For three years Rey Colon had been one of the YMCA's rising executive stars. He was widely praised for, among other things, overseeing the construction of the Y's new branch in Logan Square. Then on August 16 the Y abruptly fired him.
Why? The Y won't say, but Colon claims the Y allowed itself to be bullied by 35th Ward alderman Vilma Colom, whom Colon plans to challenge in next year's election. "Vilma called them up and complained about me running, and they caved," he says. "It's not the Y's finest moment. It's dirty politics--a lesson for anyone who challenges the machine."
The political fight had started with the aldermanic redistricting of the early 1990s, when the 35th Ward was carved out of portions of Humboldt Park, Logan Square, and other near-northwest neighborhoods. Without an incumbent, the 35th was considered prime political territory by rival factions--one led by Congressman Luis Gutierrez, the other by 33rd Ward alderman Richard Mell.
In the 1995 aldermanic election Gutierrez backed a police officer named Louis Lara. Mell backed Colom, an Allstate insurance agent who'd touched both ends of the political continuum--she was a far-left radical in college in the 70s and a far-right politician when she ran for city clerk as a conservative Republican in the early 90s--before finding her place somewhere in the middle. "I'm hard to pin down because I'm not a politician," she says. "I'm a public servant. I'm all about service. I grew up here. I went to Moos school and Yates school and Schurz High School. This is my community."
By almost all accounts, the aldermanic campaign of 1995 was mean and nasty, even by Chicago standards. And like all great ward fights, it continued after the election was over. In her first few months in office Colom made it clear that she relished a good fight, frequently telling rooms filled with voters exactly what they didn't want to hear. When, for instance, a group of local residents asked her to support their proposal to convert the Unity play lot, at Drummond and Kimball, into a basketball court, she said no. When the residents pointed out that they'd been working on the plan with the Park District for over a year and had the support of almost all the local social service agencies, she still said no, claiming to represent a "silent majority" of opposition. "I know these people [who support the basketball courts]," Colom said at the time. "They're the ones who didn't support me in the last election. They just want to use this [basketball] court to keep that fight going."
Her supporters loved her for being defiant--one likened her to "the Lone Ranger standing up to the mobs." But it only made her opponents more determined to unseat her, and as the 1999 election approached they rallied around Colon. Like Colom, he's Puerto Rican and he grew up in Logan Square. "I went to Darwin grade school and Schurz High School," he says. "I was not a great student. I was probably destined to drift, but what happened is that my older brother, Ricardo, got killed in a drive-by shooting when he was only 19. That was in 1979. It woke me up. I was 18 when it happened. I got it together after that."
While he worked his way through Columbia College, he took a job as a youth worker at the local Boys & Girls Club, and eventually became its executive director. In 1994 the Park District hired him to "work with communities throughout the north and northwest sides. I worked with the residents on Unity. That's where the lines were drawn between me and Vilma. It was more than the courts. It was the way she treated people. People put in hours of planning--then Vilma crushed it. You don't treat people like that."
Colon thought he had a good chance against Colom in the 1999 race. But then she and Gutierrez quietly struck a deal: Gutierrez would back Colom, and she would support his ally Cynthia Soto in her race for state representative. The deal surprised many voters, because one of Gutierrez's underlings, Cook County commissioner Roberto Maldonado, had moved into the 35th Ward and was planning to run against Colom for Democratic committeeman in 2000.
Gutierrez says he'd orchestrated a complicated behind-the-scenes maneuver involving Maldonado, Colom, and 26th Ward alderman Billy Ocasio, another protege. "Vilma came to me, and we talked," says Gutierrez. "I said, 'Vilma, you did a good job [as alderman]. I can support you.' And she said, 'What about Maldonado?' Remember, at the time Billy was the [26th Ward] committeeman. And Billy, he didn't want to be committeeman anymore, right? So I said, 'Billy, why don't you step down as committeeman, and Roberto, why don't you step in?' So Roberto moved back to the 26th and got to be its committeeman. And everyone's happy."
Everyone except Colon, who was left to fight Colom on his own. "You know Chicago politics--everybody's making deals," he says. A few months after the election, "the Park District let me go. It was a general shake-up--it had nothing to do with the election. I have to give the Park District credit. I heard that Vilma called them to get them to put pressure on me to drop out, but they didn't budge. I took a leave of absence, and they let me stay in the race."
He lost, getting only 40 percent of the vote, but by the end of 1999 he was back on his feet, working as executive director of the Y's Logan Square branch. "I told them when they hired me that I was going to run again in 2003," he says. "I told them that while I was working for the Y all politics were off, but come 2003, everything was different, because I still wanted to run for alderman. They said OK."
