Oh, to have been a fly on the wall of Ron Huberman's office at 11 AM on April 19.
That's when Huberman, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, had a one-hour sit-down with Leon Finney, Juan Rangel, and Greg Goldner to discuss "the school funding plan."
A couple of these names you probably recognize. Huberman is one of Mayor Daley's favorite aides, having served the mayor as his chief of staff, executive director of the Office of Emergency Management and Communication, and president of the CTA before moving over to CPS.
Finney and Rangel are two of Mayor Daley's leading cheerleaders, ostensibly representing the black and Hispanic communities, respectively. They can be counted on to enthusiastically endorse whatever idea—however dumb—that pops into the mayor's mind, like cramming the Children's Museum into Grant Park, bringing the 2016 Olympics to Washington Park, or welcoming Walmart with open arms.
Each oversees a community organization that receives funding from local governmental agencies controlled by the mayor. Finney heads the Woodlawn Community Development Corporation, an offshoot of the Woodlawn Organization, which is officially run by his wife, Georgette Greenlee-Finney. The community development corporation has millions of dollars in contracts with the CHA.
Rangel is CEO of the United Neighborhood Organization, which operates nine charter schools that get roughly 80 percent of their operating money from CPS.
The other guy, Goldner, is one of Mayor Daley's favorite political operatives. In 1999 he ran the campaign that got former Daley aide John Pope elected Tenth Ward alderman over several independent-minded candidates. In 2002 he managed Rahm Emanuel's first primary campaign for Congress. That fall he ran Rod Blagojevich's first general election campaign for governor. And then he went on to manage Daley's 2003 mayoral run.
Until recently, I didn't know he was advising Huberman on school issues. But Max Brooks—the freelance writer who wrote a story for the Reader last week about Finney mobilizing paid pro-Walmart demonstrators—sent a Freedom of Information Act request to CPS asking for records of any meeting between Finney and Huberman.
CPS responded by sending Brooks sections from Huberman's appointment calendars, including the April 19 entry, which reads: "11 am Meeting w/Dr.Finney, Juan Rangel, Adam Case and Greg Goldner re: School Funding Plan." (Case is one of Huberman's aides.) Max passed the information on to me.
So what diabolical scheme were the fellows cooking up in Huberman's office that day? I thought I'd try to find out.
Monique Bond, Huberman's press secretary, said there was nothing diabolical or even newsworthy about the meeting.
Huberman, she said, sits down with all kinds of people all the time, especially now that he's trying to figure out how to erase a $300 million budget deficit.
"They only thing I can say is that Ron regularly meets with community organizations, faith-based groups, and heads of schools," said Bond.
But Goldner, Rangel, Finney? C'mon—they must have talking politics.
"There would have been a number of things that came up in their conversation," Bond said.
I called Goldner and he told me he wants to make one thing perfectly clear: He is not—repeat, not—a paid consultant for CPS. He was lending his advice free of charge.
And what was the advice?
"When it comes to education funding, you have to make it clear that it's a statewide issue," he said. "If it becomes Chicago versus the rest of the state, Chicago has no hope of making up the money."
Goldner says he's had other meetings with Huberman, some of which were attended by Finney and Rangel. He doesn't remember exactly how many or when, but says other people were in the room with them.
Rangel didn't return my call. Finney did, and he said the same thing Goldner had, that the meeting was all about devising ways to get more money for CPS. He insisted that Goldner wasn't there to help advance Daley's political agenda. "We discussed how to build our effort to reduce the [CPS] budget."
Huberman's latest public appearances, though, suggest he was strategizing with Finney and Rangel so they could give the appearance of rock-solid black and Latino support for Daley in his brewing fight with the Chicago Teachers Union.
At a June 28 presser, both Finney and Rangel stood at Huberman's side as he insisted that if teachers didn't give up a 4 percent raise he'd have to cram more high school kids into every class. Finney chimed in to say that he supports Huberman 100 percent, while Rangel added that teachers in his charter schools are voluntarily accepting a pay freeze for the good of team. (As if they had a choice.)
They all played their roles so brilliantly it was like they were reading from a script by Goldner. But Goldner swears he had nothing to do with it.
When I told Finney I thought he'd been used as part of Huberman's larger antiunion campaign, he went off. He told me he'd always been an union man and said he "loved the Chicago Teachers Union." He told me he bowed to no one and that not so long ago he'd criticized Illinois house speaker Michael Madigan, senate president John Cullerton, and Governor Pat Quinn.
I tried to get a word in edgewise: "But Dr. Finney, what about Mayor Daley? Have you ever criticized him?" He didn't answer—he just kept up his filibuster. Finally, when he stopped to take a breath, I asked why he'd participated in the June 28 press conference with Huberman if he loved the union so much.
"Before you play Captain Kidd and make me walk the plank, let me tell you this," he said. "I'm a free spirit. You can characterize me as a puppet, but I deny it."
Wonks and Drinks
Over the years I've talked about the tax increment financing program in all sorts of venues besides this paper—community centers, union halls, restaurants, Park District field houses, you name it.
Generally, my audience consists of the well-informed and the well-intended: civic-minded citizens, mostly middle-aged or older, who closely follow the local news.
I never thought my spiel on the evils of Mayor Daley's TIF program would play in front of a lubricated crowd of young artistic types, but on the evening of July 11, Mick Dumke and I took our act to Lonie Walker's Underground Wonder Bar at Walton and State.
The event was billed as "Come Home Chicago," a literary talent show put together by novelist Don De Grazia, a fiction-writing teacher at Columbia College.
The joint was packed. They were having some kind of liquor promotion, which meant that a bevy of scantily clad women bearing complimentary drinks were squeezing their way through the throngs. By the time Mick and I took the stage the bar had been hopping for well over two hours and folks were feeling no pain.
We sat on chairs under the lights, taking questions from De Grazia and then from the floor. Like: "Hey—what's a TIF?"
I launched into my usual explanation—property tax increment, frozen equalized assessed value, and so forth. Then I thought—nah, it's not the time or place. TIFs are hard enough to understand when you're sober. Lord knows what sense they make when you're imbibing.
So I kept it short and sweet: A TIF is a tax hike in which all the money goes into bank accounts controlled by Mayor Daley.
"Taxes Fucking Sucks!" one guy called out.
Um . . . what?
Looking at me like I was the biggest blockhead in town, the guy shouted out an explanation: "You know, like, that's what TIF stands for!"
Oh, I get it—it's a joke.
I started to say that's it's T-I-F, not T-F-S. But I stopped myself. I guess sometimes I'm just a little too literal for my audience.
The highlight of our stint came when De Grazia reminded everybody that it was Mick whose ass Mayor Daley recently threatened to penetrate with a bayonet.
That really woke folks up. They might not have known much about TIFs, but man, they all knew about that. Around the room you could hear people murmuring: so that's what the dude looks like.
Afterward Mick was fucking golden, as our ex-governor might've put it. It was like hanging with Sinatra in Vegas back in the day. At least three women threw their hotel keys at Mick.
OK, I made up that last part about the hotel keys. But you get the idea.
Anyway, on a personal note, as you may have heard, Mick's moving on to take a job as a staff writer with the Chicago News Cooperative. They're getting an ace.
Best of luck, my brother—it's been a blast.
Ben Joravsky discusses his reporting weekly with journalist Dave Glowacz at mrradio.org/theworks.