MEDIA WATCH: Full (two--part) Chicago Magazine Interview with Karen Lewis (along with recent Chicago magazine coverage of Rahm Emanuel, Jean-Claude Brizard, and — remember this guy? — Ron Huberman)... How the one percent and one percent wannabes report reality
Chicago magazine has published an interview with Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis that deserves to be read (and responded to) by teachers, parents, students, and other union members. Take the introductory paragraphs as typical of the smug, Lakefront liberal version of reality pushed by the editors of Chicago ("the camera doesn't favor her..." "lumbering labor...") and contact Chicago to begin the fun. The editors take their smug version of reporting very seriously (and pay enormously to equally smug, usually privileged and white, "writers" who do their dirty work. There are any number of great recent examples from Chicago, but our favorites at Substance are the hagiographic profiles of Rahm Emanuel (a cover story) and the one about our brilliant former schools CEO, Ron Huberman. After reading Karen Lewis telling it like it is, they are worth a visit to see how Chicago spins the "news" to tell it like it isn't.
The URL for Part One of the Lewis interview is http://www.chicagomag.com/Chicago-Magazine/Felsenthal-Files/November-2011/Chicago-Teachers-Union-Pres-Karen-Lewis-on-Rahm-Brizard-Arne-Duncan-and-the-Longer-School-Day/
Substance is also taking a little time in this article to do a reprise of how Chicago magazine reports on the news about Chicago's schools going back less than three years. Following the interview with Karen Lewis, we published (a) an interview with Jean-Claude Brizard, (b) the fawning profile of Rahm Emanuel that ran in the October 2011 Chicago (with a photo on the cover), and (c) the fawning profile of Ron Huberman that ran (with a teaser on the cover) in the August 2009 issue of Chicago.
As readers can see, the Karen Lewis interview is the only one where the reporter mentions that he/she doesn't like (a) the appearance of the subject of the interview and (b) unions. Chicago magazine may or may not have a longer history of teacher bashing, privatization hyping, and union busting than now, but... CHICAGO MAGAZINE INTERVIEW WITH KAREN LEWIS POSTED ON LINE NOVEMBER 2, 2011.
Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis on Rahm, Brizard, Arne Duncan, and the Longer School Day. Posted Nov 2, 2011 at 03:05 PM By Carol Felsenthal
Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis has had some ugly squabbles with Rahm Emanuel — the longer school day battles, for starters, including his recent charge that the union is “cheating children out of an education”—and, in my opinion, she has often emerged the loser. Last week, she filed the CTU’s latest lawsuit against the city, charging that the school board is using its “TeacherFit” questionnaire to hire teachers who are willing to buck the union. The camera doesn’t favor her, and in her battle to stop the new mayor from pushing through a longer school day, she seems on the side of outmoded, lumbering labor. Who, after all, wants to deny Chicago public school kids more time for math, reading, lunch, and recess?
But in person, Lewis, 58—South Sider (grew up in Hyde Park, now lives in the Oakland neighborhood), CPS lifer (Kenwood, ‘71), daughter of two teachers, former high-school chemistry teacher (Sullivan, Lane Tech, King College Prep), wife of a now-retired CPS P.E. teacher — has a sharp sense of humor, and intelligence and articulateness to spare. After an hour spent with her at a conference table at the CTU’s headquarters in the Merchandise Mart, if someone asked me to choose a few words to describe her, I’d say “substantial, self-confident, direct.”
Here’s part one of an edited transcript of our conversation — about Rahm, Jean-Claude Brizard, Arne Duncan, and the longer school day. Tomorrow, look for part two, in which she discusses Obama’s presidency, the Occupy Chicago movement, her experience at Dartmouth College, and why she left the classroom for the board room.
CF: When I interviewed CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, I asked him whether it would make much difference if the Department of Education were eliminated (as a few of those vying for the Republican nomination for president have suggested). Would you consider that to be a big loss or a manageable change?
KL: I think the Department of Education should be run by someone who’s qualified to run it. I have an issue with who’s running it, not with the Department itself.
CF: So you have an issue with [Secretary of Education, former CPS CEO] Arne Duncan?
KL: Yeah, because he has a bachelor’s in sociology from Harvard and played basketball [he’s an education expert]? I think he’s completely and totally unqualified to do this job. And to me, it’s sort of indicative of how education is such a political tool now, as opposed to [his] having a real bent toward education. I think this is a way for Obama to try to make an olive branch with Republicans. There’s this mentality that outsiders and people with no education background are the… experts…. They want to privatize pubic education…. Arne’s policies here were a disaster.
CF: Give me a couple of examples.
KL: The whole idea of school closings and turnarounds and charter schools…. [When they closed a school] children were not going to other schools, especially in high school. They were choosing not to go to school…. They had never thought about the ramifications of what a school closing means. So if I close a school here, now this means that my children have to walk through gang territory…. There was just no understanding of community…. There was somebody sitting with a spreadsheet and making decisions without having any experience in that community.
CF: So Arne Duncan becomes Secretary of Education because he has the ties to the Obamas through the University of Chicago Lab School?
KL: Yes.... From what we understood — and I wasn’t in the room, so who knows—there was a choice between [Stanford Professor] Linda Darling Hammond — who is a respected researcher, has a PhD—and Arne Duncan, and you pick Arne? …. To me this would be like having a custodian in a hospital be the Surgeon General. He has worked in the hospital. He’s had some experience, but now you’re going to put him in charge? CF: What accounts for Arne Duncan’s kind of golden aura?
KL: He’s tall. CF: Rich Daley did not appoint educators to be CEO of CPS. Is it a hopeful sign to you that Rahm’s pick, Brizard, has been a teacher and administrator?
KL: It should be. Unfortunately, this job is so political; it’s infinitely more political than it is educational…. He’s not the superintendent; he’s the CEO—that’s a very business, political piece…. People also complained about the fact that people of color had no place in this administration…. So here was a perfect opportunity to get someone with an education background and who was a man of color because that wiped out a whole lot of criticism…. He’s going to ratchet this up and be Arne Duncan on steroids. I don’t think his color or his education background make a bit of difference if he’s part of the same political, bad-policy piece.
CF: Did you ever have your meeting with Brizard? [There was much press coverage of their public argument last month over where the meeting would take place.]
KL: No. We had several meetings before then, and what happened was I thought this is just getting out of control, that our meetings were taking on some sort of mythic proportion…. Quite frankly, at this point I don’t really know what it will all accomplish because I don’t think he’s the ultimate decision-maker in his organization. CF: Is Brizard Rahm Emanuel’s mouthpiece, a kind of a figurehead?
CF: Did you have another meeting with Rahm Emanuel?
KL: Nooooo. The last one didn’t go so well.
CF: That was the one where he unleashed some profanities?
KL: Oh, yes.
CF: Who would have been your ideal pick for CPS CEO?
KL: Linda Darling-Hammond…. I would like to see someone who has an education background and who understands what works and is not ideological or political… and who’s not pushing a privatization issue. CF: Rahm’s decision to send his kids to the private U of C Lab school—does it matter?
KL: I’m actually glad that he did because it gave me an opportunity to look at how the Lab school functions…. I thought he gave us a wonderful pathway to seeing what a good education looks like, and I think he’s absolutely right, and so we love that model. We would love to see that model throughout. CF: Brizard wanted to you to be part of coming up with 25 suggested schools that could implement a longer school day. Did that end with the Illinois Education Labor Relations Labor Board’s decision in your favor and the [CTU] Board’s asking Attorney General Lisa Madigan to go to court for an injunction stopping CPS from offering money to teachers whose schools vote in a longer school day? KL: We… knew the waivers [of the union contract] were illegal when they did them. And I don’t know whether they thought we were just going to say, “Okay.” ….So I got a letter saying they wanted 25 more, which made no sense…. We’ve told you we don’t want to do this, that this should be a planning year [next school year will bring the longer school day to all schools, no matter the CTU’s position] and now you’re asking for 25 more schools? You can just help me do something illegal…. It’s not logical, and so no I’m not interested in discussing 25 more schools.
CF: The 13 schools that have the longer school day—are they continuing on course?
KL: The nine that have already done it, the board has said… that they weren’t going to go back…. The Board of Education is like the worse schoolyard bully ever. “I’m just going to do what I want to do. I don’t have to follow the rules.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that Linda Darling-Hammond was the first black dean of the college of education at Harvard University. We regret the error.
PART TWO OF THE KAREN LEWIS INTERVIEW IS BELOW HERE. PUBLISHED ON LINE AT CHICAGO MAGAZINE'S WEBSITE ON NOVEMBER 3, 2011.
CTU President Karen Lewis: Race, Class at Center of Education Debate Posted Nov 3, 2011 at 03:13 PM By Carol Felsenthal
In part one of my conversation with Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, she discussed her views on Rahm Emanuel, Jean-Claude Brizard, Arne Duncan, and the longer school day. Below is an edited transcript of the rest of our chat, in which the former high-school chemistry teacher shares about her time at Dartmouth College, why she left the classroom for the CTU job, her thoughts on the poverty gap, and more.
CF: You left the classroom in June 2010 to take over the CTU. Were you growing weary of teaching?
KL: I was perfectly happy being a King High School chemistry teacher…. I had died and gone to teacher heaven. I had great relationships with my parents and my students. I felt completely supported by the administration and by my colleagues.
CF: Do you imagine yourself going back to be a classroom teacher?
KL: Yes. My term is up in 2013, and I’ll make a decision whether to run again.
CF: So tell me about your life before teaching and the union.
KL: I left Kenwood after my junior year and went to… Mt. Holyoke and [then] transferred to Dartmouth, just as it was going coed.
CF: What was your major at Dartmouth?
KL: I always say graduation. I don’t really remember Dartmouth that well. It was a really awful experience. I’m the only black woman in my class. So it was like being a complete and total pioneer…. I barely graduated…. I changed my major about every 15 minutes. But Dartmouth was an interesting experience. It just taught me that you have to persevere.... People did not want us there. The faculty and the students did not vote for coeducation; the trustees did, so there was a lot of hostility toward us.
CF: And then what?
KL: I got married right after graduation and moved with my first husband [since deceased] to Oklahoma…. His father and my grandmother grew up in a small black town in Oklahoma. They had known each other for years. I always say my first marriage was arranged because they got us together…. I met my second husband at school…. Now that one was really arranged because the kids got us together. I met him when I was teaching at Lane Tech….. He taught there for 30-some years.
CF: Your early work life?
KL: I worked in a variety of places… and then I decided I wanted to go to medical school, so I took all my classes over again, and I… went to medical school for two years here at UIC, hated every minute of it…. And I said, “Well, let me teach until I figure out what I want to do,” because I didn’t want to do what my parents did…. I just fell madly in love with teaching. I loved chemistry; I could explain it to kids who maybe struggle with math and science. I taught AP but also loved teaching regular…. I adore teenagers…. I found that [girls] were really good at [chemistry], and I think I was always shocked by this whole idea that girls aren’t as good at it as boys are. And a lot of girls told me it was because of stuff I told them [that they pursued science]….
