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Thirteen years ago, Lisa Schrader didn’t know what an alderman was — soon she’ll be mayor’s top aide

LisSchrader Mayor Rahm Emanuel's new Chief Staff

Lisa Schrader, Mayor Rahm Emanuel's new Chief of Staff

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Updated: April 4, 2013 6:44AM

Ten years ago, Lisa Schrader was a spokeswoman for the city budget office doing daily battle with Chicago Sun-Times reporters about to blow the lid off the Hired Truck scandal.

On March 15, she’ll move into the driver’s seat as Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s second chief of staff.

How does a low-level national Democratic operative from Ohio who applied for a job at Richard M. Daley’s City Hall knowing no one end up on top — and rise above the minor role she played in Hired Truck and the parking meter deal, two of Daley’s biggest headaches?

“It’s unusual for someone to start where she started and ended. But, she didn’t rise through any kind of clout. She rose on talent,” said John Schmidt, Daley’s first of a dozen chiefs of staff.

“She’s smart. She’s focused. She has judgment. She doesn’t panic. She’s a very good person. She has character. People have trust in her. If I were the mayor of Chicago, I would want Lisa as my chief of staff. It’s the smartest thing Rahm has done since he’s been mayor.”

Schmidt said he first met Schrader, 41, when she was a “press person” for the budget office, a role that placed her in the unenviable position of having to fend off the Hired Truck stories.

Schrader subsequently worked as a deputy budget director, deputy chief financial officer and deputy chief of staff under Paul Volpe, chief architect of the parking meter deal that Emanuel has condemned as a lop-sided disaster for Chicago taxpayers.

“She wasn’t the decision-maker on any of those matters. She demonstrated her talents during those years, but she wasn’t making policy,” said Schmidt, describing Schrader as a loyal soldier moving up the ranks.

In her cramped City Hall office down the hall from Emanuel’s, the self-effacing Schrader was clearly uncomfortable talking about her unlikely rise to power.

The daughter of a high school football and basketball coach in Kettering, Ohio, she graduated from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, then cut her teeth working for liberal-leaning non-profits and political campaigns, including Democrat Harvey Gantt’s failed attempt to unseat U.S. Senator Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina).

In 2000, Schrader was part of the team the Democratic National Committee dispatched to Texas to do opposition research on then-Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush’s record as governor.

On Nov. 15, 2000, Schrader moved to Chicago to join two of her closest friends even though she had not yet lined up a job.

“Everyone we had worked with on the presidential was going to Florida. My boss asked me if I wanted to go to Florida for the recount, and I had already made plans to move to Chicago right after the election. I was excited. So, I said, no,” Schrader said.

“I submitted my resume to the press office, interviewed for a bunch of different departments and ended up in Budget. My background was more in federal politics. I didn’t know much about city government or anything about city politics. Once I got into the role, I really loved it and did everything I could to absorb as much as I could in a short period of time.”

The budget office ended up being the best possible training ground, even if Schrader needed a flak jacket during Hired Truck.

“There’s nothing that happens that the budget office doesn’t touch in some way. Starting out explaining to reporters where money is spent and how that translates into priorities for the city was a very helpful base for me learning city government,” Schrader said.

Schrader acknowledged that she didn’t know what an aldermen was when she arrived in Chicago, let alone that the City Council had 50 of them.

But, she said, “There were a lot of people along the way who were very patient with me, helped me and taught me a lot” instead of just blurting out the answer and sending her on her way.

Although Daley professed neutrality in the 2011 race to succeed him, the retiring mayor’s support for Emanuel was an open secret. It was obvious from Emanuel’s detailed position papers that he was getting help from the inside.

Schrader insists she was too busy holding down the fort to help Emanuel, but she was “supportive and wanted to see him win.” When Emanuel won the primary, Schrader made her pitch to stay through the detailed plans she outlined to the mayor’s transition team.

“I’ve always admired him and was very interested in serving for him and felt that I could be helpful, in the role I had been in most recently and with my history in city government. I was excited about the opportunity to work for him,” she said.

New mayors — even those with ties to the old one — need someone who can help them navigate the shark-infested waters of Chicago politics and steer clear of political land mines.

Once a stranger to Chicago politics, Schrader had schooled herself into becoming one of the greybeards. She knew where the bodies were buried.

She has emerged as Emanuel’s navigator, first in the newly-created job of chief operating officer and, beginning March 15, as chief of staff.

“She has a great combination of experience and instinct that’s invaluable — and one of the best b------- detectors I’ve ever seen. You need that to be able to cut through and achieve what the mayor wants,” said an admiring colleague, who asked to remain anonymous.

“Government is a series of problems and how you approach fixing them. The more you can anticipate them in advance — the farther down the road you recognize them — the more latitude you have to address those problems, whether budget, operations or legislation. Lisa has a good eye for down the road.”

Another co-worker noted that Schrader’s toughness and institutional knowledge came in handy during negotiations on the mayor’s first budget, painfully balanced with 535 layoffs and $220 million in taxes, fines and fees.

“Everybody was playing tricks. She wouldn’t stand for it. She has the history. It’s tough to imagine where we would have been without her,” one source said.

Schrader doesn’t like to toot her own horn, which is part of the reason why she’s such a popular choice as captain of Emanuel’s team.

“I would like to think I’ve been helpful to him in the last 21 months, [but] I have learned an enormous amount from him. His vision, his determination, his skills are incredible,” she said.

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