Why Gery Chico is the white candidate for mayor

February 18, 2011

Every time I see or hear Gery Chico’s commercial targeting Latinos I’m always amazed. In it, Congressman Luis Gutierrez looks straight at the camera and talks about what a great guy Chico is and how he will get things done. It’s a peculiar bit of theater for a number of reasons.

First, there’s the Gutierrez endorsement itself. Mainstream media bat it around as if Luis could snap his fingers and deliver all 15 percent of Chicago’s Hispanic voters. It actually means a lot less than it seems, and it has a lot more to do with Gutierrez than with Chico.

Let’s be clear: Gutierrez is backing Chico because he needed a horse in this race and the other three were out of the question. Rahm Emanuel is anathema to Luis because of his role in the Obama administration’s regressive immigration policies, Gutierrez has been around long enough to know exactly how unreliable Carol Moseley Braun is, and he and Miguel del Valle – both Puerto Ricans – have been nursing schoolyard grudges since the early 80s.

But the other reason the commercial is so odd is that Chico, selling himself as a Latino for only the second time in his life, doesn’t actually appear in the clip until the very end, in a still image.

I’m not doubting Chico’s ethnic claims: his father was a Mexican immigrant and his family has long roots in the community. But the only two times Chico has made his ethnicity clear or pretended to have some claim to latinidad has been in his two runs for public office: now and in 2004, when he ran against Barack Obama and a handful of others for the U.S. Senate. No big surprise that in both cases – now and then – being Latino has certain advantages.

Which makes the Gutierrez commercial even curiouser: there’s the congressman, at ease, chattering away in Spanish, and Chico, static and silent, looking up and away. Perhaps Chico didn’t want to speak his broken Spanish on camera, but that seems absurd when even Mark Kirk was willing to hablar español. And, frankly, no one expects second generation immigrant kids – like Chico – to speak it perfectly.

At the end of the commercial, we’re left with the feeling that Chico wants just enough identification from the viewer but not too much closeness: to be seen as a Latino leader by Hispanics so they might be predisposed to vote for him, but not to be seen talking to Hispanics as one of them.

That’s actually no surprise when you consider that Gery Chico, Latino though he may be, is really the default white candidate in this mayoral contest. Not because of any doubts about his ethnicity but because he represents – he’s bought and sold – by the traditional white interests in Chicago.

In other words, whatever’s left of the old Democratic Machine.

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If you scan the archives of local newspapers, whether it’s the Tribune or the Reader or any of myriad community newspapers, Gery Chico’s name starts popping up in the early 90s, at almost the same time that Mayor Richard M. Daley Daley named him deputy chief of staff. A few early articles mention his Mexican father but no one points out – least of all Chico – that he’s a Latino from Back-of-the-Yards.

Chico supporters have told me that’s because Chico transcends race, that he doesn’t depend on race, that it’s his talent that gets him places, etc. And I’d say if that was true at the start of his career, then going Latino now seems both regressive and opportunistic. Never mind the fantasy that anyone in Chicago could actually transcend race.

In any case, Chico’s political story is well known: It begins with Daley, but much earlier than the early 1990s, when he wandered into Richard J. Daley’s ward office, the very heart of the old Democratic Machine, and volunteered. This was 1977, Chico was 21, and the Machine had long established its credentials as a suffocating racist behemoth.

Chico’s good work in the ward got him entry jobs in City Hall and the City Council. In a recent article in the Reader, Chico told Ben Joravsky, "I didn't like the racial divisiveness of Council Wars … At that time I needed a job. You ask anybody about me—I was always fair. Don't forget—I worked for Frost before I worked for Burke. And I worked for Evans after I worked for Burke. My strength is my ability to relate to all people."

What Chico doesn’t ever mention is that the black alderman he worked for on the finance committee, Wilson Frost, was a Machine die-hard who’d found out the hard way how race trumps loyalty when, after Richard J. Daley’s death, he assumed that as president pro tempore of the council he'd be the city’s acting mayor, then discovered that his good Machine buddies – the white guys who to this day support Chico – had literally locked him out of the mayor’s fifth floor office.