My father [taught drafting and shop at Kenwood] was a proto-feminist. He did not see any difference between boys and girls…. We [Lewis has one younger sister] used to go to the All-Star game at Soldier Field. I was about eight, and I’d say, “Daddy there are no girls on the field.” “Oh, don’t worry about that, there will be girls playing when you get going.” He really believed that…. He taught me how to bat left-handed when I was a little kid because he said, “In the major leagues, right field is always shorter; you have an advantage.” I never knew I wasn’t going to play major league ball.
CF: So how did you end up out of the classroom and in the Union job?
KL: At Lane [she taught there for 15 years] I ran for and won election to the local school council. It was a very frustrating experience because the teacher voice was absolutely dismissed; there was an agenda that was already there…. I ran for the associate delegate job when it came open. And then I eventually became the delegate at Lane, and there were some things that I would see… that were not good for kids, and I also saw this whole trend of starting to blame teachers for everything. I also saw that there was more and more added to teachers’ plates, but I didn’t see the support to come along with it.
CF: What’s a typical day like for you? How many days a week do you work?
KL: A 12- to 16-hour day is what I’m working right now…. If I get a Sunday off, I’m all excited…. Plus, I do tons of reading and trying to keep up with all the latest in policy…. [Like] Diane Ravich’s book… She’s very clear about the effects of poverty on children, and it’s so disingenuous to me that the people here don’t want to deal with [it]… They say, “No excuses.” This has given them an excuse not to address the issues of poverty…. We’re talking about an achievement gap, but we don’t want to talk about the poverty gap…. I went to… a [all-teachers] book club…. We were doing some readings by professors here who were actually looking at this path of school closings…. and it turns out it’s a real estate issue. It’s not an issue of the schools are bad. There were areas that were being gentrified throughout the city, so they started closing schools in these areas, and then we see this pattern nationwide….
Chicago’s the incubator for a whole bunch of madness, so we decided that we had to do something about it, and we approached the union and said, “What are you doing?”
We would just like the union to come out to the school closing hearings, and nobody was there…. [The hearings] were so perfunctory. You know the decision’s already been made, so the parents sort of beg for their schools…. Nobody from the board there, other than somebody who looked 15 and said, “I’m representing the CEO.” No board members… no union members….. Our group started going to all these school closing hearings, and going to all the charter school opening hearings and testifying…. We wanted to move our union in a much more organizing model as opposed to just a straight business model. ….We said, “Well maybe we should consider an electoral strategy.”
I’d been elected as a member of the executive board [of the CTU]…. I never worked here. I didn’t want to work here. I just wanted to see change in the schools. I also saw this huge trend of bullying principals, of just running roughshod over people and frightening teachers…. When I first started teaching, teachers were very outspoken, and they would advocate for kids and advocate for a better curriculum…. Then, all the sudden, I just started seeing fear because principals were like, “I will fire you.”
CF: In the just-published Steve Jobs biography, Walter Isaacson writes that Jobs met with President Obama and told him that the American education system was “crippled by union work rules. Until the teachers’ unions were broken, there was almost no hope for education reform.” Jobs also told Obama that principals should be allowed to hire and fire teachers based on merit.
KL: I know. Most business people feel that way.… Unions are pesky. And god forbid there be some democracy. The problem is that public education is the last of… any part of democracy in this country because rich people have bought everything. They bought access to the politicians, … to government, on a level that’s unprecedented…. When people talk about merit, what are they talking about? They’re talking about whether I like you or not; whether you are my friend…. Principals have the ability to hire, and they utilize [it] as a way of controlling people. They’ll say, “If you’re not happy here, you could always go here.” The fact is that unions are demonized because the people that really run this country would like nothing more than to have complete and total control over everything.
CF: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s appeal is based [in part] on his encounter with that teacher where he basically shouted her down and told her to shut up. How are you finding Gov. Quinn?
KL: So nice; he’s a very nice man…. He has said from day one that he would never sign a bill that would end collective bargaining…. I think Gov. Quinn has grown into his position. I don’t think he ever thought he was going to be the governor.… I think it takes time to grow into roles of leadership, and I think he’s doing that.
CF: Tell me about Occupy Chicago, what role will it play.
KL: Occupy Wall Street and the whole concept of the 99 percent is an extraordinarily important movement…. It’s almost nonpolitical. It’s not about Republicans and Democrats. I think that’s one of the biggest problems we have—that we are in country right now that has one party, and that is the party of money, and we have two branches of it…. College graduates have no jobs to go to; people who have been working for years and years [are unemployed]…. We have this problem in Chicago, with teachers who are in their 40s and 50s, and, quite frankly, predominantly black, who have been laid off…. We’re seeing the decline in what used to be the middle class, but this huge rise in the immense amount of wealth, and with it, the political power to buy not only the political piece but to buy the media, to… get people to buy into a message that is against their self-interest.
CF: You’re rooting for this movement?
KL: I am. I think what’s going to happen is that this movement will grow, and more and more, people will be a part of it. And at some point, the people who are in a position of power are going to have to start taking us seriously, and they’re going to have to make changes in the way they do business.
CF: How do feel about the Obama presidency?
KL: I don’t really have a lot of faith in politics right now…. The political process doesn’t favor us. We have, in terms of education, failed policies by this president, by the previous president, by the previous president…..
If you look at the top ten richest people in America, nine of the top ten people have invested tons of their money in so-called education reform. And you have to ask yourself, why are they so interested in education reform, and especially public education? You look at Bill Gates. He didn’t go to public school; he certainly doesn’t send his children to public school.… He pushed all this money around the small schools [movement]… and when that turned out to be an unmitigated disaster, what did he do? Did he come on TV and say, “My bad, I’m sorry, I made a mistake.” No, now he’s come up with something else.… He has corrupted the educational academic side. [Researchers, Lewis argues, will find what the funding source wants so they can keep getting funded.]….
The Waltons; Warren Buffett, by virtue of the fact that he’s given a lot of money to Bill Gates’ foundation; Eli Broad; all of these people who have been putting money and money and money into education. And all they come up with is, “Let’s just get rid of all the teachers; let’s have a national curriculum; let’s test people to death.” None of this stuff works; not only does it not work, it exacerbates the problem.… Standardized tests have been disguised as merit when they’re just ranking and sorting, and they’re disguising race and class privilege. We don’t want to have those discussions….. We don’t have honest discussions about education in this country because we don’t want to have honest discussions about race and class.
BELOW HERE IS FELSENTHAL'S INTERVIEW WITH JEAN CLAUDE BRIZARD ON SEPTEMBER 21, 2011, INCLUDING THE COMMENTS (WHICH ARE GENERALLY DROLL, OUR FAVORITE BEING THE ONE CALLING THE INTERVIEW 'PUFF BALL')... THE URL FOR THE BRIZARD INTERVIEW IS http://www.chicagomag.com/Chicago-Magazine/Felsenthal-Files/September-2011/A-Chat-with-Jean-Claude-Brizard-the-Personal-and-Professional/
A Chat with Jean-Claude Brizard, the Personal and Professional
Posted Sep 21, 2011 at 01:48 PM By Carol Felsenthal
Jean-Claude Brizard, 48, a big man at six feet five—“I’m too fat,” he tells me—was standing outside his office at Clark, just north of Adams, waiting for me as I arrived last Thursday for a sit-down interview. His musical accent reveals his Haiti origins, although he has been in the U.S. since 1976, when he arrived in New York as a 12-year-old. He has been a physics teacher and a regional superintendent in New York, the top guy in the Rochester Public Schools before being interviewed and quickly hired by Mayor Rahm Emanuel. He says he doesn’t know how long he’ll stay here, but he has told his wife that this will be his last superintendency.
Here’s an edited transcript of our talk. Check back tomorrow for part two of my conversation with Brizard, in which he discusses his relationship with Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, what it’s like to work for Rahm, and where he’ll send his son to school. [UPDATE: Part two is posted here.]
CF: Was being an educator a long-time goal of yours?
J-CB: I wanted to become a cop in New York City. When I came out of college [Queen’s College with a major in chemistry] in 1985, I took the [officer’s] exam. I really wanted to work in the crime labs. I love chemistry. I love the whole idea of investigations and looking at crime scenes, so I really liked CSI, but there was no CSI in those days. Someone told me the best way to do it is to become a police officer, but I had to do a time on the streets of New York City and my mother had a fit. My mom said, “I’m not going to stay up at night wondering if you’re going to be killed. You’re not going to be a gendarme. Her experience with the Tonton Macoute in Haiti [His parents, both educators, fearing imprisonment under President Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, left Jean-Claude and his two siblings with family and arrived in New York in 1970]. She didn’t want to have that worry; didn’t do it. I almost applied to work for the DEA. I was a finalist for a job in New York. For some reason, I had this affinity for law enforcement during that period in my life. To this day I’m still a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary. When I lived in New York, I was part of a flotilla on Long Island. CF: Given your interest in science, did you consider going to medical school?
J-CB: I was a biology premed student my first year in college. Took one biology class, hated the laboratory, dissection, so I changed my major. Volunteered in a hospital for a week; didn’t like the smell. So I majored in chemistry. I much preferred being in a chemistry lab. I was always the kind of person who loved behind-the-scenes work. So this public face of work was never something I relished. I loved being number two. If you have a vision, I’ll be happy to implement it for you. I love execution.
CF: I was going to wait to ask you this, but you’ve provided the perfect lead-in. It’s beginning to be said of you and police superintendent Garry McCarthy that you’re there to implement a program designed by Mayor Emanuel. He always seems to be the public face, the person in the foreground of the photos. He tells you what to do and you do it?
J-CB: McCarthy and I make a lot of decisions. We’re the ones driving the ship. Garry is a cop; I’m a teacher. I don’t think either of us relish the idea of being a public face. The mayor is always getting front and center, and of course the media likes to push him ahead of us. What drives me is my experience around teaching poor kids who don’t have a voice, who don’t know how to advocate for themselves. So that was my early experience as a teacher, and it informed me sort of who I am as a person. The limelight is not something I relish. Sometimes people will see me walk in, look the other way, look down, lost in my own thoughts. To Americans, it’s very important that you always look people in the eye. My wife, Brooke [K. Brooke Stafford-Brizard], whose father was a politician, actually at times coached me. I don’t look for public accolades. At the same time, I don’t mind being the public face, I don’t mind being yelled at in public because I know what we’re doing is right for kids. That’s what drives me. It’s completely okay with me if the mayor gets front and center. A lot of the ideas and what you see is driven by Garry and me. I have very good friends high up in the New York City Police Department. All of them said to me, “Chief McCarthy is a cop’s cop,” and I have yet to meet a police officer in New York who says a bad thing about him. Both of us in some ways are similar in that we like to do the work. We don’t care to be in the spotlight. I don’t mind being underestimated because it give you leverage. Throughout my career, it has helped me get what I want to get done.
CF: You wife’s father was a New York politician? Tell me about him—and about her.
