Gery Chico, 54, is Mr. Government. He was Mayor Daley’s chief of staff, and later headed the Chicago Public Schools and the park district. As a politician, he’s been less successful: in 2004, he ran in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate. Barack Obama blew away that entire field, but he really blew away Chico, who won only 4 percent of the vote. Now Chico, who is currently a partner at Chico and Lunes and head of the city colleges, wants to be mayor. Ward Room spoke to him this week.
Q: You had more high-level jobs with the city of Chicago than anyone else, but you’ve never held elective office. What makes you think you can start as mayor?
A: I think the jobs I’ve had in the city have probably been the most responsible jobs other than mayor: chairman of the school board, chairman of the park district, chief of staff to the mayor, the number two position in the city, and then finally city colleges chair.
Q: What did you learn about running for office from your 2004 Senate campaign?
A: I learned about the humility that comes along with begging for money. I learned about how it’s better for me to apply my strongest skill sets to the job I’m seeking, which is mayor. The Senate seat was my first foray into elective office, and it was the entire state of Illinois. This is a much, much more manageable geography, which is my home. It’s where I grew up, raised my kids and where I’ve worked my whole life. I came in third in the city in that race, so that’s encouraging.
Q: Do you think Mayor Daley’s going to make an endorsement in this election? What should voters take away from that statement that he’s closer to you than anybody?
A: I think it would be (something) a boss would speak about any employee over the years who’s taken on the tough assignments. There’ve been a lot of people who’ve worked for Mayor Daley over two decades. I think there’s a very small handful that have been given the enormous challenges that I’ve been given, and have responded positively and successfully to all those.
Q: Are you in favor of selling any more city assets?
A: Not very much. I’m even considering the parking meter deal again in a few ways. I’ll have more to say about that later. There’s certain assets that should just be off limits, like water. I’m not even sure about Midway. I think there are some things like the Skyway, that has been a dog financially from the day it opened anyway, and the underground parking garages at Grant Park. The proceeds from that transaction built 44 playgrounds. People like Manny Flores and David Hoffman have suggested criteria you might use to consider any kind of future proposals. As mayor, I would work with the city council in a very professional and participating way. I want their thought, I want their dialogue. I don’t believe in cram-down methods: here’s a deal, approve it or not in 36 hours. If we had really worked with the city council as a strong body to offer ideas and feedback, I think you would avoided some of the backlash that you’re seeing with this issue now.
Q: A lot of people, especially motorists, feel like the city’s in their pocket all the time, with the parking meters, the increased booting, the red-light cameras. How do you raise more revenue and balance the budget without making citizens feel like they’re being fleeced?
A: We have to stop harassing citizens with red-light cameras. How are we going to provide the revenue to run city government? We’re going to strip down the budget and rebuild it, so we get rid of all superfluous activity. Why we have a separate city treasurer, finance department and revenue department is crazy. The elimination of overhead that comes from the combination of those agencies speaks for itself. Government has to operate more entrepreneurially. The Chicago Park District operates the marina system. At the end of every season, we wave goodbye to those boats. I started the initiative to keep them here, store them here and maintain them on public grounds.
Q: Would you remove the red-light cameras?
A: I’m strongly considering removing the red-light cameras.
Q: Have you talked to Paul Vallas about coming back and running the schools again? You two were a team in the ’90s.
A: I have not talked to him about the school board. Frankly, I think Paul is doing other things right now.
Q: I would think that anybody who becomes mayor is not going to re-hire Jody Weis.
A: I’ve said that the next superintendent under my administration will come from within the ranks of the police department.
Q: You went to Kelly. Where did your kids go to high school?
A: They went to Von Steuben and Northside Prep. I think having that kind of first-hand knowledge of what goes on in those school buildings enabled me to be a stronger leader of the Chicago Public Schools.
Q: How long has it been since we had a mayor who sent his kids to public schools? Daley didn’t. Harold Washington didn’t have any kids.
A: It’s probably a long time. I can’t remember.
Q: What are you going to do build schools that keep the middle class in Chicago?
A: We do need stronger college prep curricula in the city. When I was at the school board, we instituted the International Baccalaureate program at 14 sites. It’s not just Lincoln Park. We need more Advanced Placement programs. It’s not just about particular places. It’s about programs that can be brought to existing places.
Q: What is your path to the runoff?
A: I hope we don’t have one.
Q: I don’t think anyone thinks there won’t be a runoff. You think you can get 50 percent?
A: If our message resonates with the people out there. You should hear what people are saying to us when they come up to us. The people are talking about playgrounds, they’re talking about schools, they want to know about jobs, the fines and the tax burden. I’m able to talk about these things with 20 years of experience. You’re not going to have to have me on a listening tour to be figuring out the first year and a half what goes on in city government.
Q: I was going to ask you if you wanted to take a shot at Rahm Emanuel, but there you go.