Q&A with Gery Chico: His bid to be Chicago's mayor
BY ABDON M. PALLASCH Political Reporter
Attorney Gery Chico has served as Mayor Daley's chief of staff and head of the parks, school board and City Colleges. | Jean Lachat~Sun-Times
Since he left the catbird seat as Mayor Daley's chief of staff 15 years ago, Gery Chico has gotten frustrated with some of the things Daley has done.
Leasing the parking meters and squandering most of the money in two years to plug short-term budget holes tops Chico's list. Chico introduced a citizen's ordinance last week to create a trust fund for what's left of the meter money and the Chicago Skyway lease money to prevent any future raids on it.
Hours after he introduced the ordinance, talking through bites of a gyros plate at Pegasus in Greektown, Chico was still shaking his head and getting visibly angry as he said, "$1 billion was taken away and used for budget shore-up in two years -- oh, it frosts me."
Daley appointed Chico to be School Board president, Park District chairman, and, most recently, City Colleges chairman. Daley and Chico heap praise on each other. But Chico also offered criticism, which included Daley's decision to save money by not plowing side streets during snowstorms.
"As one of the only people in the race who has actually fought snowstorms, I always wanted to clean the side streets," Chico said. "And we did clean the side streets. And then I left and we stopped cleaning the side streets. Growing up in the streets of Chicago, I knew what it meant to have uncleaned side streets. It's dangerous. You get in the ruts. You can't go anywhere."
Chico held forth for two hours, outlining his vision for Chicago and defending his sometimes controversial record, starting with the collapse of the 88-year-old Altheimer and Gray law firm in 2003.
Chico was chairman of the firm. Some partners said Chico's focus on his Senate race against Barack Obama and others that year contributed to the firm's collapse. Other partners absolved him.
Q. Was Altheimer's collapse your fault-
A. I think "fault" is a strong word. Look, I learn from everything I do in life. The economy was rough at that time. We made a decision, voted as a group of partners to close. We moved on. I moved on. I started out with one other person and today my law firm is very successful, 35, 36 people. We're doing very well. That's what life's about. Life isn't about looking back. It's about looking forward. Altheimer and Gray was successful for every single year I was at the firm. We must have had 12 or 13 [former] Altheimer partners contribute to this campaign.
Q. Why are you in this race when some say it's over and Rahm Emanuel already has it locked up-
A. I come from the Obama school: Had he believed the early polls on the invincibility of Hillary Clinton, he'd be back here with Sen. Dick Durbin. You've got a $700 million projected deficit next year. This is not the time for on-the-job training. If you get people who don't really have experience, you'll be looking at tax increases.
Q. Some aldermen were looking forward to a change in how things work after Mayor Daley leaves. They say the City Council doesn't have much say in what happens. They fear Rahm Emanuel would operate on the same model. So how would you be different from Emanuel and/or Mayor Daley-
A. I think you're right. I'm going to be a partner with the City Council. You go farther by working with people, not dictating to them, not squelching them. I worked in the City Council for six years, under four different Finance [Committee] chairmen. Wilson Frost hired me. Ed Burke is my dear friend. I worked with Burton Natarus. I worked with Chief Judge Tim Evans, and I got along with every one of them just splendidly. I know what the City Council does, and I have respect for it. So I come to it with a different mind-set. I'm a coalition builder. I'm a very collaborative person. I'm a consensus seeker. Good leadership is not about bullying or scaring the living daylights out of you. Good leadership is about inspiring people, getting them to want to be with you.
Q. You had challenged Rahm Emanuel to divulge all the details of his dealing with Rod Blagojevich in the filling of Barack Obama's old Senate seat. You had a fund-raiser for Blagojevich the night before he was arrested. Don't you have as many Blagojevich ties to answer for as Emanuel does-
A. Oh, I don't think so. I think the governor's words speak for themselves [Federal wiretaps caught Blagojevich telling Democratic consultant Fred Yang, "Gery Chico's the best pick Fred. But Gery does nothing for me, politically or governmentally."] The only tape I've heard of is that when my name came up, his brother said Rod would be doing the people of Illinois a favor to appoint me but Rod said, 'No, he can't do anything for me politically or governmentally. Case closed. It's not like I listen to those things. I've got other things to do.
Q. He was still fairly controversial, though, the night before he was arrested. Why were you raising money for him. Did you think he was doing a good job as governor-
A. Well, we didn't raise a lot -- I can tell you that ($50,000 was the target). Most of the entire political establishment was supporting Rod Blagojevich -- the president, [Attorney General] Lisa Madigan, your paper, the Tribune, all endorsed him. I'm a Democrat for decades in this state, so to be helping a sitting Democratic governor is not unusual. Far greater than me was Rahm Emanuel's involvement with Blagojevich, far more so than mine.
Q. Wasn't Emanuel just telling Rod Blagojevich he'd like Valerie Jarrett to be put in there-
A. Oh, I think it's more substantial than that. To hear him tell it, he handed a list of four names and said, 'These are acceptable -- Goodbye.' I don't think the tapes or that story and more stories to come explain that. Blagojevich the other night on "Geraldo" said he's going to call Rahm Emanuel as his star witness. When- One month after the mayoral election- I think you've got to divulge now.