J-CB: My wife’s father [the late Ronald Stafford] was a New York state senator for 37 years, a Republican. My wife is a Democrat. He was probably the most powerful New York Republican politician for a very long time. He wrote some great legislation for New York state, especially around tuition assistance for college students, and I benefitted from that. He had real opportunities to go to Washington but never choose to, loved to worked for the poor in the Adirondacks—upstate. My wife is one of the more amazing people I know. She has a PhD from Columbia in cognitive studies in education. She was a Teach for America 1999 corps member, taught in the South Bronx. I met her at the New York City Department of Education, working for [former Chancellor] Joel Klein. Went with me to Rochester. Consulted in Rochester. Couldn’t come work for the district, both in the same field, conflict of interest.
CF: What’s she doing in Chicago?
J-CB: Right now, nothing. She’s being recruited. In CPS she could be a teacher, but couldn’t be an executive. She’s not interested in working for CPS. One thing she might do is work for one of the universities. Some foundations have been talking to her. The challenge is we have a very young son [21 months old]. She’d like to be his mother as well.
CF: You have one child?
J-CB: I have two children. A ten-year-old from my first marriage lives in Long Island with her mother.
CF: So how did you wife feel about moving to Chicago?
J-CB: She has always wanted to live in Chicago. One of her best friends was a professor at the University of Chicago. We used to come twice a year. What was attractive to her about Chicago is you can live in the city and not live in Queens or Westchester County or Jersey, and you can be downtown in 10-15 minutes.
CF: Where are you living here?
J-CB: We live in Lincoln Park. We plan to buy a house with a backyard in Lincoln Park; now we’re renting an apartment.
CF: So it sounds like your wife was a factor in your coming here.
J-CB: When [former Chicago school chief] Arne Duncan left [to become Obama’s Secretary of Education], she said, “Well, why not look at Chicago?” I said Daley would never hire an educator to run the school system here. They never did a public search for a superintendent. I said we just got to Rochester; I gotta finish this. [He became superintendent there in January 2008]. I said to my wife, “Five years. Five years in Rochester, and we’ll settle outside of Boston. I’ll work in Boston proper.” I’m not a serial superintendent, so I really wanted one job. We liked the Boston area; my wife went to high school at the Concord Academy.
CF: How did it happen that you got the call to apply for the job here?
JC-B: I got a cold call from a headhunter who was trying to get me to a number of different cities, Cleveland, [and other cities] across the country. The headhunter said to me, “I have one word for you.” “What’s that?” “Chicago.” I said, “No way that’s going happen.” I got a call from Rahm’s transition team. When he interviewed me, I told him, “I don’t care who you hire for this job, but you are going to do great things for the kids of Chicago. I’m going to be watching what you do because I’m going to enjoy every step of your reform work.” He just laughed. [When he called me at home] we had a long conversation, and he told me how critical this is for him. He said, “Are you feeling the Jewish guilt?” I said, “I’m feeling the Catholic guilt and the Jewish guilt.” I said, “Rahm, what you’re looking to do is god’s work. You have so many young people without a voice, and there’s critical need for reform—so many people not vested in the success of these kids whatsoever. He said, “I’m offering you a job.” I said, “Really?” My wife is listening at the door, and when I hung up she said, “What happened?” “I think we’re going to Chicago.” “Oh, my god,” she said. “What happened to New Jersey?” I said, “I’ve got to call [Newark Mayor] Cory Booker.” [Brizard had been considering going to head the public schools there.]
CF: Did you struggle with the decision to leave Rochester for Chicago? You burned some bridges there; some people in Rochester felt you broke a commitment.
J-CB: Choosing between staying in Rochester, going to Chicago, going to New Jersey—it really was a no brainer. We loved New York and living in a big city, and we had to get used to the smallness of Rochester. People asked me what was it like to go from New York City to Rochester. Everyone knew each other in Rochester, zero degrees of separation. I wasn’t used to that. Coming to Chicago, it felt very much like being in New York, a large metropolitan area. Not a hard decision.
CF: So how long do you think you’ll stay in Chicago, and what’s next for you?
J-CB: I said to my wife, “This is it. I’m not doing another superintendency. This is it for me, however long this lasts.” One of problem in America is revolving superintendencies; the average tenure is 18 months. I intend to be here as long as they let me stay. I’m anticipating at least four years. If Rahm runs for reelection, I’m happy to stay another four years. I want to stay in education, could be higher ed, teaching principals, working for a foundation, even working with my wife [who has been involved with charter schools]. I’d be happy to work with her building a set of schools in the city somewhere.
CF: You don’t have a PhD?
J-CB: So I have that degree in chemistry from Queen’s College. I wasn’t certified to be a teacher in New York. I had a temporary per diem license, [to be a] permanent sub. To get certification in New York state you must have a master’s degree, so I was taking courses at Queen’s College. I told a [professor of mine], “I don’t want to be a teacher.” He said, “Just do it, use it as a fallback.” I never had any interest in becoming teacher. I wanted a PhD in chemistry, to become a college professor or do research. Eventually I began to lean toward teaching, getting a degree in science education. So I applied to Columbia, saw the tuition and couldn’t afford it. My assistant principal at the time said, "Why don’t you become a school administrator? You’ll make more money and might be able to afford to go to Columbia graduate school.” So I went back to Queens initially and I stayed and got a master’s in science education at Queens. ….Then I was trying to get to Columbia to get the PhD or EDD in science education. [Eventually, Brizard tells me, so he could make more money and pay for graduate school, he went to school to get certified to be a school administrator and was offered a job as an assistant principal.]
CF: When you’re done being a superintendent will you go back at get that elusive degree?
J-CB: My wife said it doesn’t mean a lot. My mom would disagree. She died about six years ago. [His father died a year and a half ago.] Unless you have a “Dr.” in front of your name your parents never think you’re good enough. Much to my mother’s chagrin I never did it, although I thought about it. I put the application together every once in a while, but never had the time to actually finish it. It is a sore spot for me. My wife used to respond, “I’ll give you mine if you want.” I guess it’s something I’ll do sooner or later.
PHOTOGRAPH: CHICAGO TRIBUNE
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SEP 22, 2011 08:25 PM POSTED BY SECONDCITY
What a sad excuse for a leader. Went into education as the path of least resistance and never had the drive or discipline to complete a post graduate degree in education. This is what Chicago gets as a leader? This is an example to children in CPS? Rahm found a puppet and no once questions his experience or credentials. I am sure the teachers union respects his dedication to higher learning and their profession....
SEP 23, 2011 08:08 AM POSTED BY PLYGARAGE
The right wing love careerists like this. What a bunch hooey!
SEP 23, 2011 10:07 PM POSTED BY RACHACHA
Hey JC...wait, I was going to leave a comment, but you probably don't care what the native of such a small-potatoes city like Rochester (affectionately known to locals as Ra Cha Cha -- were you there long enough to find that out?) has to say. Right?
But on the off chance, here goes: you may want to get your story straight. In this one interview, you go from saying you had to stay in Rochester to "finish things" to saying that not only were you talking with Chicago, but also with Newark to saying that deciding to leave Rochester for the Big City was like a total no-brainer, man! Rochester is like, so Mayberry -- everybody totally knows each others' business!
Several months on the job, and you can't even get your story straight for a single interview -- just like you couldn't get your story straight with the Rochester Board of Education members about whether you were leaving or not.
Well, the people here in Mayberry (I mean Rochester) went out of their way to open their hearts and homes to you, your (then) new wife, and later your new baby. I know, because I not only saw it first hand, I was one of them. Then you lied, disappeared almost overnight, and now pooh-pooh the community that knows we were nothing more at all than a stepping stone to bigger and better things.
Good luck with that.
SEP 24, 2011 12:40 AM POSTED BY SKEPTICAL
disturbing. I hope he is successful with CPS. He has his work cut out for him.
SEP 24, 2011 09:02 AM POSTED BY NO1SPECIAL
What stands out the most to me is his admission he doesn't care what others think, believes he is always right (arrogance such that he cannot be in the wrong). This is why he ignores people yelling at him. It never occurred to him that he could be so wrong that the yelling is a manifestation of his own arrogance and unwillingness to listen and see the other side. JC is jean-Claude, not Jesus Christ. You are fallible and not as smart as you think you are.
SEP 25, 2011 12:01 PM POSTED BY EDUCATIONFAN
Brizard isn't done with Rochester, or should I say, Rochester isn't done with Brizard. He is due back shortly to be deposed in a multi-million dollar slander and libel case...and inside information tells me he should be practicing the following phrase..."On advice of counsel, I respectfully decline to answer any questions."
SEP 25, 2011 07:33 PM POSTED BY CARL LAMBRECHT
I see Jean-Claude Brizard supports school choose just like Rahm.
SEP 27, 2011 12:07 PM POSTED BY REALLY16!
OCT 10, 2011 07:46 AM POSTED BY ORION
What a puff-ball,softball "interview".
Add your comment:
COMPLETE CHICAGO MAGAZINE COVER STORY (OCTOBER 2011) ON RAHM EMANUEL FOLLOWS HERE:
Can Rahm Emanuel Fix Chicago's Problems? (PUBLISHED IN THE OCTOBER 2011 ISSUE OF CHICAGO MAGAZINE)
THE NEW MAN ON FIVE: In his first few months as mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel has moved at breakneck speed to tackle long-neglected problems and drag a torpid bureaucracy into the 21st century. But the biggest battles lie ahead. Does he have what it takes to save the city?
By David Bernstein
“I feel the sense of responsibility,” says Emanuel. “I think the public has expectations. I don’t want to let ’em down.”Rahm Emanuel removes his blue suit jacket, puts on dark sunglasses, and hops into the back of his black SUV. He squirts a blob of Purell sanitizer onto his palms—virtually a job requirement for glad-handing politicians—and then takes a big swig of bottled water.
Emanuel is slight of build, but his cocksure swagger makes him seem bigger. He has a tanned complexion, with salt-and-pepper hair—mostly salt—cropped fairly short and perfectly coifed, as if he just left the barbershop. Deep, dark bags encircle his eyes, the result of little sleep and the breakneck schedule he keeps. But right now he is feeling loose and relaxed—like a school kid who knows he aced a test. Which he has just done, more or less. The new mayor, 46 days in office at this point, has spent the past hour fielding questions submitted via Facebook during a live televised town hall meeting filmed at Kennedy-King College in Englewood. He pretty much nailed every question without breaking a sweat and artfully dodged two or three trickier ones.
PHOTO GALLERY »
The first 100 days
BEHIND THE SCENES AT THE COVER SHOOT »
From August, on the roof of City Hall
A RAHM FOR THE MONEY »
Our 1992 profile of Emanuel, then Bill Clinton's finance director
Rock music plays on the radio in the background, just the way the mayor likes it, as we start the nine-mile drive back downtown to City Hall. Emanuel reclines a bit in his seat, one of the few opportunities he has in his long workday to relax. He betrays a slight annoyance at my presence in the back of the SUV—as if he were unhappy at being dragged into this car ride. Famously prickly, Emanuel at first spits out staccato answers to my questions. But the more he talks, the more revved up he gets, and pretty soon he is waxing expansive on the joys of the job and on all of the things he wants to accomplish in his first 100 days, first year, and first term—most of it boilerplate stuff he repeated ad nauseum during the campaign.