The Y was a good job for an ambitious young politician looking to make a name for himself. The old branch at Central Park and Fullerton was falling apart. Colon's job was to raise enough money to build a new facility, and by 2001 he'd helped bring in more than $7 million. The old Y was sold and a new building was put up at 1834 N. Lawndale.
Lynn Crawford, president of the Logan Square YMCA's board, says, "I don't know enough details to intelligently comment on [why Colon was fired], but I can tell you Rey is a great guy. He was a great executive director for our YMCA. He was very instrumental in raising funds. He was definitely an asset."
At the opening of the new branch on December 6, 2001, Stephen Cole, CEO for the umbrella YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago, lavishly praised Colon. "Cole said he had just started as CEO," says Colon, "so he couldn't take the credit for what's going on. 'But this man'--meaning me--'was the guy who made it happen.'"
Colon says that while he was running the Logan Square Y he temporarily made peace with Colom: "I wasn't going to let our rivalry get in the way of the job, so yes, I called on her for funding support. I met with her. I even had a beer with her once. But I never gave up my dream of being alderman. I never thought she was right for the ward."
In June, as the time to start campaigning approached, Colon asked to meet with Cole and Steven Dahlin, the Y's senior vice president of operations. Colon says they met on June 5 and he reminded them that he intended to run for alderman. "It was well received by both of them," he says. "I warned them that Vilma might get vindictive. I told them that the last time I ran Vilma had called the Park District. They said they could take the heat." Colon remembers that Cole was particularly encouraging. "Cole said, 'It's great to run for office.' He said he always wanted to run for office. He even suggested that I could stay at the Y if I was elected. He said, 'I don't see why you can't do both jobs.' He mentioned Ed Burke. He said Ed Burke's a friend of his, and Burke has two jobs"--lawyer and 14th Ward alderman.
Colon says that over the next few weeks he had two conversations with Cole about the race. "We eventually agreed that I would take a nonpaid leave of absence once I started circulating petitions," he says. "That meant I'd have to take my leave in September."
In the meantime, Colon took his first public position against Colom, writing a letter to the Booster that sharply criticized the alderman for not joining the fight to keep a Home Depot from coming to a vacant lot at Addison and Kimball. (In June, Colom had told a large gathering of residents in essence that the Home Depot project was a done deal and they should accept it.)
The letter, which didn't mention the Y or identify Colon as a Y employee, ran on July 10. On July 22 Colom called Colon at his Logan Square YMCA office. "I was surprised by that article, so I called directly and left Colon a message," she says. "I said, 'I'd like to talk to you regarding your disenchantment with me.' I only called him to find out why he didn't talk to me before he wrote that letter. That's all I was trying to talk to him about."
Colom says she felt betrayed by Colon's letter. She thought they'd achieved a permanent peace, like the one she'd achieved with Gutierrez. After all, they'd worked together to raise money for the new Y. "I couldn't understand why he would write what he did," she says.
She didn't hear back from Colon, so the next day she called the Y's central office. "I thought I might get him there," she says. "I talked to someone and asked them to have Rey call me. I was very civil. I never raised my voice. I would never raise my voice. That's not my style."
But according to Colon, after Colom left a message for a Y executive the executive's assistant called her back. "The assistant took notes of the conversation," Colon says. "I've been told by people at the Y, who I must keep anonymous, that a transcript of that conversation was prepared." He says he's never seen the transcript, "but it's been described to me by people who have. They tell me that Vilma was angry and vulgar, and the more she talked, the angrier and the more vulgar she got. She said she was one of my biggest contributors, and she helped me raise money for the Y, and now I was working against her. She said she would ruin me. She said something like 'He'll get his!' And 'How could the Y allow this to happen to me?' My sources tell me it's all in the transcript. I wish I had that transcript. It's the smoking gun."
Asked if he'd seen the transcript, Cole said, "No comment."
On August 2, about a week after Colom called the Y, Colon says he was told to meet with Cole in Dahlin's office. "Once again it was just the three of us," says Colon. "They told me they loved me, that I had been a great asset to the organization, that what's about to come is in no way regarding my performance, but they viewed my decision to run as a conflict of interest."
