Feature photo by Kevin Sherman
If mayoral candidate Gery Chico’s campaign seems to be struggling to gain momentum, it’s because he’s walking a tightrope. The former Chief of Staff for Mayor Daley and head of the Chicago Public Schools, Chicago Park District, and City Colleges of Chicago has to work a little harder than the rest of the field to cast himself as a reformer. Chico’s challenge has been to convince Chicagoans that his extensive experience in powerful city positions had nothing to do with the problems he identifies in how it’s run. Thus far, he has struck a workable medium between these two positions.
On paper, Chico is as formidable a candidate as any other in the race, unless the paper you’re looking at has the campaigns’ balance sheets or poll numbers on it. In a validation of the perception that Chicago voters resemble citizens of Czarist Russia more than free thinkers, Rahm Emanuel’s strongman-in-waiting candidacy holds a commanding lead in both of those regards. Carol Moseley Braun is a distant second. Chico, however, has proved resilient. His tenure as the head of CPS has earned him many admirers, and his experience on the fifth floor leaves little doubt that he is more familiar with the gears of Chicago politics than any other candidate. Endorsements from the Fraternal Order of the Police and influential labor groups have buoyed his image as the choice of blue collar workers. Despite the campaign’s numerical disadvantages, Chico the candidate is a compelling prospect to succeed his one-time boss.
Last week, a few of us representatives of Latino media got a chance to meet with Chico’s Mexican half (the other is his mother’s mix of Lithuanian and Greek) for breakfast at the La Villita Nuevo Leon. After introducing himself around the room, he made a short, engaging speech outlining his grievances with the city and ideas for change. From the outset, it was clear that whatever stances he plans to take as mayor, he definitely lived for a time at 47th and Marshfield. He cited this biographical fact about as frequently as I imagine he says the word “cut” when addressing the Chamber of Commerce. I was pleasantly surprised to hear him use that word liberally on this occasion as well. I saw Chico speak to a group of well-to-do lawyers a month ago. His speech to us Latinos was not only longer than what the lawyers got, but similar in direction and emphasis, indicating either a sneaky congruency of message, or, God forbid, a genuine plan for running the city.
The centerpiece of that vision is a mission to make Chicago more business-friendly by removing official barriers to entry. He suggested measures to eliminate the Cook County Clerk’s office and simplify the individual tax code. The topic that evoked the most emotion from him was immigration. He claimed to have fought for the rights of the undocumented and for immigration reform his entire career. (Chico refrained from referencing a 2005 episode in which Emanuel encouraged Democratic representatives to vote for a Republican border-control bill to seem tough on illegals.) He certainly has more anecdotal familiarity than his two main competitors on this issue: his parents hosted undocumented relatives at their home for a time in his youth.
Other issue proposals included a longer school day and year and the solicitation of “innovative sources of funding,” like advertising revenue, to invigorate the CTA without a fare hike. Chico praised Gozamos, specifically, for being the next generation of civic evolution by taking the methods of old (gesturing toward an old newspaper writer) and bringing them to a new crowd (gesturing back to a beaming me.) By the time he left, he had taken questions from our reporter pool long enough—and answered them directly enough—that nothing about the meet-and-greet seemed perfunctory or staged, though of course it was. Nevertheless, Chico inspired confidence that he would effectively lead the machine he has served all his life. If Moseley Braun continues to stall, and if key endorsements continue to come in, he may get his chance.