Suddenly he practically leaps out of his seat. From his window, he notices that we are approaching a private road that runs through a tunnel at McCormick Place—a route that the mayor’s security detail sometimes uses as a shortcut to the Loop.
“All right!” Emanuel calls out excitedly as we enter the tunnel. “I’m like Batman! I’m going down the Bat Cave! The Bat Road!”
He turns to Chris Mather, his communications director, seated next to him, and cracks, “We’re going to rename it. I want a sign made—‘Bat Road.’”
“We got rid of those,” Mather replies, in the obliging straight-woman role. (A couple of weeks earlier, Emanuel had put an end to displaying the mayor’s name on city signs, a practice, he explained, that wasn’t worth the cost, given the city’s financial woes.)
“Are you kidding? I can donate a sign,” says Emanuel, who likes to have the last word.
We pull up to a gate at the tunnel’s entrance. “Music louder!” Emanuel calls out to his driver. “This is the Bat Road!”
Chicago is a damsel in distress, in serious need of a superhero. The city is losing residents—more than 200,000 over the past decade, according to the latest census—and, just as significantly, many thousands of businesses and jobs with them—more than 30,000 between 2009 and 2010 alone. Not only is Chicago at risk of becoming the fourth-largest U.S. city, slipping behind Houston, it is careening toward bankruptcy. Next year, the city will be $635 million in the hole, not including unfunded pension obligations. Double that if you count the more than $700 million of red ink from Chicago Public Schools, which Emanuel also oversees but whose budget is separate from the city’s. And let’s not even get started on the Chicago Transit Authority, which is in similarly poor fiscal health.
Beyond the dire finances, there is also the stagnant housing market, an economy that is still in the tank, and a murder rate that is three times as high as that of New York City, which has nearly triple Chicago’s population. For some time now, the city’s spirits have seemed lower than the 76-foot hole dug for the never-built Chicago Spire. That gaping void has become a sad monument for a city that is not on the move but on pause—or worse, spiraling downward.
Rahm Emanuel wants to be Chicago’s savior, its Batman. “I feel the sense of responsibility,” he tells me. “I think the public has expectations. I don’t want to let ’em down.”
Since taking over as Chicago’s 46th mayor in May, the 51-year-old Emanuel has projected energy, urgency, and confidence. He has brought a more professional, West Wing–like management style to City Hall, which had felt increasingly anachronistic in the waning years of Richard M. Daley’s reign. (Emanuel’s office wasn’t even wired for Internet service when he moved in.) With brass-tacks candor, he has sent a clear and unmistakable message that the old order—presided over by Daley, with whom Emanuel will inevitably be compared—is gone. As the deputy mayor, Mark Angelson, said to union officials who were locked in a battle this summer with Emanuel’s administration over work-rule changes and layoffs: “There’s a new sheriff in town.”
These days, City Hall has the feel of a hot start-up. The suite of offices on the fifth floor where the mayor and his top staff work crackles with high-voltage—if somewhat chaotic—energy. Spend time around the mayor’s office and you can’t miss the small army of 20- and 30-somethings (some of them returning Obama administration veterans) in power suits, clutching their Starbucks cups or BlackBerrys, bouncing around the hallways or busily at work in a hive of cubicles. It is a marked contrast to the perceptible malaise and inertia of Daley’s last years, in which new ideas seemed few and far between and there was a palpable sense of an administration merely treading water.
Emanuel’s changes are more than just stylistic; they are generational. He is astute enough to realize that the old bedrock principle of “good government is good politics”—especially the practice of promising city jobs in exchange for campaign work—is outmoded and unsustainable. The patronage and cronyism that were permissible in the past, he knows, are not only bad government but also very bad politics at a time when Chicago’s unemployment rate tops 9 percent and many residents are exasperated by the corruption, waste, and selfishness that flourish here. Through his rhetoric and actions, Emanuel has positioned himself as a change agent for the future—despite his obvious debts to Chicago’s political past. “We aren’t our parents’ Chicago anymore,” he tells me during one of our interviews. “That’s a good thing. We appreciate what our parents did, but this is different.”
To underscore the point, Emanuel has led a full-on assault against the “status quo”—two words, he has said, he is “banning” from the vernacular of city government. What is the status quo? It is years’ worth of unbalanced budgets, patronage-padded payrolls, and insider deals; a chronically failing public school system; a dysfunctional and, literally, crumbling mass transit system; an undermanned and outgunned police force; and an entrenched and corrupt political culture. At the everyday level, it is waste (three city workers needed to change one streetlight bulb), Rube Goldberg–like inefficiency (40 different firms to process and collect checks), and insider privilege (four taxpayer-funded bodyguards for one alderman, Edward Burke). It is 1,400-plus shootings a year, a high-school graduation rate of 50 percent, and a Red Line train that has difficulty getting from Howard Street to 95th Street trouble-free.
“Some people were telling me, ‘Rahm, don’t run for mayor, why would you want this job?’” says Emanuel. “Well, I love this city. I think it can achieve great things, and I’m ready to put my resources to that.”
One could be forgiven for wondering if Emanuel is some kind of masochist. He spent five years—an eternity when measured in doglike West Wing time—as Bill Clinton’s chief political adviser, remaining through the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the subsequent impeachment saga; he returned to the White House with Barack Obama, smack-dab in the midst of the Great Recession and with two taxing and unpopular wars overseas; and he wanted to be Chicago’s mayor, despite the “shit sandwich,” as Emanuel has privately described the mess, bequeathed to him by his predecessor.
With a self-assuredness that borders on cockiness, Emanuel is confident that he has the right plan and an able leadership team in place to turn things around. A fiery competitor, he seems to want to constantly one-up his predecessor—not necessarily to rub Daley’s nose in it, but because he is never satisfied. (He has a to-do list that he says his staff “lives in fear of.”)
The political-operative-turned-commentator Paul Begala, one of Emanuel’s close friends, gave an apropos description of then congressman Emanuel to Rolling Stone: “He’s got this big old pair of brass balls, and you can just hear ’em clanging when he’s walking down the halls of Congress.”
That same clanging sound now reverberates throughout City Hall, as well as across all 228 square miles that lie within Chicago’s city limits—and can even be heard 200 miles farther south, down I-55, in Springfield.
Emanuel is clearly relishing the role. “This is the best job I’ve had, and I’ve had great jobs,” he tells me. “I jokingly say—and it’s a joke—I always thought it was a great job, but if I knew it was as great as it is, I’d have challenged Rich [Daley] four years ago.”
So far, everything for Emanuel has gone almost like clockwork, perhaps too smoothly. But this is still the prelude, the honeymoon, and the big battles are about to really begin. For starters, his first budget, for 2012, is due in the coming weeks, and he’ll have to somehow erase the city’s $635 million deficit with a lot less money coming in from the state and federal governments. Complicating this task, too, he has promised to do so without raising taxes, cutting police officers, or relying on one-time revenues: tactics that Daley used to balance his recent budgets but that Emanuel calls “cheating.” The painful choices he will have to make are no doubt going to be unpopular with many, especially the unions representing city workers and teachers. Next May, Emanuel will face another huge test when the NATO and G-8 summit meetings, which he helped bring here, come to town, creating a host of security challenges.
Meanwhile, he has his 71-page list of promises he says he intends to keep, come hell or high water. Some are smaller tasks, some are seemingly intractable large-scale problems. But just months into office, one could wonder: Did Emanuel set expectations too high? Can he keep up the frenzied pace? And will his sharp-elbowed manner wear well over time?
On the last day of June, the day of the Facebook town hall, I was invited to ride along with Emanuel. I was instructed to meet the mayor and his entourage beforehand at the Sheraton, where Emanuel was spending the morning schmoozing with CEOs and government officials who were in town for a Clinton Global Initiative conference. As I waited for Emanuel in the lobby in front of Shula’s Steak House, where the mayor had dropped by to speak to a group of UBS bankers, Mather, the communications director, approached me.
“Stay close,” she cautioned. “When he moves, we move. Fast!”
Sure enough, Emanuel soon charged out of the restaurant’s glass doors, like a racehorse bolting free of the paddock, blowing past me with a curt “Hello.”
To say Emanuel’s first few months in office have been similarly fast paced would be an understatement. Less than an hour after being sworn in, he had already signed six executive orders to reform some of the city’s ethics rules and cut $75 million from the 2011 budget. Hardly a day has passed since his inauguration—since Election Day, really—without Emanuel announcing some new policy or program. “At any given moment there seems to be six Mayor Emanuels announcing six different initiatives,” the New York Times columnist David Brooks observed in late June.
Notoriously impatient, Emanuel says he wants to go even faster. “If you think this is fast, wait — we’re going to pick up the pace,” he boasts. He is so focused on the job at hand and in such a hurry to get things done that once, when Sean Parker, the billionaire founding president of Facebook, was in town and was taken to meet him, Emanuel, according to a witness, hurried by him without stopping, barely even looking back to tell Parker, “I can’t talk to you now — I’ve got work to do.” Parker, incidentally, had cut Emanuel a $100,000 check for his mayoral candidacy.
Emanuel has already racked up significant legislative successes in both the City Council and in the Statehouse (not unlike how, as chief of staff for President Barack Obama, he led the charge on Capitol Hill to win approval for funding for the Troubled Asset Relief Program [TARP] and the health care overhaul legislation). He also cleaned house at the Chicago Board of Education, replacing all seven members, and eliminated and consolidated city departments. He took away credit cards from city workers and cut the lucrative stipends for two city boards and commissions, and he ordered a review of the pay for all appointees. He has used his connections to court companies—from United Airlines and Walgreens to Motorola Solutions and Chase—and to lure jobs, 4,200 of them and counting, into the city. He redeployed 650 police officers from desk jobs to heavy-crime areas and partially privatized and expanded the city’s recycling program. The list goes on.
Emanuel’s frenetic pace is reminiscent of the small-ball brand of politics he championed in the Obama administration and, years earlier, in the Clinton White House, when he spearheaded efforts to pass NAFTA, the crime bill, and welfare reform: a guiding philosophy of doing a lot of accomplishable things, one step at a time, that add up to a much bigger record of accomplishment. The little victories create a sense of momentum—or, as Emanuel likes to say, a feeling that “confidence breeds capability.”
It appears to be working. Emanuel’s job performance has won widespread plaudits — so much so that he is already generating 2016 presidential speculation. (Emanuel dismisses such talk in typical fashion. When, for instance, one reporter asked him a day before his inauguration if he had presidential ambitions, Emanuel brandished his middle finger at the reporter and said, “That’s the dumbest thing in the world.”) Practically wherever he goes, passersby want to shake his hand or give him a high-five, or they hold up their phones to snap pictures. Part of this reaction certainly has to do with his celebrity. Since his stint as White House chief of staff, he has been one of the most visible figures in American politics—even satirized on Saturday Night Live.
Emanuel is not a natural retail politician. He does not have Bill Clinton’s gift of feel-your-pain empathy or Barack Obama’s rhetorical flourishes. But he is a workhorse, and during the campaign and as mayor, he has spent untold hours at el stops, grocery stores, firehouses, and churches across the city, pressing the flesh and, more important, just listening to what’s on residents’ minds. He has also reached out to Chicagoans through Facebook and Twitter and through websites that his office has set up to solicit feedback and ideas. He has reportedly even personally called some residents who offered ideas that intrigued him.
