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Chico not ready to crown Rahm

Updated: April 19, 2011 5:13AM

Walk into Gery Chico’s headquarters on the third floor of the curving green 333 W. Wacker Building and you are met by one of the more woeful Christmas trees in the city, a pitiful stick with a smattering of ornaments and a sign begging for more.

“As the tree grows, our campaign grows stronger as well . . . ”

Don’t be deceived — that’s the only wistful, Charlie-Brownish, how-can-we-lose-when-we’re-so-sincere aspect to this campaign, which otherwise bristles with young yet experienced staffers who are determined to put Chico in the mayor’s office.

The common wisdom is that Rahm Emanuel has already won — and while Emanuel insists that he takes nothing for granted, in every interview he projects the air, not of an underdog scrabbling for advantage, but of the designated champion determined to maintain composure and use his momentum to coast across the finish line without risking a last-second slip.

The Chico camp, however, has not gotten the Rahm-wins-in-the-end memo, nor have the Chicagoans who are giving $100,000 a day to Chico’s campaign, or so it claims.

I poked my head into the back room, where half a dozen people were manning a fundraising phone bank, including the candidate himself.

“Welcome to the command center,” said Chico. “They virtually live here.”

I had asked to see him hoovering up money, since money is not just the grease of politics, but the machinery too — not just the vital TV ads, but the salaries of the workers who ask for money to hire more workers to ask for more money to run even more ads.

It is the ability to tap into big money — not Barack Obama’s dimming reflected glory, not his type-A, get-out-of-my-way-or-I’ll-eat-you personality — that makes Emanuel the front-runner.

If Chico wants a chance to unseat him in April — assuming he’s number two in the primary in February, a safe bet with Carol Moseley Braun, the Rev. James Meeks and Danny Davis trisecting the black vote — he will need every penny he can wheedle.

“We raise money a good part of the day,” said Chico. “That’s nothing but labor. You have to sit on the phone and beg people to help you. We have tremendous lists; I have about 5,000 names on my contact list. We went to any kind of constituent group you could imagine, from law to engineering to construction. We say, ‘Look, I’m running for mayor, would you be interested in supporting me?’ ”

And it’s working.

“We’ve been going $100,000 a day for the past three days,” Chico said.

Money is key, but it isn’t everything — just ask Meg Whitman, or Jim Oberweis.

“All the money in the world isn’t going to manufacture a Chicago story,” said Brook Anderson, Chico’s chief spokesperson.

The 54-year-old Chico does have a dream background — born on the Southwest Side, his father, a Mexican immigrant, his mother Greek-Lithuanian, his first wife was Jewish, and he raised his three eldest daughters in that faith.

“I’m comfortable anyplace,” he said, over tea. “I try to be a consensus candidate.” (In fact, he tried to be the black consensus candidate, urging the panel of purported leaders to pick him, which grants Chico points for moxie. Of course they lacked the creativity to consider him — they could barely settle on a black candidate.)

Chico has been the mayor’s chief of staff, president of the park district, president of the Chicago Public Schools, and is currently chairman of the city colleges — if you’re looking for a guy who knows the levers of government, Chico’s it (maybe too much, say his detractors, who emphasize his cozy connections with business and say he’s not just in the thrall of lobbyists, but a lobbyist himself).

The night I tagged along last week, Chico certainly got on well with a small group of real estate developers in a swank bar on the fourth floor of the Omni Hotel.

“Gery has the temperament,” said Mary Riordan, a lawyer who co-sponsored the event. “He has the experience — being mayor of Chicago is no place for on-the-job-training.”

As far as Emanuel, Riordan dismissed the very idea. He might as well have just landed in a spaceship from Mars.

“He’s definitely not a Chicagoan,” she said, with a grim shake of the head. “I don’t care where he says he’s from.”

Chico is a natural campaigner, comfortable chatting up everyone from the panhandler in the street to the fellow passengers in the elevator to the crowd nibbling hors d’oeuvres at the Omni, some of whom handed over checks as they walked in the door.

“He’s about as good as anyone I’ve worked with, fund-raising,” said Ken Snyder, senior strategist for the campaign, who has helped with campaigns across the country and locally for Toni Preckwinkle and John Stroger. “He just works his heart out. There’s no easy way to do it. It’s just elbow grease. It can be a humble and humiliating experience even, but candidates have to do it. He works hard at it. He’s on the phone hours and hours and hours every day.”

The real election doesn’t begin until February, when the primary eliminates the vanity candidates. Then it will be Emanuel and Chico, face to face, pointing their firehoses of money at each other and blasting away.

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