When Harold Washington was elected in 1983, the bigots took over the City Council, fired Frost as finance chair because he’d had the nerve to – reluctantly! – support the city’s first black mayor, but kept Chico. Later, when Washington finally got control of the council and turned the finance committee over to Tim Evans, Chico was kept on too – but because, as a conciliatory and practical gesture, Washington kept as much staff as possible to assure continued smooth operations.

One of Chico’s mentors then was the powerful 14th ward Alderman Edward Burke, one of the leaders of the white faction in the divided council. After Washington died, Burke assumed the chairmanship of the finance committee (which he continues to hold), making him in many ways the city’s number two man. Chico and Burke don’t deny they’re buddies, and Burke has endorsed Chico. On Tuesday, have no doubt that Burke’s armies – the still quite mighty remnants of the old Machine – will be out in force to get votes out for their man, Chico.

So it should come as no surprise that, in a recent mayoral debate, when Miguel del Valle called for Burke to allow a more democratic process in the City Council and Rahm Emanuel suggested that Burke might, in a gesture of shared sacrifice with the citizenry, give up his costly six person security detail, all Chico would do was praise his godfather, calling him “a wealth of information.”

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In 1987, just as Harold Washington consolidated his forces, Gery Chico left City Hall to work for a law firm that had deep ties to the Democratic machine. He specialized in zoning and made loads of money.

When he came back to government, as Richard M. Daley’s deputy chief of staff, he began the long career path he now touts as the great preparation for succeeding the man who has made his very comfortable life possible.

Daley has appointed Chico to four different jobs: first deputy and then chief of staff, president of the school board, president of the park district, and president of City Colleges.

No one doubts that Chico was a hard working, head-down, deferential chief of staff. He was also despised by a press corps that found him inaccessible, obstructionist and arrogant.

After four years, Chico left the mayor’s staff and almost immediately was named by Daley as president of the Chicago Board of Education.

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Gery Chico’s five year tenure as president of the Chicago School Board is at the core of his campaign today. It’s his claim to understanding massive government bureaucracies, balancing budgets, making executive decisions and management experience.

The first thing to be clear about Chico’s education tenure is that it was not, in fact, a full-time job. In fact, it was not a job at all – it was an unpaid political appointment that meant about three days a month of work. And it was not managerial – as Curtis Black pointed out in the Huffington Post, it was an “oversight” job.  The actual budget and managerial work was done by Paul Vallas, the schools chief executive, and anonymous board of education staff.

The second thing to be clear about is that Vallas and Chico were appointed in 1995 by Daley after he’d wrestled control of the schools from the legislature. And because Daley has never been a populist, a good chunk of his agenda had less to do with reforming schools than with bringing the schools back into the political fold after they'd gone a bit independent during an earlier reform effort.

And Chico and Vallas performed: The unions were tamed, the Local School Councils were brought to their knees, and all board committes were eliminated, seriously cutting into public discussions. More than 100 schools – most in African-American and Latino neighborhoods – were put on probation and governing power stripped from their LSCs. This was no small thing: The LSCs were producing grassroots leaders in previously quietly submissive wards. Benito Juarez High School, in the heart of Pilsen/Little Village, was a Chico target.

It’s absolutely true that Chico was at the board's helm when the city’s school scores improved. It is also absolutely true that they dropped almost as quickly, and that even Daley was dismayed by the turn of events.

And, perhaps most significantly, Chico inherited a drop out rate that hovered around 50 percent that barely moved during his tenure – but which has dropped more than seven points since his departure!

There is also no question that Chico and Vallas – using the largesse bestowed on them by the legislature at Daley’s request – built, renovated and improved schools and other CPS facilities. But where that construction took place often had little to do with need.

