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Exit Laughing

The long run of Peoria's outgoing mayor gets mixed reviews.

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By Grant Pick

The Peoria Journal Star and the Chicago Tribune thump on Jim Maloof's doorstep on the north side of Peoria before six o'clock each morning. Maloof, the city's mayor, goes through them as he takes breakfast in his town house. When he spots a mention of an achievement by someone he knows--be it a degree earned, an anniversary reached, a basket scored--he circles the story with a black felt-tip pen. He often writes a congratulatory note directly on the newsprint, signs it "Jim," and draws a smiley face.

"I must send off 5, 10, 15 notes and letters a day," says Maloof, a beak-nosed song-and-dance man 77 years old. "They call me the cheerleader, and they're right about that. I continuously sell Peoria to the world and to itself."

An aging rust-belt city on the Illinois River, Peoria has the state's third-largest population (113,500) and a weak-mayor form of government. Maloof has presided over the city council, served as the liquor-license director, and made appointments to the city's various commissions, but a city manager chosen by the council is responsible for Peoria's administration. Paid $20,000 a year (plus a car allowance), Maloof kept his day job at his real estate company.

Yet on the eve of his departure, a measure of Maloof's true influence on his city is the blowout planned for him at the Peoria Civic Center. When Peoria elected him 12 years ago it was reeling from the collapse of Caterpillar Inc., the tractor maker that was--and is--the city's largest employer. Maloof's cheerleading helped revive the local economy.

Jim Maloof grew up in Peoria, the son of Lebanese immigrants who ran a dry-cleaning shop near city hall. Jim was weaned on the business ("as a sophomore in high school I was blocking hats"), and after World War II he took it over and built a chain of 11 stores. But the spread of self-service laundries in the late 1960s cut into business, and at age 48 Maloof sold out and began selling real estate.

Combining personality with a flair for marketing, Maloof donned the nickname "Ooops" and made the "Ooops...sold" yard sign a familiar sight in town. One typically corny billboard announced, "Bud listed with Jim Maloof/Realtor. Bud's wiser." Sooner than the competition, Maloof advertised on television and ran pictures of his houses in his newspaper ads.

Two sidelines added to Maloof's presence in Peoria. After meeting entertainer Danny Thomas at a 1957 dinner in Chicago, he became a passionate fund-raiser for Thomas's pet cause, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis; in time Maloof established a St. Jude's affiliate at the local Methodist Medical Center. A singer since childhood with a strong baritone voice and a wide repertoire, Maloof joined local choruses and also performed alone. He can say today, "I've sung at 600 weddings and half that many funerals, in churches and synagogues, everywhere and everything, 'Ave Maria' to 'Danny Boy' and the Jewish national anthem."

By 1979 Jim Maloof/Realtor boasted $50 million in annual listings; his firm was number one in its market.

Then Caterpillar ran into problems. "Up until the early 80s Caterpillar virtually dictated the life of Peoria, and the company was fat and happy," recalls Tucker Kennedy, marketing vice president of the Economic Development Council for the Peoria Area. "We thought we were recession-proof. Then the national economy went in the tank, and Caterpillar began suffering from foreign competition, particularly from Japan. They couldn't move their inventory. Suddenly Cat had pneumonia, the national economy had pneumonia, and Peoria went into a coma."

As Caterpillar employment in Peoria dropped from 32,770 in 1980 to 17,000 today, thousands of workers left the city. Bumper stickers read, "The last one out of Peoria turn off the lights." The real estate market died. "You couldn't sell houses and you couldn't rent 'em," remembers Maloof. "People would come into my office and throw the keys to their places on my desk in frustration." Maloof suffered such losses that he called up members of the national St. Jude's board to borrow enough money to keep himself afloat, a mortifying move he made only because of Danny Thomas's encouragement.

On Thanksgiving morning 1984, the then 65-year-old Maloof was readying the family turkey when he told his wife Trudy that he'd had enough and was going to run for mayor. "Where did you get that crazy idea?" she responded. "I'll divorce you." But Maloof not only went ahead, he finished second in the nonpartisan election. During the runoff, Maloof, a Republican, stole an idea from San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros, a Democrat, and called for a community-wide crusade he termed "Forward Peoria!" In response, Peoria narrowly elected him.

"Forward Peoria!" became a civic organization whose 16 subcommittees addressed issues such as jobs, economic development, and small business. Maloof went on the stump both nationally and abroad, leading missions to Japan and Korea (song-filled, of course) to convince corporations there to fill the gap left by Caterpillar. The area south of downtown was earmarked for an industrial park; as for downtown itself, abandoned by retailers, Maloof called for a mall linked by skywalks to the convention center and Hotel Pere Marquette--a revitalization tool borrowed from cities such as Des Moines and Minneapolis.