Q. We've already [done hard-hitting stories] a couple times over the years [with stories on Altheimer and Gray's collapse and the Blagojevich fund-raiser] -- is there anything else left-
A. The reason you've been able to write about me, good, bad -- and I don't think you guys have been unfair -- is because I've been here. I've been in the trenches getting my hands dirty for 20 years helping people. I want to lift people up in these neighborhoods. I'm a person from the neighborhoods. To the extent you've written about me it's because I've been doing things.
Q. You put in a good word for Patti Blagojevich to get a job at the Christian Industrial League.
A. I thought she would be good for the Christian Industrial League. I had known them for years. All I can do is make a recommendation or a reference and after that it's up to them to make a decision.
Q. Give me your rags-to-riches story. You were born here . . .
A. In a three-flat at 3323 S. Ashland in McKinley Park. My mom and dad were middle class. My mom was a secretary. My dad was a printing salesman. I had two brothers growing up. We shared a really small bedroom. Bunk beds, one on top of each other. My parents went into their pocket for Catholic grammar school, I went to public high school at Kelly. My father's parents were born in Jalisco, Mexico. My mom was Greek-Lithuanian. My dad, together with my uncle, bought a gas station. I ran the thing for four years. My first job, I got an externship with the City of Chicago, the Planning Department. I didn't know nothin' about nothin'. $3.25 an hour in '77. I was the happiest guy in Chicago. These guys kinda liked me. Why- I went the extra mile. It's 5:30, 6, 7 o'clock, I'm staying to get the job done. These other people went home. . . . Turned out to be 10 years. Wilson Frost hired me, then Eddie Burke kept me. I did law school in the Finance Committee, and it wasn't pretty. Ed Burke, he didn't care if you had six degrees. You were there and you worked, and he expected the damn work product to be exemplary. So I would go to work in the morning, I'd get there at 8, 8:30. I'd stay there till 6 o'clock at night, then I'd run over to Loyola at night, from 6 to 9, three hours of law school, I'd shoot home, I'd play with my daughter, I'd hold her, read, eat, all the same time, go to bed about 1 or 2.
Q. In your tenure as School Board president, grade school test scores went up, You got Northside College Prep built. You took some heat at the time, people were calling that 'Chico High' [because they said he wanted to build it for his daughter to attend -- which she did] . . .
A. " 'Chico High' -- I haven't heard that in 10 years. Thank you.
Q. Is it a feather in your cap or a liability-
A. I'm very proud of my school record. In six years I was [president] of the Chicago Public Schools, construction of 65 new school buildings. We started a tuition-based preschool program in the Chicago Public Schools, which is responsible for turning many schools into neighborhood schools again. My kids all went to public school as well. In addition to the one at Northside Prep, I had a daughter who went to Von Steuben. My kids went to Jamieson, and my kids went to Edgebrook.
Q. Since you left the administration, more than 44 employees have been convicted in various corruption investigations.
A. Never again could we live through the kind of situation that we had where [Water Department honcho Donald] Tomczak, et. al., were paid for by you and me to go perform political work for candidates.
Q. Weren't you chief of staff while a lot of this was going on- Did you not see it-
A. No, most of it was after I left. I'm very proud of the operations I oversaw. Some people weren't with the program. It took tens of millions of dollars of Justice Department resources including subpoena to get at the problem that was lurking in the shadows.
Q. How about the hired trucks. Did you never notice them doing less work than you paid them for-
A. [Paul] Vallas and I were involved with a different system [for hiring trucks]. It was a different program that moved to a different department after he and I left City Hall to go to the public schools and I think, therein, began some of the problems.
Q. Did you know Tomczak-
A. A little bit, not very well.
Q. You didn't get a sense of hiring or promotions being based on political work-
A. I did not.
Q. Police Supt. Jody Weis-
A. I would let Jody Weis' contract expire and then appoint the next superintendent of police from within the Chicago Police Department.
Q. Tax increment financing: Do you think declaring non-blighted areas such as downtown Chicago TIF districts diverts money from schools-
A. No, because the money was never there in the first place [before the special taxing funds spurred development.] In 1979, you could walk home at night [through the Loop], and there'd be nobody there. The North Loop was not always pretty. The South Loop, there was nothing there between McCormick Place and the Loop. If you did not create the Central Station TIF, those 15 buildings now wouldn't be there. You know what kind of property value that brings- I know about risk-taking because I've been representing developers my whole life. I worked hard on bringing companies into this city. What I would do as mayor is redirect and be far more obsessive about the use of TIF monies to create jobs. Not just the honor system -- you have to go back and audit.
Q. Six years ago when you were running for U.S. Senate, some observers said you won those debates on preparation and knowledgeable answers. You spent $4 million and you got 4 percent of the vote. How do you avoid repeating that here-
A. Different race. Different point in time. My skill set matches up with the mayor's office. I've learned a lot in the last six or seven years about how to focus my argument, focus my story: Streets, police, libraries, fire stations, new schools, better education, better park system, and now, higher education, I am ready on Day One to perform."