So far, Emanuel has been rewarded for his efforts, earning glowing press and, more significantly, support from the public. An internal poll conducted by his political shop in late August showed a job approval rating of 79 percent, huge numbers by political standards. (Another poll, taken in June, showed similar results.)
His popularity was on full display one sunshine-filled Saturday morning in mid-August, at the Bud Billiken Parade in Bronzeville. Upon his arrival, Emanuel was mobbed by paradegoers. Before the festivities began, an alderman, Walter Burnett, followed Emanuel around like a pestering little brother. “Can I walk with you?” Burnett kept asking. “I don’t run this show,” Emanuel told him. Emanuel took a hero’s stroll—actually a jog—down the two-mile route along King Drive, zigzagging from one side to the other to shake hands, kiss babies, and soak up the adulation from spectators shouting, “Rahm!” and “We love you!”
At one point along the route, when Emanuel ran over to hug and high-five a group in the crowd, I overheard one police officer tell another, “He ain’t like Daley, huh?”
Emanuel has a joke about how he can tell if he’s popular or not: “My test of this—my joke—is when [people] wave, all five fingers are still up in the air. You always know how you’re doing whether they drop any of those fingers.”
Not that there haven’t been stumbles or embarrassments. For one, Emanuel’s otherwise flawless unveiling of his cabinet faltered when it mattered, in his two most important appointments: his choices for school superintendent and police superintendent. Emanuel scrambled into damage-control mode after Jean-Claude Brizard, his pick to head up Chicago Public Schools, came under heavy fire for exaggerated graduation rates at the school district in Rochester, New York, that he had just left and for two federal discrimination lawsuits filed against Brizard during his three-year tenure. Was there a flaw in the mayor-elect’s vetting process? the local press wondered. Similarly, a week after Emanuel chose Garry McCarthy, the police chief of Newark, New Jersey, as Chicago’s new police superintendent, the U.S. Justice Department announced that it was launching an investigation into hundreds of complaints that the Newark police force had violated civil rights—including false arrest, discrimination, and excessive force—and simply swept the allegations under the rug.
Emanuel also took criticism when, on Memorial Day, city and police officials abruptly shut down North Avenue Beach, citing excessive heat. (It was 88 degrees that day.) News reports soon surfaced casting doubt on the official story. It turned out that the police had gotten a slew of 911 calls about gang fights at the beach, and many people suspect that Emanuel and McCarthy cleared the area not on account of the weather but because they didn’t want to suffer the negative publicity that would ensue if the violence got out of hand.
Then there’s the story Emanuel likes to repeat (he did so with me at least twice, and I heard him tell it again at other public outings) about how, during a classroom visit to South Loop Elementary, an inquisitive first grader asked him about his proposal to lengthen the school day and school year. The mayor was so impressed by the little boy’s question that he invited the child to join him at the bill-signing ceremony a couple of weeks later. The part he doesn’t mention: His office invited the wrong student, a girl, who stood with Emanuel at the event. “Oops!” read the Sun-Times headline the next day.
Emanuel’s rush to make his mark is in part self-serving: He wants to escape Daley’s long shadow as quickly as possible. He has a tough, if not impossible, act to follow. Love him or hate him, Daley was a transformative mayor. For nearly a quarter of a century, he changed Chicago in ways large (Millennium Park) and small (wrought-iron fences), and he helped keep the city from becoming another Rust Belt casualty.
Daley and Emanuel go way back. They are political allies and personal friends. A fresh-faced Emanuel rose to political prominence as the chief fundraiser for Daley’s successful mayoral campaign in 1989, and many years later, in 2002, Daley’s political muscle helped Emanuel win his congressional seat.
Early on during Emanuel’s transition as mayor, when a reporter wondered if he was “walking a tightrope” in his comments about Daley, Emanuel just grinned—or maybe he was gritting his teeth—and cracked, “Thank God I had some ballet training.” He quickly changed the subject.
In private settings, though, Emanuel has been more candid, says one close supporter who asked not to be named. According to the supporter, Emanuel once kvetched to him about how the city was in worse shape than he had originally thought. “Rahm feels there was a lot broken that no one was calling Rich on,” the supporter tells me. “But he thinks it doesn’t do any good to say, ‘Look at the mess [Daley] got us in.’”
Some among the political cognoscenti have tried to read between the lines of Emanuel’s rhetoric about the city’s problems and have concluded that he is attempting to pin the blame on Daley, subtly, of course. In late July, for instance, when Emanuel released his administration’s report on the financial health of Chicago—a highly damning analysis of the city’s fiscal stewardship over the previous ten years—James Warren, a columnist for the Chicago News Cooperative, described the report as “the equivalent of a superficially alluring velvet shiv” stuck into Daley’s back.
Others allege that people in the new administration — possibly even Emanuel himself — have been going out of their way to feed the press stories to protect the new mayor from being battered over anything remotely scandalous that might have occurred on his predecessor’s watch.
A prominent Chicago political insider, for one, points to a Sun-Times article published in early June that revealed that Daley’s son, Patrick, had collected $708,999 from a Chicago-based wireless Internet company less than a year after the company signed a 2006 contract with the city to provide Wi-Fi at Midway and O’Hare. The article was based on newly obtained company documents.
“After all these years trying to catch the mayor’s kid’s fingers in the cookie jar, some information suddenly becomes available?” the insider asks rhetorically. “It was just too convenient. It was a direct message being sent [to Daley]—‘Make sure your people behave themselves. I hold the keys to the kingdom. The king is dead. Long live the king.’”
By now almost everybody who follows Chicago politics knows at least a bit of Emanuel’s political backstory. Here’s the Twitter-length version (actually, 357 characters): The nine-and-a-half-fingered ballet dancer becomes a dead-fish-sending political operative and Daley moneyman, a top Clinton adviser, and then a millionaire investment banker, wins Blago’s old House seat, leads Dems back into the majority in Congress in ’06, sets sights on becoming the first Jewish Speaker but leaves the Hill to be Obama’s chief of staff.
But while his curriculum vitae is widely known, Rahm Israel Emanuel — the man — remains something of an enigma. So well established is the caricature of him that many Chicagoans know only the cartoonish Rahmbo, the hyperaggressive, hyperprofane, and hypertempermental political operator with an instinct for the jugular.
Emanuel says the media gets too hung up on his personality and personal style, political and otherwise (i.e., stories about dead fish and the like). “You guys ask the same fucking five questions all the time,” he tells me. Once, when he was in Congress, he recalls, a journalist wrote a piece knocking him for wearing pants with pleats. “My God, who cares?” he exclaims.
Ideologically, Emanuel is an intensely partisan dyed-in-the-wool Democrat — he calls himself a “progressive” — in a Democratic town. But so far in office, he has pushed a political agenda that resembles the Republican view of the world: cutting spending and the size of government, promoting private enterprise at the expense of unions, resisting tax increases, and reinforcing law and order. He has had no choice, really, given all of the city’s problems.
Even so, he has shown flashes of his liberal side. For instance, he has made eliminating so-called food deserts a top priority — pledging to fast-track permits, zoning, and licensing for grocers who open up stores in neighborhoods where fresh meat and produce are hard to find. He opened the city’s first protected bike lane. And despite the humongous budget deficit, he changed the city’s employee leave policies in July to offer paid maternity leave.
As a manager, Emanuel has brought in mostly professional technocrats, not party bureaucrats. And while Mayor Daley was notorious for pitting commissioners and cabinet officials against one another — it spurred competitiveness, he felt, which, in turn, resulted in harder work (but often just led to backstabbing)—Emanuel prefers cooperation to confrontation, aides say, and so far his team has coalesced nicely. Emanuel says he encourages vigorous debate, even dissent, but once he makes a decision, usually quickly—he’s impatient, remember?—he expects his lieutenants to rally around it 100 percent, just as he did in the White House, even when he disagreed with what was decided. He despises leaks. “When I make a decision, I don’t need to have it relitigated somewhere else,” he tells me one day in his conference room, next door to his office. “The litigation room is here,” he says, rapping his finger sternly on the conference table.
And his trademark persona? Well, Emanuel says, that’s here to stay — style points be damned.
Besides being unapologetically profane, Emanuel is blunt. He once called a group of liberal detractors “fucking retarded.” On another occasion, he reportedly told a stammering male staffer at the White House, “Take your fucking tampon out and tell me what you have to say.”
He often starts sentences with “Look” or “Here’s the deal,” and he just as often concludes them with a terse “OK?” — as if to say, in a slightly patronizing way, “You get it?” He speaks machine-gun fast and has a habit of not finishing one sentence before launching into the next. His thin, reedy voice can reach high decibels when he’s angry.
Howard Tullman, a prominent businessman and an old friend of Emanuel’s, recalls that someone asked him shortly before the mayoral election whether he even liked Emanuel. (At the time, Emanuel was living in Tullman’s West Loop loft while the infamous Renter Who Refused to Leave occupied the Emanuel family’s Ravenswood home.) Tullman said that, yes, he did like Emanuel. The questioner then reminded him that, years earlier, he had called Emanuel an asshole. To which Tullman replied: “Of course he’s an asshole. So what else is new? He’s my asshole.”
But Tullman and others interviewed for this article are also quick to note that Emanuel can be incredibly gracious, sensitive even. For instance, Emanuel says he calls every parent who loses an innocent child to violence in the city. (In one of our interviews, his voice cracks when he talks about those calls.) He even paid a condolence call on a reporter whose dog died. And when civil unions for same-sex couples were legalized in Illinois in June, Emanuel officiated the union of David Spielfogel, his policy chief. Spielfogel says Emanuel had heavily lobbied state lawmakers during the campaign to pass the civil unions bill, and after it became law in January, Emanuel told Spielfogel that he wanted to preside over his ceremony at City Hall once the law went into effect. “That meant a lot,” says Spielfogel. “He drives us very, very hard but, at the same time, treats us like family.”
By all accounts, Emanuel has kept his hot temper mostly in check—many Chicagoans may be wondering if he’s on tranquilizers—and he has dialed down much of the salty language. He has been careful, particularly in public, not to let the old Rahm emerge. But sometimes he can’t help it.
“He’s still very pushy, treats everybody like a second-class citizen,” one alderman told me at a City Council meeting in early July. “He always has an agenda in his head—his to-do list: ‘I need you to do this.’”
Emanuel, the alderman continues, often punctuates his words with some sort of physical contact, usually a touch or a grab of the arm. It’s a tactic that he uses to implore, not necessarily to bully, but it can come across as menacing. The alderman demonstrates on me, grabbing my arm firmly. “It’s not just a touch. He grips, LBJ-style.”
That is, in the style of Lyndon Baines Johnson, or the famed Johnson Treatment—the way the masterful Texas political wheeler-dealer used close contact, among other tactics, to bend others to his will.
“Does it work?” I ask.
“I guess it works on some people.”
