does that put me at a disadvantage because I’m not going to raise the kind of big money that the others raise- I’m not the consummate political insider like Gery Chico or people like that who have done very well off of city government over the years.

Q. All the other candidates have some [potential] Achilles’ heel . . . -- [as a U.S. Senator, Carol Moseley Braun met with Nigerian dictators without telling the State Department; Gery Chico headed a law firm that went under; Danny Davis took a prominent role at a ceremony honoring the Rev. Sun Myung Moon; Rahm Emanuel could be called as a witness in the retrial of former Gov. Rod Blagojevich; the Rev. James Meeks has used racially-charged language on the pulpit.] -- but the closest thing you have to a “scandal” is some say you “sold out” as an independent when you let Mayor Daley appoint you City Clerk.

A. Sold out- When [former Clerk Jim] Laski had his problem and resigned. I put out the word I was interested. The mayor said he would like to talk. I do hear from some of my reform friends, who say, “Well, you’re not critical enough of the mayor.” My job as city clerk is to record the work of the City Council and be a point of access to the public. We’ve done that through our website, through the webcasts of the city council. We’ve made it easier for people to get information. In four years, not once has the mayor talked to me about the clerk’s office. His chief of staff never asked for anything. My job is not to grandstand whenever I disagree with the mayor. Prior clerks did that but I felt it was not appropriate. The effect is I was silenced for four years. I went from being a vocal advocate on issues like housing and education to not constantly beating the drum as I did as a legislator.

Q. You had no side-jobs [while] in the state Legislature-

A. Twenty years in the General Assembly, my total income was my legislative salary. And I put a couple of kids through college. You sacrifice an awful lot. That is why I feel so strongly about access and affordability because the average family cannot afford college these days. My daughter is in her first year of law school at Stanford. She graduated with a 3.79 GPA from Yale. You know how much she’ll owe in loans after three years- $148,000. That’s with a scholarship! I am so passionate about education because I see how doors can be opened up. My kids’ lives will be as different from mine as mine was different from my mom’s. She lived in a shack with a zinc roof. I remember [spending nights at my grandmother’s house] as a child, as a 3-year-old, the sound of raindrops on the zinc roof, which was wonderful, it put you to sleep. You’d hear the raindrops just falling, falling, it would lull you to sleep. Those things remind me just how many opportunities we have here.”

Q. You were born in Puerto Rico.

A. I came here when I was 4 years old. My parents worked for Zenith on Austin. I went to four or five grammar schools. Every time the rent went up, we had to move. I started at Lane Tech High School, then transferred to Tuley High School, now Roberto Clemente. I got my bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Northeastern, working part-time year-round with the Union League Foundation for Boys and Girls Clubs. I became the executive director of the Association House, part of Jane Addams House. In 1986 I ran for stateSenate.

Q. You took out [state Sen.] Ed Nedza. No one thought you could.

A. I took out Eddie Nedza from the 31st Ward, who was [Ald.] Tom Keane’s driver. He kind of inherited the 31st Ward when Tom Keane went off to jail. Harold Washington wanted me to run for alderman of the 31st Ward.

Q. He wanted you to take out [Ald.] Miguel Santiago-

A. Yes. I told him, “With all due respect, Mayor, I’ve made my decision. I want to shape public policy in the education arena and I think the best place for me to do that is in Springfield.” I had been involved in a lot of education issues, the drop-out rate, adult education. I helped start an alternative school that is still operating today, El Cuarto Ano, that means “the fourth year” in Spanish. When we were kids our parents and relatives would say to us, “You have to finish El Cuarto Ano.” That was the goal -- graduate high school. You never heard “college.” My mom had an eighth-grade education. My dad had one year in high school.

Q. What were your proudest achievements in the state Senate-

A. The 1988 School Reform law, the one that created Local School Councils. We changed the compulsory attendance age from 16 to 17. I sponsored several bills I worked with then-State’s Attorney Daley on. Your paper did a series [“Bitter Lessons’’ by reporters Roger Flaherty and Leon Pitt] on the abuses of proprietary schools. We were able to pass a bill to get graduation rates reported. There are a lot of good schools, like DeVry, but then there are a lot of lousy schools. You see them all over downtown. I had legislation to crack down on cosmetology schools. I worked with Daley on that. I teamed up with then-Rep. Anthony Young and Paul Williams to create the judicial subcircuits in Cook County. To this day I feel the creation of the subcircuits is what opened the doors to African Americans, women and Latino judges.

