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Claypool welcomes Nichols back into the fold

9-19-07 St.Felicitas Catholic Church 1526 E. 84th St. Chicago Funeral for Orlando Jones The casket Orlando Jones is carried from

9-19-07 St.Felicitas Catholic Church, 1526 E. 84th St., Chicago Funeral for Orlando Jones The casket of Orlando Jones is carried from the church. Amoung thoses attending the services are Gerald Nichols. [Keith Hale/Sun-Times]

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Updated: December 12, 2012 6:37AM

You can look at the saga of Gerald Nichols, the late John Stroger’s patronage chief, two ways.

As they say in politics, there are no permanent enemies, just permanent interests. Or as they say on the street, you can’t keep a good man down.

Last week, Nichols quietly went to work for CTA Board President Forrest Claypool as an $85,000-a-year project consultant for the Red Line South reconstruction project.

I reached out to Nichols, but he declined to be interviewed.

But when Nichols was drummed out of county government in 2007, he was earning $114,000 annually for doing a job that most county officials pretended didn’t exist, even though they all knew Nichols’ role was to run the huge patronage army that the late elder Stroger had amassed over three terms.

This comeback is impressive for a couple of reasons.

Nichols will be reporting to Claypool, the man he helped the elder Stroger defeat despite the fact that Stroger had suffered a stroke the week before the primary.

“I reached out to him,” Claypool told me. “I have intimate knowledge of his strength and skills. Claypool also pointed out that Nichols “didn’t do anything wrong.”

“He fought very hard for his boss and worked effectively. Even as an adversary, he was a guy who had a sense of fairness. He will do a very good job on the project,” Claypool said emphatically.

Five years ago, Nichols was at the center of a firestorm that kicked off the younger Todd Stroger’s disappointing tenure as Cook County Board President.

Bowing to pressure from editorial boards that called for Nichols’ head, the younger Stroger said he would make a clean sweep by firing Nichols after he was elected. When he reneged on that promise, political writers hounded him daily.

After all, patronage officially fell out of favor when former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s patronage chief, Robert Sorich, was convicted of mail fraud.

The feds launched an investigation into whether Nichols’ efforts to secure jobs for the elder Stroger’s friends and political supporters crossed the line, and came up empty-handed.

Nichols was never charged with any wrongdoing, but the questions and condemnations of the patronage system made him toxic.

He was forced out of county government in 2007.

But — and here is the other reason Nichols’ comeback is impressive — with the CTA gearing up for its $425 million Red Line project in 2013, Nichols’ role as a “patronage chief” is being recast.

“We are about to embark on the most ambitious project in CTA history. We will have to provide as many opportunities for creating jobs for other minority groups as possible in the footprint of those projects,” Claypool told me. “It is imperative to make these capital projects come through.”

“[Gerald] has extraordinary skills, both in his deep understanding of Chicago’s neighborhoods and a longstanding relationship with community groups and elected officials that go back many, many years,” he said.

This is no longer an issue that can be handled haphazardly.

Ed Gardner, the 87-year-old founder of the iconic Soft Sheen Hair Products Co., recently led protests on the South Side because too few blacks are working on construction sites.

And Mayor Rahm Emanuel is making an obvious effort to ensure that African Americans on the South Side have a real shot at jobs stemming from the project.

Besides being a part of the CTA’s diversity team, Nichols will serve as a liaison to the Chicago Urban League. That civil rights organization will help monitor minority participation on the Red Line project.

“[Gerald] knows who he can trust and his experience in government is hard to duplicate,” noted U.S. Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.), who recently hosted a two-day summit for minorities interested in securing contracts in the construction trades.

“I see Gerald as a quality guy, notwithstanding the media portrayal. It would be a real mistake and disservice to Gerald and the community and to contractors to make a decision about Gerald based on media perception.”

Frankly, I believe in second chances.

But Nichols’ reversal of fortune offers an empowering lesson for young people going into any field.

As a former political reporter put it: “Politics can get you in the door, but even your enemies have to recognize hard work.”

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