A widely circulated and much quoted article from Substance, an independent -- and frequently contentious -- teacher run magazine told this story in 2000: “On January 3 Daley rang in the New Year with Alderman Patrick Levar of the 45th Ward, on the Northwest side. The occasion was the ribbon cutting ceremony of the $10.6 million addition to the Portage Park Elementary School, 5330 W. Berteau. Daley and his large cast of Chicago public school appointees celebrated the new school building, where a new addition and repairs, landscaping and wrought iron fences had been added to the original school. . . . One week later, in one of the working class (and African American) communities on the city's South Side, sewer water seeped up through the floors in a school lunchroom. Faculty helped the kids avoid the standing water when they moved around the room, carrying their trays of food to their tables. The school was the Anderson Community Academy, located at 6315 S. Claremont, in an area where the homes are almost identical to those in the Portage Park community."

The Tribune reported that a little more than three weeks later, 15th Ward alderman Ted Thomas reminded school president Chico that he had complained a year earlier about the conditions at Anderson and had been promised a response within 30 days. "Anderson is on our list," replied Chico. "Believe me. It's not like we have the money and we don't want to give it to you.”

Levar, of course, is a longtime Burke ally; Thomas was not. Focusing goods and services in white allied areas is exactly what the Machine has always done. Denying them to other parts of the city – areas whose advocates lack access to the inner circle – is also classic Machine playbook.

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What Gery Chico did best at the Chicago Board of Education was to follow the example of his Machine patrons and get rich.

According to the Tribune, Chico’s then law firm , Altheimer & Gray, had just 18 lobbying clients in 1995. In the five years Chico was president of the school board, it increased its client roll to nearly 200. Those same clients made $505,000 in school board business in 1995; in 1999, the schools gave them $259 million in contracts. 

Some of the contracts were so obvious as to be laughable. A  Tribune story from October 27, 1999 reported this: “It wouldn't be the first time that Alvin Gutierrez scored a no- bid PR contract from the Chicago schools. He got one last summer for up to $39,000 -- just weeks after his sister's extraordinarily flattering Channel 7 ‘Tapestry’ profile of ... Chicago school board President Gery Chico.”

This week, the Huffington Post reported on Chico’s involvement with the Save-A-Life Foundation, but it didn’t get into the fact that there are still outstanding questions as to whether the foundation – on which Chico served as a board member (in a really ballsy move, his campaign denies his involvement with them, even though there’s documented evidence a-go-go) – actually did the work it was paid $49,000 to do. The work, by the way, was to teach CPS kids the discredited Heimlich maneuver.

The back and forth between being school board president and partner in a firm that did oodles of government business, and where he led the lobbying division – without registering as a lobbyist – provoked constant headlines about Chico’s blurry ethical lines. In April 2000, the Tribune reported that Altheimer & Gray clients had received more than $577 million in school contracts during Chico's first four years as board president.

Chico had so many conflicts of interest at the board that he abstained on 359 different votes. He’d like us to think those abstentions underscore his ethical conduct. What they actually did was underscore how deeply enmeshed his board and law practice were, in classic Machine style.

What they also show is a Machine man learning the most nuanced of the tools of the trade: to do one thing and then look any skeptic in the eye and bold face lie by calling it something else.

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A couple of years after Gery Chico left the board, just before he decided to run for the U.S. Senate against Barack Obama and others, his law firm went belly up, even after Chico took a paycut from $1.3 million to a mere $800,000.

This, from the Tribune, is Chico’s take on what happened: "A lot of people want to cast this in a horribly pejorative light … A collapse of the firm is nothing more than a majority of the 50 owners of the firm deciding that they don't want to continue as that firm anymore. That's it. People want to cast this as some horrible calamity and that's not true. Everybody is working. Everybody is at other firms, like myself, practicing law again. Life goes on. … Altheimer & Gray was never a money loser. A couple of creditors got a little innovative and made claims that I don't think are there. They forced us into bankruptcy. We were collecting our debts and paying our bills. Other people wanted more money than they are entitled to."

These days, Chico won’t talk about any of this. He told the Reader’'s Ben Joravsky he learned some lessons and moved on. He won’t discuss the firm’s $25 million in debt (including money owed to the landlord), the lawsuits from former partners, or the accusations by his former partners of mismanagement.

It’s like it never even happened.

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In 2004, Gery Chico ran a terrible campaign for U.S. Senate in which he garnered less than five percent of the statewide vote in the primary. It did, however, give him an opportunity to distinguish himself by being the only candidate who supported full same sex marriage rights. (By then Barack Obama had backed off marriage and was all for civil unions.)

