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Chico known as hard worker, solid negotiator

Mayoral candidate Gery Chico visits classroom his Almmater Kelly High School earlier this month. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Mayoral candidate Gery Chico visits a classroom at his Alma mater, Kelly High School earlier this month. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: March 1, 2011 12:50AM

When he was just 8 years old, Gery Chico already was a skilled negotiator.

“I’ll let you ride my bike if you make my bed for a week,” was one offer he’d make to his younger brother Craig. “You take out the garbage, and I’ll give you my dessert,” was another.

“He was a great negotiator, a consensus builder,” Craig Chico says.

If Gery Chico is elected Chicago’s next mayor, his supporters say his ability to negotiate and build consensus is just one set of talents he will tap to lead the city.

Others that could come in handy, they say, were honed growing up as the son of a Mexican-American father and a Greek-Lithuanian mother in the then-mostly-Irish McKinley Park neighborhood: determination, discipline, a strong work ethic and a knack for getting along with a wide variety of people.

Chico’s personal skill set and professional resume are the perfect fit for the mayor’s chair, supporters say. They expect the man Mayor Daley tapped as chief of staff, School Board president, Park District Board president and City Colleges board chairman to be ready on Day One.

“He absolutely loves this city. He knows this city backwards and forwards. He gets along with people,” said wife Sunny Chico from the couple’s $2.35 million condo with a view of Millennium Park.

“I just knew this would happen one day.”

Opponents contend Gery Chico, 54, spun years of government contacts into a fortune. While at the Board of Education, they note, his law firm’s Board of Ed business boomed.

“I have never helped a client get business from a government entity I was privileged to lead,’’ Gery Chico says. “Whenever I was asked to perform, I exceeded expectations. I have never gone to work with anything but the public’s interest in mind.”

‘No excuses’

McKinley Park, just west of Bridgeport, sits in the 11th Ward — home to five Chicago mayors.

Chico and two younger brothers were raised there in a modest apartment at 33rd and Ashland. The boys shared one small bedroom. Their parents, Jesse and Jacqueline Chico, shared the other.

Their grandfather, Encarnacion Chico, worked at Swift Premium meat-packing company for 43 years. He was “an old-school Mexican. He came up first-generation,” recalled Craig Chico, 52. “If there was daylight, there’s work.”

At 6:30 a.m. on Saturdays, Gery Chico’s grandfather would rouse him to paint, repair windows, fix doors and do tuckpointing at several properties he owned. Gery Chico also helped his mother’s mother by sweeping, mopping and vacuuming at the church rectory she served as cook.

As a teen, Gery worked at his father’s print shop and gas station.

“My father, he couldn’t care less if I was his son — you go there, and you hustle,” Gery Chico said. “When those customers pull up, boom — I’m out there.’

Chico attended Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic Elementary School. He wore a uniform and faced a “no-excuses” attitude — two things he later brought to Chicago public schools.

“The beauty of the nuns was, they didn’t care where you came from,” Chico said. “You were going to learn. . . . There was no decrying your conditions.”

Chico was the head of the altar boys, captain of the patrol boys. He made the all-star baseball team at least two years running.

But playing catcher exacerbated some hip problems. After eighth-grade, Chico had pins put in each hip, forcing him to sit out freshman year at Kelly High School in a wheelchair at home. As a result, said Craig Chico, “There were some really dark days.”

‘How the money works’

In the late 1960s, Chico’s parents bought a cottage in South Haven, Mich., opening a world of pristine beaches and new people to Chico. There, during summer break from the University of Illinois at Champaign, Chico met Jeryl Minow.

She was 16. He was 19. She was a Jewish North Sider. He was a Catholic South Sider.

Five years later, they married under a chuppah. A mariachi band rocked the Blackstone Hotel reception.

Earlier, after sophomore year, Chico switched to U of I’s Chicago campus. He did volunteer work in the 11th Ward because “I was community oriented.”

“People would throw out refrigerators, couches, stoves, and the ward would recruit volunteers, and we’d go up and down the alleys picking up this stuff to discard it,” Chico said.

Senior year, the political science major was looking for an “externship” in the city Department of Planning. His 11th Ward contacts — he can’t remember who — wrote him “a nice note. They said ‘This is a good guy. This guy volunteers in the community. Check him out.’ ‘’ He landed the job.

Chico took to the streets, interviewing business owners about what the city might do to help them stay. His current “Chico Jobs Plan” drew on some of those experiences.

In 1980, Chico heard about a City Council Finance Committee opening, and South Haven friend Ed Bell, chief administrative officer to Finance Chair Wilson Frost, “brought me over,” Chico said.

Chico stayed through City Council Wars and Finance chairmen Edward Burke, Burton Natarus and Timothy Evans.

“Gery was a hardworking guy, charming, fun to be around,” recalled one former Finance Committee colleague, attorney Cornelia Honchar. “He worked well with everybody.”

By the time Chico left, she said, he understood “the most important thing — how the money works.”

‘Street Smart’

While at the Finance Committee, Chico took night classes at Loyola University Law School, sometimes bouncing first-born Sarah on his knee as he read his law books.

When other Loyola freshmen got “panicky’’ about an upcoming test, Chico stayed “level-headed,’’ telling his study group, “I’ll tell you what one question will be,’’ recalled classmate Marc Forkins.

When the test came out, “it was if he had stolen the exam,’’ Forkins said. There was the question, and “he winked at me because we all had talked about it the night before.’’

