Gery Chico was back in City Hall Thursday, and aldermen greeted him with warmth and extensive wish lists.
Chico, a bright, well-connected attorney, once served as Mayor Daley's chief of staff and then as president of the Chicago School Board. In 2001, though, the mayor decided the pace of school "reform" wasn't happening fast enough. Chico quit the board just before Paul Vallas was ousted as the Chicago Public Schools CEO.
Chico returned to practicing law with several high-powered firms; he was the chairman of Altheimer & Gray when the firm strangely and abruptly dissolved in 2003. In 2004, Chico ran a thoughtful campaign for U.S. Senate but was soundly defeated by Democratic machine support for Dan Hynes, oodles of cash at the disposal of multimillionaire Blair Hull, and the groundswell of passion for Barack Obama. Then he went back to lawyering and making money.
Few would have been surprised if Chico stayed out of politics and public policy after that. Over the last 18 years, a game plan has developed for former aides and allies of Mayor Daley. Top city policymakers are typically hardworking, loyal people whose ideas and long hours the mayor relies on to run the city, and whose names, reputations, and jobs he feels free to offer up as sacrifices when scandal strikes. Basically, commissioners and aides get zero credit when things are working right and take the blame when someone's been naughty, even if they really weren't responsible. They exist, in part, as mayoral insulation.
This happens in politics everywhere, but Daley has shown particular skill at it, surviving one embarrassment after another by letting onetime star underlings become fall guys. In exchange, they're usually set up with comfortable gigs in the private sector if they can't find one themselves. The list of these people is long, but it includes former planning and development commissioner Alicia Berg, canned for being caught up in a backroom political mess involving some aldermen, public housing redevelopment, and mayoral friend Oscar D'Angelo, who became a vice president at Columbia College Chicago (where, I should disclose, I am an adjunct faculty member); and onetime environment commissioner and budget wonk William Abolt, a Hired Truck scapegoat who went on to a position with an environmental services firm.
But earlier this month Daley dusted off Chico and decided he was worthy of leading the board of the Chicago Park District.
In confirming the appointment yesterday, aldermen praised Chico's smarts, commitment to public service, and concern for children. "He is an outstanding asset for government," said finance committee chairman Ed Burke. "Gery Chico has never accepted an assignment he did not do well and complete successfully."
Such as dissolving a once-powerful law firm.
It was 27th Ward alderman Walter Burnett who brought up the most likely reason Chico's been recruited again. "Gery knows how to get the money from Springfield and also from Washington, D.C.," Burnett said. "And I think that's very, very important for us."
Chico pretty much confirmed that analysis after he was confirmed. "I plan to spend some time trying to develop capital," he said in the lounge behind council chambers, in between handshakes and pats on the back from aldermen eager to hit him up for help with projects in their wards. "[Parks Superintendent] Tim Mitchell's done a very good job, but he'd be the first guy to tell you we've got to do even more. People want things done, they want projects, and we've got to pay for it."
The Park District has an annual budget of about $400 million, but as Chico acknowledged, there's not a neighborhood in the city that isn't desperate for additional green space, better recreational programming, and facility upgrades.
And let's face it: aldermen and the mayor can talk about how important the Park District is to city kids, but if Daley's going to get the Olympics here, he's got to confront decades of lackluster investment and planning in the parks and make some major facility upgrades--really freaking fast.
"You've got the best steward you could have to get the Olympics to come to the city, and that's Mayor Daley," Chico said Thursday. "And [I'll do] anything I can to help and to get the district to help."
That's why Chico's here: he'll try to get it done, and even if he doesn't, he'll never stop playing the good soldier.