Any glimmer of activity turned into an occasion for mayoral ballyhoo. In the summer of 1985 a T.J. Maxx opened. "They had 35 or 40 employees," says Maloof. "Do you have any idea what 35 or 40 employees meant in 1985? I got word that the store was being launched with a sale that began at six o'clock on a Saturday morning, so I showed up in my pajamas and bathrobe, with no shave and my hair mussed. I greeted all the women in line and the press just ate it up." When Caterpillar settled a long strike Maloof danced a jig in front of the company's headquarters. Conventions were so prized by Maloof that he would welcome them by warbling "The Star-Spangled Banner."

One year a magazine rated Peoria as a fairly livable city, ahead of New York at any rate, and Maloof capitalized by calling up then mayor Ed Koch--a huckstering peer--and offering condolences. "Oh, we milked the hell out of that one," says Maloof, still relishing the stunt. "We had NBC and ABC in my office, and I'm saying hello to Koch on the phone. It's called shtick."

Maloof's downtown mall never materialized. National corporations hesitated to relocate in Peoria, given their impression of the labor force after a series of strikes against Caterpillar and their picture of the city as "two roads meeting in a cornfield"--in Tucker Kennedy's phrase. But local developers erected three new office buildings in the city's center. PMP Fermentation, a subsidiary of a Japanese pharmaceutical firm, moved into the old Pabst brewery by the river. A new postal service encoding center brought in 800 jobs, a check-processing center for the Federal Reserve Bank another 350. The three hospitals in the area expanded, along with some marketing and information-technology companies. "For many years we were a one-industry town, dependent on Caterpillar, but we've diversified," says Maloof. Indeed, two-thirds of the Peoria area's private-sector jobs now lie in retail and service, according to Richard Mulligan, the city development director.

Economic indicators point to a solid recovery. The regional unemployment rate, 17.2 percent in 1983, is 5.1 percent today. In 1985, new housing starts were at a near standstill. In 1995 the city granted permits for $110 million in new construction--a 245 percent increase in three years. Retail sales are climbing steadily, and Mulligan estimates the total number of jobs in the city is greater than it was before the crash. Maloof's real estate firm revived. The most telling sign of health could be that the Peoria economy was barely rocked by the latest strike against Caterpillar, a 17-month marathon that ended in late 1995.

Even Peorians who have their quibbles with Maloof applaud his efforts at resuscitation. Stan Valentine, political chairman of the United Auto Workers local, complains that the mayor interjected himself unasked into contract negotiations with Caterpillar. "But in terms of encouraging business and in spreading the word about Peoria, I can't think of a better person," Valentine quickly adds. Says Camille Gibson, a Bradley University history instructor and city councilman, "Jim inspired Peoria. He took over during a terrible period and he believed in us when we didn't believe in ourselves."

But Gary Sandberg, an architect who's been Maloof's most outspoken critic on the council, thinks Maloof takes too much credit. "Jim was elected 12 years ago because, quite frankly, he'd sung at a lot of people's weddings and he'd been active with St. Jude's. He's tended to involve himself in business decisions, but it's wrong to think that the mayor, or the city council for that matter, has much to do with redirecting the economy. The recovery happened not because of us but despite us."

Maloof prides himself on the women and minorities he's appointed to Peoria's 31 city commissions. He makes no apologies about browbeating drugstores to stow Playboy and other skin magazines under the counter--to keep them from soiling "some innocent child," he explains. Or about voting as a committed right-to-lifer against any city appropriation that would benefit Planned Parenthood. A state riverboat casino license that Peoria was in line for crossed the river to East Peoria instead, in large part because Maloof didn't want his city involved with gaming. "Gambling's a detriment to families," he says. "It heightens the divorce rate. You get people stealing. It's a poison." Peoria receives half the local tax revenues thrown off by the East Peoria casino, but Maloof considers his city's $3.5 million a year "bad money."

Recently Maloof tried unsuccessfully to stop city funding of local public-access television. "We shouldn't be supporting slander," he explains. But here his principles were looking out for his reputation. The gadfly hosts of one public-access show had insinuated that the mayor hid the role of his real estate firm in selling land to the city for a firehouse.

