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Mr. Nice Guy

Is Miguel del Valle tough enough to be mayor? And does toughness matter?

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When I interviewed city clerk Miguel del Valle about his mayoral campaign, he met me at the door of his near-west-side campaign office, introduced me to staffers and other visitors, and then ushered me into his room for a 90-minute on-the-record talk.

But when I asked to interview Rahm Emanuel—oh, brother, what an ordeal. I started with one aide who sent me to another who told me I was only getting five minutes of Emanuel's time and wanted to know what questions I planned to ask. And then she told me I couldn't ask about the tampons—more on that later.

It's a classic contrast of campaigns—one open and conciliatory, the other closed and hard-assed.

As I write this, Emanuel's presence on the ballot is in doubt—because the Illinois appellate court ruled on Monday that he hadn't met the city's requirement that candidates reside in Chicago for the year before an election. Emanuel immediately appealed that ruling to the Illinois Supreme Court, which on Tuesday ordered the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners to keep Emanuel's name on the ballot, and agreed to hear the appeal on an expedited basis. If I know Emanuel, he'll figure out a way to convince the justices to allow him to remain in the race, and he'll come back stronger than ever, portraying himself as the little guy who beat the machine.

In any event, at the time of the appellate court ruling, Emanuel was first in the polls by a big margin, and del Valle was last among the four major candidates, even though he's the only one of the four to have been elected to citywide office. And it got me wondering: Have we come to the point where Chicagoans will only vote for a hard-ass for mayor?

Yes, I know—with his lead, Emanuel doesn't have to waste time talking to reporters. And del Valle, being the underdog, needs all the ink he can get.

But by almost all accounts, del Valle's friendly and courteous. Even Cook County assessor Joe Berrios, his longtime political rival from the northwest side, says "He's a nice guy."

Emanuel, on the other hand, is widely known as a rude, crude, abrasive, temperamental, nasty infighter, who cusses a blue streak, and who once sent the head of a dead fish to a colleague he didn't like.

For better or worse, his run for mayor is one of the boldest political acts I've seen around here since, well, 2002, when, having never before run for office and having only lived in town the last four years, he jumped ahead of a long line of northwest-side pols to run for Rod Blagojevich's old seat in the Fifth Congressional District.

The man has never publicly offered even a shred of an opinion on the pressing local concerns of the last few years, much less get involved in them. Yet just a few weeks after Mayor Daley announces he's not running for reelection, here comes Emanuel, jetting into town. Within weeks he's raised more money than any other candidate, talked several challengers out of the race, according to several of my sources, saturated the TV with warm and fuzzy commercials, lined up support from northwest-side powerhouses, surged ahead in the polls and refused to participate in neighborhood forums—because as the front-runner, why should he?

I mean, if you want your mayor to be tough, determined, and fortified with a strong sense of entitlement, here's your guy.

"There's this thing, this attitude out there that I'm not buying, that you have to be the hard guy to run the city," says alderman Rick Munoz (22nd), a del Valle supporter. "I don't buy it, but Rahm's got that going for him."

Chicago's had a long tradition of ass-kicking mayors going back to the first Mayor Daley, who served from 1955 to 1976. But the notion that we need an ass-kicker to protect us from ourselves goes back to the mid-1980s, when the City Council divided into warring camps—one loyal to Harold Washington, the city's first black mayor, and the other to aldermen Ed Vrdolyak and Ed Burke.

As democracy in Chicago goes, this is as close to a "golden era" as we've had in decades—at least, the Vrdolyak/Burke faction acted as a check and balance on Mayor Washington, carefully scrutinizing his budgets and programs.

Of course, the division was largely based on race: almost all the whites in the council opposed Washington and all of the blacks supported him. The raucous council meetings drew national criticism, including a Wall Street Journal article calling Chicago "Beirut by the Lake."

It got even worse after Washington died in 1987, when the council elected alderman Eugene Sawyer interim mayor during an all-night spectacle of a meeting that featured bellowing, fist waving, and alderman Richard Mell climbing on a desk.

In 1989 Mayor Daley ran as the grown-up who could keep the knuckleheads in line and restore order to this wild town.

Well, Mayor Daley's certainly brought the council into line. It's been his rubber stamp for 21 years, only occasionally voting against his proposals. In fact, with Mayor Daley, winning wasn't enough. When he didn't secure overwhelming council approval on budgets and other proposals, he often lashed out at aldermen who dared vote against him.

I'm not certain this is a model we want to continue. After all, it was a compliant council that, among other things, overwhelmingly ratified Daley's parking meter deal in 2008 after less than a week of debate in which several aldermen admitted they hadn't even read the agreement.

Del Valle is running as the anti-Daley when it comes to council relations. He says he welcomes council participation on important citywide issues like the budget. Unlike Mayor Daley, he says he won't get upset if the council only narrowly approves his legislation.

"I want a strong council and a strong mayor," says del Valle. "I don't think they're incompatible. One keeps the other in line."

But don't you have to be tough to keep the council in line?

"This whole thing about being tough—it's about personalities and demeanor, it has nothing to do with running a city," del Valle says. "What, he's tough because he swears? I don't swear to people, so I'm not tough? I'm from Humboldt Park. He's from where—Wilmette, Winnetka? I went to Tuley High, he went to what—New Trier? And Rahm's tougher than me?" (Emanuel grew up in Wilmette and graduated from New Trier West High School; del Valle graduated from Tuley High in Humboldt Park.)