Even earlier, at U of I at Champaign, said former roommate Gary Greenspan, Chico was always prepared and organized. His study outlines were “unbelievably neat’’— just like Chico’s side of their room. “His clothes were hung up beautifully,’’ Greenspan said, “even jeans.’’

Two years after Chico finished law school, Burke called attorney Jack Guthman, then at prestigious Sidley & Austin.

“Ed was doing me a favor by advising me that a talented young lawyer was available,” said Guthman, a land-use and zoning lawyer. At Sidley, Chico proved himself “street smart” and a “very hard-working fellow, a very quick study, very articulate.”

By 1991, Chico told Guthman he had received “an offer I can’t refuse” — deputy mayoral chief of staff, Guthman said. It required moving from Buffalo Grove to Chicago — and into the fourth of eight houses Gery and Jeryl Chico owned over 21 years, including ones in South Haven and Scottsdale, Ariz.

“We moved a lot. What I remember was this idea of the American dream and wanting bigger and better. And we had more children.’’ said Jeryl Chico, mother of Chico’s three daughters.

‘He got things done’

By 1992, Daley promoted Chico to chief of staff. With Budget Director Paul Vallas, Chico worked to add 1,000 police officers and improve city neighborhoods in a Neighborhoods Alive program.

Chico put the infrastructure plans on software to monitor them and took to the streets to double-check. “You can’t just take paper reports,’’ he said.

When Daley won control of the city’s troubled public schools in 1995, he turned to his A-team. Chico, who was returning as partner to Sidley & Austin, was tapped for the non-salaried job of school board president. Vallas was named schools CEO.

In whirlwind fashion, the pair ended “social promotion” and instituted mandatory summer school, brought experts to struggling schools and created high schools for high-scoring kids. More than 60 schools or additions sprang up. Hispanic kids finally got some relief from crowding.

“My first capital plan was $600 million. Gery pushed me to get it to $1 billion,” said Vallas, now head of New Orleans Recovery School District. “He drove that plan. . . . Gery is an action guy. He got things done.”

Test scores rose, but critics charged schools were turning into test-prep mills. Amid a dip in some 2001 scores, Daley was ready for a change. Chico resigned.

By then, Chico had switched to Altheimer & Gray, where he was top rainmaker. He was in the middle of a divorce.

At a friend’s pre-millienium day party, on Dec. 29, 1999, Chico — then separated from his wife — met Sunny Penedo, a divorced teacher and principal serving as regional director for the U.S. Department of Education.

She was a Batavia Republican. He was a Chicago Democrat. Still, Chico was impressed.

Two years later, the couple married in the sparkling Christmas tree room of the Museum of Science and Industry, entertained by a mariachi band.

A ‘very difficult time’

In July 2002, Chico kicked off a run for U.S. Senate. At the time he was one of four Altheimer co-chairs and chair of the executive committee.

In mid-campaign, the 88-year-old firm dissolved and was forced into bankruptcy. Some blamed poor management, pointing at Chico, among others.

“If this guy can’t manage a law firm with revenues of $100 million, how is he going to manage a city?” asked one former equity partner who asked for anonymity.

Chico was not Altheimer’s sole chairman, CFO or managing partner, countered attorney Robert I. Berger, who sat on two key Altheimer financial committees.

Berger blamed the collapse on a lousy economy that hurt 2002 revenues and sent some partners who didn’t want to swallow 2003 pay cuts to the exits. Their departure further aggravated the cash crunch.

More than 50 equity partners, including Chico, voted in early July 2003 to dissolve, said Berger, a Chico supporter.

Chico was among nine executive committee members who personally covered 45 percent of the creditor settlement, Berger said. The demise left Chico with a $1.246 million “personal liability,” one court ruling shows.

He was trounced in the March 2004 Democratic primary by then state senator and now President Barack Obama.

The next year, Chico and his wife reported a total income of minus $66,000.

During this “very difficult time,” said Sunny Chico, now an education consultant, she was “the breadwinner.” She encouraged Chico to open “something that belongs to you.”

‘I believe in public service’

In 2004, Chico joined forces with Marcus Nunes, a Planning Department colleague, to form Chico & Nunes. With Chico holding a 67 percent stake, business took off.

By 2006, Chico and his wife reported joint total income, before deductions, of $1.28 million. By 2009, that figure rose to $2.8 million.

More duty called. Daley tapped Chico as Park District president in 2007 and City Colleges chairman in 2010. In between, Chico and his wife bought two homes in one year.

In January 2009, records show, they paid $2.35 million for their South Michigan Avenue condo, a finely appointed, mahagony-floored showplace. That May they paid $2.4 million for a 5,800-square foot house with a pool in Scottsdale.

The couple also own a Beverly Shores, Ind., vacation home. And Chico rents out a house on South Loomis.

Sunny Chico says the properties represent a lifetime of savings. “We worked very hard,” she said. “We really believe in investing in property.”

Opponents contend Chico capitalized on his City Hall contacts.

“To think that I have built my practice on City Hall is just erroneous,” Gery Chico said. At least 90 percent of Chico & Nunes revenues, he insisted, come from business that has nothing to do with City Hall.

As mayor, Chico’s income could drop, but he says that’s OK. “My wife and I would have to make adjustments. It happens all the time.

“Anybody who does well in the private sector and goes into the public sector has to be prepared to do that and we are,” Chico said. “I believe in public service.”

Contributing: Tim Novak and Chris Fusco

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