Emanuel has quickly shown the City Council who’s the boss. Just days after he won a resounding victory in February’s mayoral primary, political circles here were abuzz with talk that the mayor-elect was putting the aldermen, particularly the old-timers, on notice: He had his eye on them, and he wasn’t going to put up with any shenanigans—especially of the dishonest sort—that his predecessor may have tolerated.
During Emanuel’s transition, some City Hall watchers predicted that the aldermen—many of whom don’t like or trust Emanuel and who, for years, grumbled privately about Daley’s authoritarian hand—would try to exert more independence under the new mayor and tip the pendulum of power back their way. So far that hasn’t happened. Instead, the council, with nary a peep or even much debate, has rubber-stamped everything that Emanuel’s office has put in front of it, including new tougher ethics rules and a reorganization plan that cut the number of council committees from 19 to 16, the fewest in 50 years. (The mayor has also floated the idea of cutting the size of the council in half, to 25 aldermen.) Emanuel even stripped away some power from Edward Burke, the long-serving dean of the City Council, who, as the chairman of the finance committee, controls much of the city’s most important legislation.
Even Emanuel’s first nonunanimous vote was virtually without dissent. In late July, the council voted the mayor’s way, 45 to 3, to award a major contract for redeveloping and running the concessions at O’Hare’s international terminal to an out-of-state concessionaire, replacing a local clout-heavy firm that included one of Daley’s closest associates, Jeremiah Joyce.
Several aldermen I spoke with vowed that the new mayor is likely to see more closely contested votes after his honeymoon ends. “We’re waiting for the right issue and the right moment to launch a rebellion,” says the alderman I spoke to in July. “The moment of truth will soon be here.”
They can certainly try, but negotiating—both tactile diplomacy and the hostile arm-twisting variety—is Emanuel’s hallmark. Few can rival him. “He’s very persuasive,” says Mark Angelson, the deputy mayor. Recently, seated at his desk in a corner office down the hall from the mayor’s, Angelson, the former chief executive of RR Donnelley, tells me how Emanuel recruited him. Shortly after the election, Angelson, who left Donnelley in 2007, says he was talking to Emanuel about wanting to do more philanthropic work, and Emanuel said to him: “Well, you have to do this.” Angelson was thinking more along the lines of volunteering for a charity, donating money, and the like, not starting a government job. But Emanuel, he says, was insistent, talking to him about the job regularly over a period of several weeks. Despite the coaxing, Angelson kept demurring. Finally, Emanuel put it like this: “This is an opportunity for you to help millions of people with a problem that is denominated in billions of dollars. If anybody else is offering you that opportunity, great, go do it.” Angelson gave in. He earns a salary of a dollar a year.
This aggressive bonhomie is very much Emanuel’s style; it was highly effective in Washington and has been here so far too. Before leaders of the powerful public employee unions could even say “honeymoon,” Emanuel confronted them with a challenge to come up with salary concessions and work-rule changes to fill a $31 million gap in this year’s budget. And if they failed to act, he warned, he would lay off 625 city employees to balance the budget. Emanuel gave them a deadline, and when they missed it, he sent out the layoff notices.
The gambit paid off. Emanuel’s tough stance forced reluctant union leaders to give him detailed ways to save money, and although they didn’t meet the mayor’s deadline, they eventually delivered a lengthy report highlighting ways to cut $242 million from the city budget—at the very least a conversation starter for the even bigger showdown between the two sides that is expected in the fall to close the $635 million deficit in the 2012 budget.
Emanuel has been equally adept in Springfield. During the spring legislative session, the new mayor lobbied hard for a landmark education package that would lengthen the school day, allow school districts more freedom to fire bad teachers, and make it harder for city teachers to go on strike. He also put on a full-court press for the expansion of gambling, including a megacasino in Chicago that could be a badly needed financial windfall for his administration. And he weighed in vocally in favor of a workers’ compensation overhaul and the so-called Illinois DREAM Act, a college scholarship program for the children of undocumented immigrants.
Jack Franks, a Democratic state representative from Woodstock, credits Emanuel with being the difference maker in the last legislative session, particularly for his efforts lining up votes for the gaming legislation. “It wouldn’t have passed without Rahm,” says Franks. It was a remarkable feat, he adds, considering that gaming expansion of any type has not found consensus in years.
Emanuel’s hands-on style could not be more different from Daley’s. The former mayor avoided Springfield like the plague—going to the capitol perhaps once or twice a year and rarely, if ever, personally lobbying lawmakers. When I ask Emanuel why he is so personally involved in Springfield business when Daley wasn’t, he replies, “I’m the new mayor.
“It’s not a judgment about what he did,” he continues. “It’s about what I need to do for our future. Given that our relationship is tied to what Springfield will do—or not do—I can no longer afford to ignore it. So, on behalf of the city, not on behalf of me, I will be aggressive.” Then, imitating a child’s whiny voice, he adds, “I can’t say, ‘Well, geez, that’s in Springfield. Boy, that’s going to be hard.’ No! I gotta get it done.”
But by being aggressive, the rookie mayor risked invoking the ire of the Springfield establishment, in particular the mercurial Michael Madigan, Speaker of the House, who has ruled the General Assembly for decades. This time around, Emanuel and Madigan were largely on the same page, and the mayor became a valuable wingman to the Speaker to cajole, prod, and play rough, if necessary, to whip up the votes they needed.
One story that raced through local political circles a few months back has it that Emanuel went ballistic on Greg Harris, a Democratic state representative from the North Side. The mayor called Harris to lobby him to vote for a contentious amendment on pensions to the workers’ compensation bill, introduced by the House Republican leader Tom Cross, that would cut future retirement benefits for current state employees. Harris told Emanuel he couldn’t support it. He felt it was too unfair to the public work force.
As the prominent political insider, who got the story secondhand, retells it, a furious Emanuel went off on Harris: “You better support it, you motherfucker, or I’ll burn your house down!” Afterward, the insider says, Harris jokingly called the local firefighters’ association to see if they’d have his back if Emanuel torched his home. (The pension amendment, by the way, didn’t pass—a rare instance in which Emanuel did not get what he wanted.)
Harris confirms the gist of the anecdote but calls the story “exaggerated.” He won’t offer specific details about the exchange, saying only that Emanuel “is an aggressive guy, always has been, always will be” and that the mayor “was trying really hard to be persuasive.” The three-term representative adds that he hasn’t met anyone in politics who doesn’t have a temper: “There are tough decisions, and there’s going to be a lot of arguing. To say we can all smile and the world is full of happy puppies and smiling kittens—that’s not reality.”
Sara Feigenholtz, another Democratic state representative who was on the receiving end of an Emanuel tirade in the frenzied final days of the session, says that while his style has ruffled some feathers, it has not caused widespread rancor. “I’m sure there are members who like a different style, but frankly, I warmly welcome it,” the Chicago legislator tells me. “I like knowing what he’s thinking. It wasn’t always easy to read the tea leaves in the prior administration.”
Emanuel shows similar feistiness with the press, treating reporters like sparring partners. He can be genial and harsh—sometimes both at once. When I first sat down with him, three weeks after he took office, as an icebreaker I told him a story about how, upon arriving at Millennium Park for his inauguration, I was attacked by a bird, a red-winged blackbird, I think. I asked him if it was a bad omen. He curtly replied, “You could [see it as an omen] if you were paranoid.” A bit later, when I asked if he had been surprised by anything in the job so far, he deadpanned, “Just the bird that attacked you.”
He lost his cool in late July during an on-camera interview with the veteran NBC reporter Mary Ann Ahern after Ahern asked about rumors that he planned to send his three children to private school. Accusing her of crossing a sacred line of privacy, he unclipped his microphone and stormed off. According to Ahern’s account, he circled back, got inches from her face, and told her off some more. (In apparent retaliation, Emanuel gave an exclusive interview later the same day to a rival network to officially confirm the rumor that he was sending his children to the private University of Chicago Lab Schools in Hyde Park.)
You would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the local political press corps who hasn’t received a tongue-lashing from the mayor—myself included. Back in June, at the height of Weinergate—the sexting scandal involving the New York congressman Anthony Weiner, a friend of Emanuel’s—I asked Emanuel about the scandal. “I’m not talking about it,” he snapped. “There’s no reason for me to comment. If I wanted that, I’d go on a TV show and blather about stupidity.” And then, when I broached the subject of his possibly taking the stand at Rod Blagojevich’s trial, he brushed off my question testily: “C’mon! Who cares?”
But that was nothing compared with his response when I mentioned that some lawmakers I had spoken to were highly critical of his combative negotiating style.
“On what? On what?” he shot back. “I don’t mean to do your job for you. On what? On what?”
It was a fair question. I had neither named names nor offered specific examples. Trying to hold my ground, I started to say something in general about his brusque manner with aldermen and other officials. The mayor saw right through it.
“Good luck with the journalism part,” he said, slapping his hands on the table and abruptly walking out of the room into his office next door. Moments later, he returned to work me over some more. “On what? On what?” he demanded, now practically shouting. “What did we do? You’re just repeating something. We didn’t do anything. I’m asking you, on what?”
By many accounts, Emanuel is obsessively controlling of his public image. As Peter Baker, of The New York Times, wrote in a profile last year, he is “unquestionably a master manipulator of the news media.”
Emanuel, who earned a master’s degree in communications at Northwestern University, has brought a new level of sophistication and discipline to the City Hall press shop, which some critics have derided as a Washington, D.C., or Rose Garden, style. Whereas Mayor Daley’s press office was largely defensive minded (reactive rather than proactive) and often unaccommodating (many unreturned calls), Emanuel’s is fast, aggressive, and highly choreographed. At a recent City Council meeting, for example, reporters received e-mailed news releases from the mayor’s office announcing that the council had passed this or that measure, just seconds after the actual votes.
The mayor scoffs at the Rose Garden criticisms. “A smooth-operating operation—I think that’s a compliment,” he says. “What would you like, the opposite?”
Emanuel’s office tries to restrict his exchanges with the press to brief, carefully scripted events, invariably from behind the lectern in the City Hall briefing room or set up elsewhere, including once in front of a large recycling truck for a press conference he held at a Streets and Sanitation facility about changes to the city’s recycling service. Emanuel also gets aggravated when news photographers take pictures of him away from the lectern. One journalist witnessed him barking at an aide to “control” a photographer who was following him after he delivered his remarks.
“So what if I use a podium,” he replies when I ask about his reliance on it. “I will leave people who have time to think about style points the luxury [of doing so].” (He meant me.)
Paradoxically, Emanuel and his office are not above scrutinizing the other side: the press. Emanuel’s aides are known to call reporters—and their editors—to complain about coverage that the mayor’s office doesn’t like, not necessarily objecting to the facts but to more picayune things, like punctuation and even word choice.
