I finally catch up with Gery Chico at Pizza Capri, on 53rd Street in Hyde Park. It’s Saturday night, and he was sitting with his two schoolteacher children, Alyssa and Michael, about to order a plate of calamari. I’d just missed him earlier that afternoon. Chico walked into Quinn Chapel, the city’s oldest African-American church, just as I had to dash over to the National Museum of Mexican Art, to work on another assignment. (This blogging thing doesn’t pay all the bills.)
Chico poses for a few cell phone pictures, then invites me to sit down at his table and ask him questions. With public employee pensions an issue in the mayor’s race, I ask him, how do we avoid the kind of labor unrest happening in Wisconsin?
“I think that shows what happens when your position is too strident on an issue like this,” he says. “Rahm said he’s going to slash pensions of existing workers. He’s the only candidate who supports a package in Springfield that would take away teachers’ rights to bargain collectively.”
“Yeah, but you don’t think Rahm is gonna come down as hard on the unions as that guy in Wisconsin?”
Chico holds his thumb and forefinger an inch apart.
“That close," he says. "That’s what you’re headed for. I don’t think that’s the way to achieve a result. You don’t lay out your pre-conceived notions in the media. You sit at the table and you hash it out.”
“So, do you favor reducing benefits for current employees?” I ask.
Chico doesn’t give me a straight answer. As he said, he doesn’t want to lay out pre-conceived notions in the media.
“We have to arrive at a far more affordable and sustainable pension system,” Chico said. “I don’t think that you start by saying, ‘You’re going to have to give this up.’ If you go to the table with those unions and say ‘I’m slashing your benefits,’ you’re going to see the same thing here as in Wisconsin.”
Then I ask Chico about another issue he’s been avoiding: his relationship with Ald. Edward Burke. That morning, Chico attended Burke’s 14th Ward Democratic Party Breakfast. Burke is his political patron, going all the way back to Chico’s days on the City Council Finance Committee.
“At one of the debates, the candidates were asked whether they’d cut Ed Burke’s security detail. You ducked the question. What do you say to people who claim Ed Burke will run the city if you’re mayor?”
“It was never that way when I was school board president, or community college president, or chief of staff. Ed Burke’s always been a decent, honorable guy, and I would expect him to act the same way if I’m mayor.”
“Would you cut his security detail?”
“We’re going to look at all those things,” Chico says. “How many bodyguards does the mayor have? I haven’t been with Rich in awhile.”
“So what role would Burke have in writing the budget?” I ask.
“I intend to challenge the City Council to join with me,” he says. “You’re going to need a handful of key aldermen to step up and play a role, and one of those would be Ed Burke. He can help rearrange the budget to hire 2,000 new cops.”
“OK, next question. The census figures released this week showed we lost 200,000 people in the last decade. The neighborhoods shrank, while downtown grew. How do you repopulate the neighborhoods?”
“That’s not a trend that is sustainable without tremendous harm to our city,” Chico says. “Downtown is our newest neighborhood. That doesn’t mean we can forget what happens on the South Side of Chicago, the Southwest Side of Chicago. We need jobs populating commercial streets in the neighborhoods. You have to repopulate them with restaurants, dry cleaners, coffee shops. I don’t know why we can’t have Andersonville ten times over. We have not invested heavily enough in private sector business development.”
“OK, last question. You promised a runoff. Why do you think it’s going to happen, and why do we need one?”
“I think there’s a bit of a recoil taking place by the electorate who don’t want to be told who their next mayor is,” Chico says. “I don’t think we’re getting answers on this luxury tax. Let’s have two people hash it out for six more weeks. Let’s go beyond who’s qualified to be mayor. Let’s talk more about the issues.”
I stay for the appetizer. Pizza Capri has soft calamari, with a salty, crunchy breading. Then it’s family time for Chico, before he heads to the City-Suburban Showdown at UIC Pavilion. Unfortunately, he’ll only be the second-best-polling candidate there. Rahm Emanuel shows up, too.
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