Q. And in that very first class, you elected [Machine Ald. Miguel Santiago’s wife] Leida Santiago.

A. Well, we knew that would be the case, but also, in that same election, without the support of the political organizations, we were able to elect [independent] David Delgado. It did open up the door to get independents elected.

Q. The first education reform was the Local School Councils, and then eight years after that . . .

A. Around ‘95, there was the Republican Chicago school reform bill, that turned over power to Daley.

Q. How did you feel about that-

A. I voted “no.’’ At the time, I was concerned about there being total control on the part of the mayor’s office. I was concerned because of the history of Chicago politics. In retrospect, I think the mayor did a decent job with trying to improve the schools, construct new schools. But it obviously hasn’t been the answer because we still have a lot of underperforming schools in the neighborhoods. We cannot build enough and create enough academic options for our kids. The families that stand in line, waiting to do an application to get their kids into a selective enrollment or magnet school. We still have some inadequate facilities as we saw when Whittier Local School Council tried to save a field house to build a library. That exposed the fact there are over 100 schools without libraries.

Q. What would you do differently as mayor-

A. I would start with sharing responsibility with the City Council for the tough decisions that have to be made. I want a strong mayor and a strong Council. I think the Council, through its processes, has to deliberate, unlike in the past. They have to grapple with these tough issues, such as: Where is new revenue going to come from- Where are we going to make budget cuts- If you are talking about a meter privatization plan or a lease plan, you want a lot more deliberation. Under my administration, I predict you’re going to see many more divided roll calls from deliberation and debate and some real soul-searching on the part of aldermen.

Q. You’re promising to bring divisiveness to the City Council-

A. I am promising to bring a process of deliberation that will have aldermen assume more responsibility for the tough decisions. If you’ve got a proposal to lease Midway Airport, that has to be kicked around for a while. All the small print needs to be looked at. We need proponents and opponents chiming in.

Q. Shouldn’t it just be one day the aldermen are presented with it: Vote “yes’’ or “no- ‘’

A. No! [He laughs.] Those days will be over under my administration.

Q. Daley prided himself on 49-1, 48-2 roll calls on his budget. What’s the problem with that-

A. I’m different. I think there is a problem with that. That has to change. It doesn’t mean that the mayor is going to just turn over everything to the City Council. What will be different is I won’t say, “That is the only proposal that is going to be considered.” I will encourage people to modify, strengthen my proposal. I think Council oversight over contracts above a certain level is certainly in order. The more eyes you have on something the better, more scrutiny, more transparency.

Q. Has Daley been a good mayor-

A. I think, generally speaking, the mayor has been good for the city and the city is progressing. We need to take the city that works and convert it into the city that works together. We still have too much isolation. We still have areas of despair, food deserts, areas without jobs. There’s a hell of a lot of work that needs to be done.

Q. Have you felt consistently about the mayor for 20 years-

A. I think this mayor grew on the job. I think the mayor was not very secure in the first few years in his own mind. Maybe that’s what led to some of the political organizing: the creation of armies made up of political patronage. While on the one hand, it allowed the mayor not to rely on ward bosses, on the other hand, it was wrong to have mechanisms in place that allowed for preferential treatment for certain individuals in return for their involvement in political campaigns. That’s wrong.

Q. [What do you think of] Tax Increment Financing-

A. I think TIFs should be what they were originally intended for: to help blighted areas develop. I think the creation of the Central Loop TIF moved us away from that. Over the years the evolution of TIFs has taken us off course. I think we have too many TIFs. We have, what, 159 TIFS or something like that- If you’re providing millions of dollars to corporations downtown, then there ought to be a solid commitment for job creation. If the job creation doesn’t occur, you shouldn’t get the dollars.

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