The office also tries to quash bad press before the media can get the word out. One journalist tells me that Emanuel’s press staff keeps close tabs on the Freedom of Information Act requests filed by reporters to see what they’re digging around for. In one case, after discovering credit card abuses at the Chicago Park District, Fox Chicago News and the Better Government Association filed FOIA requests seeking additional records about credit card spending at sister agencies in the city. But before Fox and the BGA received the data—let alone responses from the agencies—they got a call from Emanuel’s press office. A spokesperson said that the mayor’s office had reviewed the information and, indeed, found egregious abuses, particularly at the Chicago Housing Authority. But instead of handing over the information to Fox and the BGA to report, the mayor’s office issued a memo to his cabinet and the heads of all the sister agencies ordering them to immediately cease the use of credit cards. “Don’t worry,” the spokesperson told Fox and the BGA, “you’ll get first bite at the apple” as a “quote-unquote exclusive.” In other words, the mayor’s office acted proactively, before the media could report the news. So instead of headlines like “Fox Chicago and the BGA Expose Credit Card Abuses at City Agencies,” the headlines were “Emanuel Cuts Use of City Credit Cards” (Chicago Tribune) and “Emanuel Orders Agencies to Stop Using Credit Cards” (The Daily Herald). “It was an interesting display of power,” says the journalist, who has firsthand knowledge of the episode.
* * *
Back in Emanuel’s suv, we continue driving down the Bat Road, traffic-free and with no potholes. Soon, though, we come to a halt in front of a closed gate.
“Uh-oh,” says Emanuel. “What happened here?”
He turns to me and says, “This is where we drop you off. Sayonara.” He cackles with devilish laughter. For a moment, I think he’s half-serious.
The driver swipes a keycard, and we travel on. We soon emerge from the McCormick Place tunnel to post-card-like views of Burnham Harbor and Northerly Island. Moments later, when we’re cruising by Soldier Field, I look out the window, westward, and see that we’re also going by a townhouse complex in the South Loop that is part of Central Station. I point it out to Emanuel and remark that Mayor Daley lives there—as if he didn’t know. It was, basically, an off-the-cuff attempt to get him talking about Daley—a touchy topic the loquacious mayor gets evasive about. He ignores me.
After several more minutes, Emanuel seems to get jittery—his impatience starting to show. He reaches out to a small panel on the console facing his seat and pushes a button that controls the radio’s volume. Like that, the sound cuts out. Emanuel looks befuddled.
“I told you not to play with the buttons,” Mather teases him, smirking.
“I know, I know,” an annoyed Emanuel says, fiddling with the knob, to no avail.
His frenetic energy, some have said, could turn out to be his Achilles’ heel. “His strange combination of intense focus and attention deficit disorder might send him careening off course,” the political writer Jonathan Alter recently put it.
Emanuel readily admits that he will no doubt make some mistakes down the road—some of them because of his impatience. But he adds that, like with anything else in life, he’ll learn from his missteps and move on. “I step in the dog shit, and I’ll come back—maybe an hour later, a week later, a month later—and say, ‘Well, that was boneheaded. That’s life.’” Put another way, he says, “Some days I’ll do well. Some days I’ll strike out. But nobody will ever say, ‘Rahm didn’t try.’”
THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES. IN AUGUST 2009, CHICAGO MAGAZINE DID A FAWNING PROFILE OF RON HUBERMAN, HAILING HUBERMAN AS A 'NUMBERS MAN' (DESPITE THE FACT THAT HE WAS TERRIBLE WITH NUMBERS AND HAD BECAUSE OF IT BEEN AN ENGLISH MAJOR IN COLLEGE) AS USUAL PUSHING THE CELEBRITY HAGIOGRAPHY BUTTON WHEN HUBERMAN WAS NAMED BY RICHARD M. DALEY TO REPLCE ARNE DUNCAN. Numbers Man... He modernized Chicago’s emergency-response center, served as Mayor Daley’s chief of staff, and led (albeit briefly) the CTA—all before his 38th birthday. Now Ron Huberman, the Israeli-born gay ex-cop, has brought his intensity and his technocratic management style to the city’s public schools. Failure is not an option. By Ryan Blitstein
Plucked by Mayor Daley from police department middle-management obscurity in 2004, Ron Huberman today heads up the Chicago Public Schools, stepping into the shoes of Arne Duncan.
Under the brilliant lights of the auditorium stage at a West Side school, Ron Huberman sits behind a long table at the center of a menagerie of civil servants, ready to be denounced. In the audience, hundreds of students and parents wait desperately for answers and action. It’s March, and grown men, many of them likely gang members, have recently been beating up girls on their way home from the four schools housed here in the Little Village Lawndale High School campus. Why can’t the cops do anything? Thugs in SUVs chase after school buses, throwing things that break windows, apparently acting on long-simmering tensions between the black and Latino communities. Why hasn’t the school district beefed up security? Why haven’t officials rerouted buses to keep kids safer?
A month earlier, Mayor Richard M. Daley had yanked Huberman from his post as president of the Chicago Transit Authority and installed him as chief executive of the Chicago Public Schools, the nearly $5-billion bureaucracy that is as large as all of Chicago city government, employing 43,840 adults and teaching more than 400,000 kids. Though tonight the roster of officials in attendance includes a police commander, an alderman, a CTA bureaucrat, and various school administrators, here in the auditorium, the buck stops with Huberman.
One by one, parents, students, teachers, and activists march to the microphones and engage in the time-honored Ping-Pong match of community politics: Citizen yells at public official. Official tells citizen what she wants to hear. Citizen demands changes. Official makes empty promises. (Repeat.)
When it’s finally Huberman’s turn in the semi-scripted proceedings, things proceed differently. Even in a suit and tie, the 37-year-old gay ex-cop seems much younger than the average big-city agency head. An Israeli-born immigrant who is sometimes mistaken for a light-skinned black man, he looks like a kinder, gentler version of the action star Vin Diesel.
“Life is difficult enough,” he begins. “You shouldn’t have the added burden of worrying about the safety of your kids on their way to and from school.” In the audience, heads nod in fierce agreement. Huberman combines an officer’s ability to command respect with a politician’s gift for speaking platitudes with sincerity. Whereas his cohorts this evening made vague pledges and budgetary excuses, Huberman is ready to deliver: He’s set aside $5,000 in overtime pay for security staff and $5,000 worth of radios and equipment for parent patrol volunteers. “You all came with a plan,” he says. “When you come with a plan, it’s our responsibility to make that plan happen.” He gives out his e-mail and phone number, asking families to follow up with him. “Next time, we’ll meet in a gymnasium. So rather than us sitting up here, speaking to you down there, we’ll get on the same level,” Huberman promises.
When he finishes, everyone from 20-something white yuppie teachers to immigrant Latino mothers beat their hands together as if they mean it. For a moment, the new schools chief has turned the mood from a confrontational community meeting into an all-for-one campaign rally.
After you witness a performance like this, Huberman’s resumé begins to make sense. You can understand what Daley might have seen when he plucked Huberman from police department middle-management obscurity in 2004. You begin to grasp how this one man could have modernized Chicago’s 911 apparatus, changed the accountability system for city government, and rescued public transit from the brink of bankruptcy—all in less than five years.
Yet security concerns in Little Village just extend Huberman’s list of daunting challenges, most of which can’t be overcome with a slick speech and a $10,000 budget allocation. With almost zero prior education experience, he presides over a district in which many junior high schoolers can’t read a map; fewer than one-third of high-school freshmen make it to college; some students cross four dangerous gang lines every morning and afternoon.
Huberman’s quest to remake the country’s third-largest school system may be the purest test of Mayor Daley’s mantra that a great manager can direct any organization. More important, it’s the ultimate trial of Huberman’s belief that measuring progress and analyzing numbers offer the best way to reform a faltering organization. If this uber-technocrat makes serious progress, he will stride toward his rumored destiny as Daley’s heir. And if he doesn’t, he’s the type who might create a data-filled PowerPoint slide deck to explain why he failed. Whatever the outcome, Huberman is poised to make his mark on public education in Chicago and the nation.
For someone charged with educating hundreds of thousands of students, Ron Huberman got off to a rather unremarkable start in the classroom. He had come to the United States with his family when he was five, and they spent seven years in Tennessee before moving to La Grange, where his father, a cancer researcher, took a job at Argonne National Laboratory. Huberman didn’t distinguish himself at Lyons Township High School, and for college he settled on the University of Wisconsin mostly because he admired the beauty of Madison. He took his studies more seriously—pursuing a double major in psychology and English—but he didn’t have any real plan when he graduated. After working for a year in real estate in Washington, D.C., he moved home and did what he had been dreaming about for years—joined the Chicago Police Department.
Huberman has been openly gay since high school, and becoming a cop, especially in a department that has faced accusations of homophobia, might not have been an obvious career move. Yet, he says his sexuality was the last thing on his mind when he joined the force. Although his experience coming out as a teen left him sensitive to groups who have faced discrimination, he is part of a generation for whom sexual preference often bears little relevance to what happens at work. “It’s really never been an issue,” Huberman says. “It wasn’t one in the police department, and it hasn’t been one in this job either.”
Walking the beat in sketchy sections of Rogers Park, he quickly saw that law enforcement alone couldn’t begin to solve the problems plaguing low-income areas. So one afternoon in the mid-1990s, while deciding whether to enroll at the University of Chicago, Huberman sat in on a class there taught by Pastora San Juan Cafferty, a professor in the School of Social Service Administration. Midway through the lecture on social interventions in inner cities, Huberman raised his hand. When Cafferty called on him, he calmly dissected her argument and registered his disagreement. In 25 years of teaching, she had never seen anything like it. “My God, he’s bright,” Cafferty thought.
After a chat in her office, she called the dean of students. “I don’t know where he is in the process of admission,” Cafferty said, “but you should zero in on him.”
Huberman left the same sort of impression on Cafferty that he would leave on many prominent Chicagoans during the ensuing decade. Though he was confident almost to the point of arrogance, he was exceptionally smart, and a born leader. He enrolled in the U. of C.’s social service graduate school and later its business school, eventually earning two master’s degrees. The teachers and leaders who have worked with him overwhelmingly sing his praises—even the activist priest Father Michael Pfleger, who has sometimes disagreed with Huberman during his career, calls him “a gift to government.”
At the police department, where he worked night shifts through much of grad school, top brass quickly promoted Huberman through the ranks, first to tough field assignments, such as the tactical gang team, and later to managerial desk jobs. As assistant deputy superintendent for the Office of Information and Strategic Services—the department’s techie-in-chief—he created CLEAR, a system that gave cops real-time access to details such as criminals’ aliases and locations where crimes commonly occurred. The system became a national model. City Hall and the CPD claim that CLEAR, together with Operation Disruption, a surveillance camera system Huberman launched, were major drivers of the 25 percent drop in city murders, from 598 in 2003 to 448 in 2004.
Mayor Daley first took notice of Huberman in meetings between the police department and the mayor’s office, and in April 2004 the mayor hired the up-and-coming cop to overhaul the Office of Emergency Management and Communications—the agency that answers daily 911 calls and provides disaster response.
At 33, Huberman became one of the youngest members of the mayor’s cabinet, but he wasn’t the first unknown that Daley had handpicked to take over a crucial department. Like his father, Chicago’s current mayor often cultivates promising, talented loyalists, then deploys them to key agencies. In recent years, he has unearthed ever-younger prospects, elevating them to top positions in city government, installing many in powerful entities ostensibly outside city control. When the mayor took over Chicago’s flailing school district in 1995, he appointed his budget director, Paul Vallas, as CEO and his chief of staff, Gery Chico, as board president. Another acolyte, Lori Healey, has been shuffled from planning commissioner to chief of staff to her current role in charge of the city’s Olympics bid. Richard Rodriguez, 38, Huberman’s replacement at the CTA, was previously appointed by Daley to direct the aviation and construction and permits departments.