In 1955, when del Valle was four, his family moved to Chicago from Puerto Rico and settled in Lincoln Park, then a working-class community. "I didn't speak a word of English," he says. "I went from one school to another because my family was always moving. The joke was, we moved whenever the rent went up. I wound up at the old Wicker Park grammar school at Damen and Evergreen—it's the Pritzker school now. I had this teacher, Mrs. Sepsky. I'm not sure how to spell her name, but I will never forget her. She saw potential in me that no one else had seen. She motivated me to work harder and I did. And here's my point. I see a lot of politicians jumping on teachers to show how tough they are. Yes, I know, there are some bad teachers in the system. But I know what teachers do for kids because I know what teachers did for me. I'm not going to scapegoat teachers. So, what, does that mean I'm not tough?"

In his first run for office in 1986, del Valle defeated incumbent state senator Edward Nedza, who was backed by the powerful 31st Ward Democratic organization. In 1990 most of the Democratic ward bosses on the near-northwest side, including Alderman Luis Gutierrez (now a congressman), alderman Richard Mell, and Berrios, then committeeman of the 31st Ward, lined up behind del Valle's opponent in the Democratic primary—but del Valle won reelection. "I guess I was tough enough to beat the big boys," he says with a laugh.

His meekest political act is the one that advanced his career—which is all too often how it goes around here.

In 2006, after 20 years as one of the more progressive voices in the state senate, he endorsed Daley for reelection, and Daley picked him to replace Jim Laski as city clerk. (Laski was headed to federal prison for corruption.)

His deal with Daley caught many of del Valle's longtime supporters off guard—until 2007, he had never endorsed the mayor. It gave the mayor credibility in his reelection campaign amid a host of patronage scandals— if del Valle backed Daley, how bad could he be? Moreover, by joining Daley's ticket, del Valle undercut the potential mayoral candidacy of Gutierrez, and the congressman has never really forgiven him. Gutierrez has endorsed Gery Chico in this campaign.

For the last four years, del Valle, the lifelong independent who had never been afraid to take strong stands against powerful politicians, remained silent in the face of Mayor Daley's more controversial policies, like the parking meter lease deal.

"I may have opposed some of these proposals, like the parking meter deal," he says. "But as clerk it was not my job to take positions on these issues."

At least he's open to questions from reporters. It's quite a different story with Emanuel, the so-called tough guy in the race.

To get my interview with Emanuel, I e-mailed one of his issue advisers, who put me in touch with Tarrah Cooper, an assistant press secretary, who asked what I intended to ask in the five minutes they were giving me.

I mentioned that Emanuel's reputed abrasive personality has been in the news since an exchange between former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun and Emanuel at the Tribune's January 14 editorial board endorsement session.

That's the one where Braun—who's running second to Emanuel in the polls—lashed out at Emanuel for having allegedly told a male staffer in the White House to "take your fucking tampon out and tell me what you have to say."

The tampon quote originally appeared in Jonathan Alter's book, The Promise, which examines the first year of Obama's presidency.

Don't ask about the tampons, she told me.

Well, I might ask about them if only to get Rahm's side of the story, I said.

He said he didn't say it and that's the end of the story, she said.

A few minutes later, I got an e-mail from the issues adviser telling me not to ask about the tampons.

Now, I'm starting to get stubborn. It's not that I'm dying to talk about tampons. It's just that if you tell me I can't talk about something, I'm going to want to talk about it.

And, by the way, I can really start to see how a Mayor Emanuel might have trouble with some of the more obstinate members of the council.

Anyway, a few hours pass. Then the phone rings. "Ben," says a voice. "Rahm."

He tells me he remembers me from the last time I interviewed him, during his congressional campaign in 2002. He reminds me that we ate breakfast at the Lincoln Restaurant. He says how much he admires my stories on TIFs. I tell him that since he's already spent two of my allotted five minutes talking me up, I should get a couple of more minutes on the clock.

He chuckles.

So my first question is—what's your favorite brand of tampons?

Just kidding—I didn't really ask that.

I ask him if he has an image problem—or if he's truly as abrasive as people say.

He launches into his set response to this question—a variation on one I've heard him deliver before: "The mayor of the city of Chicago is a big job with big responsibilities. The mayor has to be strong, resilient, and smart to meet the challenges of Chicago."

Then he's off on a riff about how when he was in the Clinton White House he had to fight the National Rifle Association on gun control legislation. And when he was in Congress he had to fight off attempts by conservative Republicans to cut spending for important social programs.

I'm starting to see how this works. He gives me five minutes. Then he spends part of it telling me how great I am and the rest of it filibustering.

So I cut him off to mention the dead fish. I barely finish the sentence before he says, "Let's go off the record." And before I can agree, he says: "I sent one fish 26 years ago and you guys have been writing about it ever since. It's like nobody ever changes. I did it. I did it with four other people. That was in 1987. People mature."

I ask him about working with the City Council—and to my surprise he takes a page from del Valle. "There's going to be a new mayor. There's going to be a new City Council. There's going to be a partnership. They will have a greater voice. But with that voice comes responsibility. I respect that."

I ask about the residency challenge that was filed against him, in the vain hope that he'll tell me who he thinks is really behind it. Bad move on my part. He says he doesn't know. Precious seconds tick away.

I ask him, If he's so tough, why didn't he ever oppose Mayor Daley on anything?

He says he did—something about a pharmaceutical bill.

I press on, mindful of the clock: I mean on substantive local issues, like the parking meter deal.

"You asked for an example of when I opposed the mayor and I gave it to you."

But—

"I've got to go. Bye-bye."

Click. Phone dead. The dude hung up on me!

Oh, well, so goes my five minutes with Emanuel. Or 11 minutes and 37 seconds, to be exact. Good God, these poor aldermen don't know what they're in for.

Ben Joravsky discusses his reporting weekly with journalist Dave Glowacz at mrradio.org/theworks.

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