That position prompted an interview with Windy City Times on February 14, 2004 that produced this exchange, which may say less about his support for gay rights, which appears quite genuine, than what a quintessential politician he is:

WCT: Were there gay curriculum issues for gay and lesbian youth at the schools?

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CHICO: From time to time. More of a general nature. Occasionally somebody would complain about a book that went into subject matter that a particular group of parents thought went too far, one way or the other. I would say, hey, wait a minute. This is America. We need intellectual freedom. And also, we need to sensitize our kids.

WCT: Were you there when April Sinclair's Coffee Will Make You Black was censored?

CHICO: I'll tell you where I fall on that issue. I am for more openness, not less openness.

In this year’s LGBT issues questionnaire published by Equality Illinois, Chico says: “I have a long history of being a friend of the LGBT community. I have been committed to fighting on behalf of the community. As Chief of Staff to the Mayor, I extended the benefits for domestic partners and prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation.”

This long history appears to go back to 2003, when he attended his first Pride parade. Chico, of course, did not extend domestic partners benefits to anyone – that was an executive order signed by Mayor Richard M. Daley.

This longtime friend of the community was also the sole mayoral candidate who didn’t make it to last week’s LGBT Mayoral Forum. Due to the blizzard, a rescheduled forum sponsored by The Defender coincided with the queer concave. Miguel del Valle, Carol Moseley Braun and Rahm Emanuel – who all have long and distinguished records with both the African-American and LGBT communities – managed to make it to both forums and speak.

On his Facebook page, Chico made it seem like he was a victim of a different scheduling conflict, that he’d arrived at 5:45 and the LGBT organizers wouldn’t let him on stage. When one of the organizers wrote in to say that Chico had a pre-scheduled time of 7:20 and that re-scheduling him meant re-scheduling everyone, Chico quickly deleted the comments.

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There’s not much to say, really about Gery Chico’s tenures at the Park District or City Colleges.

At the former, he played ball for the Olympics and gave the elite and private Latin School a soccer field that ended up costing the district more than $2 million.

At City Colleges, he laid off 225 staffers within four months of his very abbreviated appointment.

This was all at Daley’s bidding, even as Chico protested that he was "not Daley’s lackey" -- Chico's words.

He resigned the City Colleges gig to run for mayor. He has promised the world to the cops and the firefighters, brave men and women indeed, and solid partners in the old time Machine.

He won’t try to renegotiate the parking meter lease – a deal he admits sucks but which benefits too many people he knows. 

He has had to give back thousands of dollars in contributions from shady characters doing business or wanting to do business with the city, including $25,000 from taxicab impresario Symon Garber, whom Chico’s firm represents in a case that could mean $9 million in fines from City Hall.

His current law firm, Chico & Nunes, is a registered City Hall lobbyist for more than 40 companies. Chico says if he wins he’ll sever his ties to the firm but won’t stop them from doing city business – a classic Machine position.

Last week, in spite of his pro-gay and generally progressive social agenda, he got an endorsement from Illinois’ Tea Party and another from Dick Morris, the controversial political advisor to conservative candidates and to former President Clinton.  Initially, his campaign accepted – it’s inconceivable to me that any of the other three campaigns would even consider doing this -- the Tea Party endorsement, then Chico himself rejected them both.

Why would these bigots endorse Chico? Simple, he’s their best shot, the most pliable, most buyable candidate. And like Gutierrez – who's probably dying at the mere suggestion of those endorsements -- they need a horse in the race.

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In the Tribune/WGN debate, Gery Chico said: "Each and every time I've been asked to serve as the mayor's chief of staff, the Chicago school board president, the Chicago Park District president and as chairman of the City Colleges, I stepped up. And never has there been a suggestion that I did anything but pursue the public interest in any one of those jobs."

He’d really like us to believe that, but it’s just not true. There have been plenty of suggestions, questions and headlines, all in the public record.

The only interests Gery Chico has ever served are his own, and those of the old white Chicago Democratic Machine.