The strategy is simple: Find smart people, train them to manage, and throw them into problem agencies with a broad mandate. Those who thrive move on to bigger and better things: Key members of President Obama’s inner circle—adviser David Axelrod, chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, adviser Valerie Jarrett, and even First Lady Michelle Obama—cut their teeth working for the mayor.
“Mayor Daley is just, by and large, a great judge of talent,” says Paul Green, the director of the Institute for Politics at Roosevelt University and a coauthor of The Mayors: The Chicago Political Tradition. “Some of his most vocal critics who will not give him a break on anything will tell you Daley has been blessed in that area.”
The management tactic doesn’t always proceed without bumps. Frank Kruesi, a Daley associate since the mayor’s days as a state senator, ran into so many public relations disasters as head of the CTA that Daley eventually reassigned him to the city’s lobbying operation in Washington, far from public scrutiny. And Daley has caught flak from cops and community groups since bringing in Jody Weis, a longtime FBI official, as police chief. (The mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.)
Huberman, who eventually supplanted Kruesi at CTA, represents the most extreme example of Daley’s trial-by-fire approach, having doused three bureaucratic blazes and then moved on at Daley’s behest, leaving behind gushing underlings and astonished foes.
* * *
While running the 911 center, Huberman developed a performance management system that has become the open secret of his success. Cobbled together from business books such as Jim Collins’s Good to Great, the accountability practices at General Motors (back when the automaker was successful), and Huberman’s police and academic experience, it allowed him to ask a simple question: How did we do yesterday—and was it better than the day before? Similar management systems have been around for years in the corporate world, but Huberman came up with a simplified version that he could apply to government. He used it to quantify boring-but-important numbers, such as how quickly 911 calls were being picked up, and then used the figures to hold managers accountable.
When he became Daley’s chief of staff in the wake of the hired truck and patronage hiring scandals, Huberman adapted the method to scrutinize all 40-odd city departments. Every week, he would call dozens of city managers into a room, then interrogate them. The process was akin to an oral final exam. There were no excuses—if a manager blamed a problem on another department (say, CPD pointing the finger at Human Services for rising crime among the homeless), the department head could respond. When officials made legitimate cases for bigger budgets, Huberman helped find money. Goals were met, or heads would roll.
It was the ideal instrument for a demanding boss who works 12-hour days (not counting nights and weekends stacked with meetings) and expects underlings to do much the same. Though Huberman had barely spent time in the private sector, he developed a reputation as a brutal, corporate-style executive. (None of the critics or victims of Huberman’s sometimes-brusque style would speak on the record for fear of angering a powerful man who has the mayor’s ear.) At the CTA, his rapid reorganization shook things up, and managers who didn’t quickly meet expectations were ousted. The results of Huberman’s 21-month reign are remarkable: He took over an agency on the verge of financial meltdown, then corralled union leaders and Springfield lawmakers into agreeing on a multimillion-dollar pension-and-funding overhaul that kept buses and trains running. He led a campaign to cut down slow zones—areas of track where trains must run at reduced speed due to safety concerns—from 23 percent of the system to just 7 percent. He also oversaw a $530-million expansion of the Brown Line, the revamping of an awful CTA website, and cleaner buses.
“He definitely brought in a management style where you had to perform,” says Kevin O’Neil, the force behind the CTA Tattler, a blog that scrupulously tracks the agency. “If you didn’t, you were gone. Call it cleaning house, call it what you want to call it. It seems to me, that’s good management, period.”
Huberman also made a point of actually riding the trains and buses. On one occasion, while aboard a southbound Red Line train in 2008, he confronted an unruly man who had been harassing a female passenger. “You’re going to get off the train,” insisted Huberman, according to an e-mail submitted to the Tattler. Though protesting, the man finally did exit the train—with Huberman right behind him. (Huberman’s office confirmed that the incident occurred.)
Around City Hall, people were already whispering that Daley sometimes spoke of Huberman as a potential future mayor. Inside CTA, his decisions weren’t always popular. Early on, Huberman hired a 24-year-old mayoral aide with no transit experience, Adam Case, to head communications, a role that put him in charge of three veteran managers and a staff of dozens. Some longtime employees resented the move, but Huberman credits Case with shepherding crucial projects, including adapting the CTA’s Bus Tracker notification system for mobile devices. “My ultimate responsibility was not ensuring that there was harmony and goodwill within the communications department,” he says. “My responsibility was ensuring the customers of CTA got the best information possible.”
At times, Huberman’s emphasis on riders irked overseers. He signed a deal with Google for a trip planning application, obviating an in-the-works planner from the Regional Transit Authority, the body that supervises the CTA. “I felt it was good for customers and I was moving ahead,” he says. “I did not want to get stuck in red tape.”
In several respects, Huberman fell short of his promises. Though he boasted about riding public transit, the CTA still maintained a car for his workday trips, with a staffer driving. (Huberman says it was necessary for emergencies and back-to-back meetings around the city.) He also left a $242-million budget gap—a shortfall he blames on a variety of factors, including the ex-governor Rod Blagojevich’s free rides for seniors and unforeseen drops in tax revenue. Still, his too-rosy 2009 projections were made last fall, after serious economic shocks. “I’m very confident that as soon as the economy comes back, CTA will be in good shape,” Huberman predicts.
When Arne Duncan left Chicago Public Schools to become U.S. secretary of education, Huberman was not the obvious choice to succeed him. Both Duncan and the then board president Rufus Williams (since replaced by Michael Scott, a Daley ally) endorsed Barbara Eason-Watkins, the career educator serving as interim CEO.
At his first school board meeting, Huberman was greeted with boos from outraged parents and teachers in black armbands. Most critics, however, weren’t really attacking Huberman. They were condemning a school system that has been failing students for decades. The most pressing crises range from the killings of more than three dozen kids this past school year to a deficit projected to reach $475 million in 2010. “What Huberman is walking into is a mess,” said Barbara Radner, an associate professor of education at DePaul University, soon after he took over.
Since 1995, Mayor Daley has maintained total control of CPS, choosing the CEO and all board members. Vallas, his first chief, cleaned up the central office and spent billions renovating schools. But his myopic focus on math and reading test scores neglected other subjects. Duncan broadened the education strategy, instituting programs aimed at teacher training and generating some student achievement gains. But he also presided over Renaissance 2010, a controversial program to close dozens of struggling schools and replace them with 100 new ones, with latitude for modifications like longer days and non-union teachers. Depending on whom you ask, it’s either an innovative public-private partnership or an effort to privatize CPS and undermine the teachers’ union. So far, its effects on the broader system have been mixed at best.
As part of Renaissance 2010, Duncan (who declined to comment) left behind a list of 22 schools to be closed or reconstituted. During Huberman’s first weeks at CPS, he spent more time on that list than on anything else. He e-mailed parents and students, many of them livid over school closures, and sifted through public testimony. Many people called for a moratorium on school closings pending further research, but Huberman compromised, recommending the shutdown of 16 schools, some of which had been on academic probation for ten years. He said he didn’t want to leave them open just so experts could spend another year reviewing them. “To freeze and put kids as hostages in underperforming schools while we study more is wrong,” Huberman says.
Though critics weren’t pacified, the retraction on six closings, along with his more recent decision to subject Renaissance 2010 charter schools to higher standards, suggests Huberman is more than just a steamroller for mayoral policies. “He’s Daley’s guy, of course, but I think what we have here is a chance for someone with a much more comprehensive understanding of the community and the system to take this task on,” says Radner. “He’s coming in as a person who knows what happens outside the school door.”
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Before becoming head of the sprawling school system, Huberman had spent little time in the education world (he has taught one law school course), and he arrived at CPS without much of a plan. Already, though, he has taken deft action in response to several minor crises. After questions were raised about the handling of several instances of alleged teacher abuse of students, he ordered a review of 800-plus cases over five years. When swine flu threatened the city, he acted quickly to help teachers and principals recognize dangers and closed Kilmer Elementary School after a 12-year-old girl became ill. Huberman also tripled the number of year-round schools to 132—almost one-quarter of the system—and engineered a management shakeup that sent the chief administrative officer, Hill Hammock, packing. In early June, Huberman confirmed that up to 1,000 non-classroom employees would lose their jobs as the CPS strives to overcome its massive deficit.
Other decisions are more troubling: Despite promises to slash the budget, Huberman watched silently as the seven school board members doubled their receipt-free expense allowances to $24,000 per person per year, with $36,000 for Scott, the board president. And Huberman approved at least two no-bid consulting contracts—including one of up to $150,000 for Barbara McDonald, his former boss at the police department, who has followed him to several agencies. McDonald’s indistinct role is to “provide advice and consultation” to Huberman on communication and outreach, according to the approval agreement submitted to the board. “She’ll add so much value, she’s going to more than pay for contract costs,” Huberman says.
Huberman’s biggest challenge, however, will likely come as he tries to adapt performance management to a practice as subjective and heavy with variables as teaching children. Many educators, unconvinced by Duncan’s data-reliant efforts and aggravated by the testing-dependent federal No Child Left Behind law, remain skeptical. “You end up missing, devaluing the role of teachers. You’re turning teachers into delivery clerks,” warns Mike Klonsky, an education professor at DePaul and the director of the Small Schools Workshop, a consulting group.
Any changes Huberman dreams up will likely run headlong into the behemoth, 232-page agreement between CPS and the teachers’ union, which includes items as detailed as the length of a high-school day (421 minutes) and eligibility rules for swimming coaches.
Huberman acknowledges the undertaking is complex, and stresses his team is striving to tailor his system for education. But he harbors few doubts—and says so in language featuring words such as “metrics,” “accountability,” and “outcomes.”
Listening to him spout consultant-speak like that between bites of a late-lunch salad in his boxy, still-sparse office at 125 South Clark Street, it’s hard to believe this is the same Ron Huberman who can walk into a classroom or a community assembly or a meeting with America’s most powerful mayor and wow everyone in the room. Yet the wonky dialect is like Huberman’s native language. He is comfortable drowning in data—by his lights, the CPS team just needs to figure out which numbers to start collecting and analyzing.
Already, they’ve discovered areas ripe for savings and improvement. After the performance management team examined district-funded afterschool tutoring agencies, they found that some programs increased students’ grades, test scores, and attendance rates, while others had a detrimental effect. The obvious response: Cut funds from weak contractors, and redirect money to successful ones.
Renovating the whole of CPS is a much more demanding task than his last three assignments from Mayor Daley. To Huberman, though, the school system is just another organization, responsive to measurement, leadership, and novel ideas. Before school begins this fall, he promises, he will unveil a workable plan to save hundreds of millions of dollars and pursue aggressive improvements in education in every neighborhood. “Anyone who’s in my job has to believe it’s all solvable,” Huberman says. “Because if you don’t, then you shouldn’t be here.”