Maloof the moralist has found himself in the crosshairs more than once. In 1993 a group of 50 female city employees complained to the Illinois Department of Human Rights and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that Maloof and other officials had engaged in sexual discrimination and harassment. The women, predominantly police department workers, said they'd been trained, paid, and promoted unequally. Maloof was specifically accused of referring to women as "hon" and "babe," of making belittling remarks, and of kissing and hugging employees. "His secretary, Alma Brown, said the unwanted affection came on a daily basis," reported the Journal Star. "At the conclusion of a meeting of 30 Peoria ministers, one of the ministers helped Brown put on her coat. Maloof 'walked over to where we were standing, began pointing at my chest and said to the minister, "Yeah, let's see if we can get that coat around those,"' Brown said."

Maloof says the working conditions of the women were the responsibility of the city manager, not the mayor. As for the charges of harassment--"They were crushing, disappointing, and they were unbelievably false. Look, I love people. I like to make them feel good and have long before I was mayor. Hugging and kissing on the cheek are signs of friendship for me. That's a trait of Lebanese people. In all conscience, I did nothing wrong."

One prominent businessman recalls, "There were women who were pretty offended by his behavior." But councilman Gary Sandberg, no friend of Maloof's, cuts the mayor some slack. "He's a guy of his generation and his upbringing. He felt that if he wanted to hug Alma, it was OK. He didn't do anything of a prurient, sexual nature, but that doesn't mean it wasn't inappropriate."

The women's charges surfaced as Maloof was standing for election a third time, and Peoria stood by him. Women approached him on the street and said, "You can hug me anytime." T-shirts and buttons announced, "I was hugged by the mayor." In the end Maloof was reelected handily, while Brown and the other women filed suits in federal court.

Remarkably, Brown remained Maloof's secretary for another two years. "The relationship was strained, chilly," says the mayor, "but she still fulfilled the role of secretary." Last July the city settled the lawsuits for $3 million and promises of corrective action. Maloof says he was daunted by the reputation of the women's lawyer, Patricia Benassi (who in 1994 would bring a celebrated sexual harassment suit against Mitsubishi on behalf of 25 women who worked at that company's plant in Normal). "Our lawyers told us the [Peoria] girls had no grounds," says Maloof, "but she is relentless in cases like this."

In victory, Benassi was gracious toward the mayor. "He had taken a lot of personal criticism in the press, but when it came time to settle this thing he played a leadership role. He was part of the solution. He displayed a bigness of spirit."

Alma Brown is now the city's public information officer. She refuses comment.

To some in Peoria, the happy-talking Jim Maloof's a sham. Councilman Camille Gibson, who stood by Maloof through the harassment charges and didn't mind him calling her "babe," is still confounded that the mayor stopped speaking to her after they differed over tax credits for a proposed apartment complex. She says, "If you disagree with him he takes it personally, and he'll have nothing to do with you." Sandberg says, "Most people think he's so jovial, but he's really a mean clown. This man gets angry and holds grudges. He's told people not to hire me as an architect, and he puts up candidates to defeat me." Though Maloof did support Sandberg's opponent in this spring's elections, he denies lobbying against Sandberg professionally. Grudges are not his style, he insists. "I'm a Christian, sir, and I don't just wear that on my sleeve. I forgive and forget rather easily."

The mayor calls Sandberg "sad"and claims the councilman has waged a vendetta against him. Sandberg seems to enjoy their animosity. This winter he brought Jelly Bean, his pet macaw, to a council meeting. Noticing the bird on Sandberg's shoulder, an irritated Maloof quipped, "I'm glad you've got some new friends."

Maloof leaves office on May 6, and at least one of his longtime supporters believes it's about time. "We need a strategist now, someone who can talk CEO to CEO." The next mayor will be the candidate Maloof preferred-- Lowell "Bud" Grieves, a gregarious political outsider who's redeveloped a downtown hotel and owns the Spirit of Peoria, a tourist paddlewheeler. Maloof exits full of enthusiasm for a plan to redo Peoria's riverfront with $150 million worth of office buildings, parks, restaurants, and loft condominiums. He sits on a commission he created to oversee the project.

"It will be tough to leave all this," he said one afternoon in his office. "See, I love being mayor. All my life I've competed, and though I'm a humble winner I do like winning. Peoria has been winning for the last decade. We've come a long way. But my wife has had ups and downs with her health, and I'm a strong believer in term limits. A change of leadership is healthy.

"Bye, honey bunny," he said, as his new secretary left for the night.

The conversation turned to his passion for song. He sings for pleasure and for business. He sings "You're beautiful, you're fabulous--you're my kind of client" to the lady of the house when he's trying to land her property. He sings at the drop of a hat. He said, "The other day I was calling some woman in Indianapolis, the secretary to the CEO of the Kroger stores. She said her name was Melody, and so I started singing 'Melody of Love' to her."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Jim Maloof by Randy Tunnell.

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