That time the CTA turned down free gas from Hugo Chavez | Bleader

That time the CTA turned down free gas from Hugo Chavez

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Hugo Chavez
  • AP Photo/Fernando Llano
  • Hugo Chavez
The news of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez's death got me thinking about his distant connection to Chicago.

This goes back to 2005, when Mayor Daley was mayor and Frank Kruesi was president of the CTA.

Working through Congressman Luis Gutierrez and Alderman Billy Ocasio, Venezuelan officials let the CTA know that they'd wanted to give Chicago what amounted to $15 million worth of free gas for its buses.

The offer was intended to help the CTA keep fares low so that Chicago's poor people could avoid fare hikes, Venezuelan officials said.

There were two ways of looking at this. Chavez was trying to embarrass President George Bush—his ideological rival. Or he genuinely cared about the poor people of Chicago.

Or maybe both.

No matter what, $15 million worth of free gas was nothing to sneeze at. The CTA was in the midst of a budget crisis, with dire talk of services cuts and layoffs and so forth.

Ultimately, Kruesi turned down the offer without even telling the board about it—on the grounds that he didn't want to upset the Bush administration, who might retaliate by cutting Chicago's federal transportation aid.

And you thought Dennis Rodman was taking foreign policy into his own hands by traveling to North Korea.

Here, read all about it.

My favorite part of the story was how uninhibited Gutierrez was about ripping into Kruesi. The congressman didn't even pretend to conceal his disdain for one of Mayor Daley's oldest friends and advisers.

Nothing like a little dissent among the palace guard to make me happy.

Gutierrez was by no means alone in his attitude toward Kruesi. I'm not sure anyone in government—outside maybe Mayor Daley—liked the dude, who had a reputation for being arrogant even by Chicago standards.

The contrarian in me tried to like Kruesi, if only because everyone else seemed to hate him so much.

I recall a 2004 CTA public hearing at Clemente high school where Kruesi rolled his eyes as audience members complained about service cuts. Folks responded by hurling a few F-bombs.

Ah, the good old days.

I can't say I was a big fan of Hugo Chavez. He was far too autocratic for my tastes. If I worked in his country and wrote about him the way I write about mayors Daley and Emanuel, he might have thrown my ass in jail.

But I will say this about the man. At least he showed a little compassion for poor people struggling to survive.

Compassion's hard to come by in Chicago these days—what with our mayor outsourcing city jobs to corporations, closing schools, cutting pensions, jacking up water bills, all the while endorsing handouts and tax breaks for the rich.

The notion of giving away gasoline to help the poor seems fantastical.

It's a coldhearted city—no wonder Frank Kruesi fit right in.

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