In short, Colon says, he was told he would have to resign if he ran. And if he resigned, he'd have to sign a confidentiality agreement promising to keep all the details of his departure secret. "They said they were going to make me a generous offer. They would pay me one pay period for each year of service. Since I was there three years, I'd get three pay periods. I was pretty surprised. I didn't see it coming. I never expected they'd go back on their word about letting me run. I still don't see the conflict. I'm not the first person out of a social service agency to run for office. It happens all the time. I said, 'But what about what you told me?' Cole said, 'I was naive back then.' He said that it would look as though the Y supported my campaign. I said, 'No, it would only look as though they supported my right to run for office.' They told me to think about it."
On August 9, Colon says, he met alone with Dahlin. "It was a pretty good-natured meeting. Dahlin basically said, 'How much will it take for you to go quietly?' I told him that I didn't consider it in my best interests to resign, but I would consider it if three things happened--they give me seven months' severance, they don't contest unemployment compensation, if it came to that, and they allow me a respectful separation, so it doesn't look like I was forced out. Dahlin said, 'Give me all that in writing.'"
In retrospect, Colon says he wishes he hadn't made the counteroffer. "I created a gray area when I asked for that seven months. I realize that. I put a price on my head. I realize that the principle--my right to run for office--is more important. But I had a lot of things to figure out. There are no guarantees that I'd win [the aldermanic election]. I'd be out of a job. I have a family. There were a lot of things on my mind."
Nonetheless, on August 12 Colon E-mailed his request to Cole. The next day Cole called him. "Cole says that he's sticking with his original offer of a three-pay-period severance," Colon says. "He says that I'll have to resign by Friday [August 16]. I said, that's not going to work with me. I'm not going to resign. At that point he told me, 'You leave me no choice but to terminate you.' I told him, 'You can go that route if you need to.' He suggested that I reconsider. He told me I was burning a bridge here. He said if I didn't run I could keep my job and this would all go away. I said, 'No. I've made commitments to people in the ward, and I have the right to run.' And that was pretty much the end of the conversation."
Two days later, Colon says, Dahlin called and left a message on Colon's voice mail. "He said, 'Today's your last day.' That was that. As Cole put it, I was 'terminated.'"
Asked about the matter, including who said what during Colom's phone call, Cole says, "At the risk of sounding elusive, which is not my intent, we don't feel it's appropriate to comment about relations we have with current or former employees."
Colom says she had no role in getting Colon fired. "I didn't know he was fired until you told me right now--that's number one," she says. "Number two, after I got elected alderman I went out of my way to work with everyone. Did Rey Colon tell you that I raised almost $300,000 for him for the new Y? In fact, if it wasn't for me the new YMCA wouldn't have opened. Did he tell you that he gave me a plaque and a [ceremonial] brick thanking me for raising money? Did he tell you about the brick? Now I'm surprised he didn't throw it at me. Did he tell you that after he did that I continued to help him raise more money for the new Y? Did he tell you that? Did he tell you that I met with him? That we socialized? That we went out for a beer? Did he tell you about that plaque? It says, 'Thank you for being our hero, Alderman Colom.' So if I was trying to ruin his life would I be helping make him look good? Would I be raising money for him?"
Colom also says it's not her style to get angry or raise her voice or curse. "I believe in fighting with honey, not with swords," she says. "I'm not a vindictive person. I wasn't raised that way. I never raised my voice [to the executive's assistant]. I would never raise my voice. I would never swear. Did he say I swore? Unbelievable."
Hearing that Colom said she had nothing to do with his firing, Colon says, "Let me guess. Vilma told you that she helped me raise money and that I gave her a plaque and a brick. Did she mention the brick? I bet she mentioned the brick. Listen, I gave every elected official in the area a brick--it symbolized all the bricks we were going to use to build the new Y. It was part of my fund-raising effort. And she was not that instrumental in raising money. In fact, all she did was steer a buyer to us for the old building even though we already had a buyer lined up."
Yet Colon says he's more upset at the Y than at Colom. "I can't be too mad at Vilma for what happened. Vilma's Vilma. She's going to do what she's going to do. She played the same stunt with the Park District. They at least had the guts to ignore her. That's what the Y should have done. What did they think Vilma was going to do? Get the city to pull day-care contracts or something? Come on. Do you think the city's going to cut the Y's contracts because one alderman makes a call? Mayor Daley doesn't care that much about Vilma Colom. The Y should have taken the call and kept on going. But they buckled. They caved. Instead of promoting democracy, they stifled it. Just talking about it hurts, because I love the Y--or at least I love what the Y's supposed to stand for. Have you ever heard of the Y's Youth in Government program? That's where they teach kids how to get involved in politics. What are they saying here? Get involved in government--but only if you're the incumbent?"
As news of Colon's dismissal has spread, even some of Colom's supporters have voiced sympathy for him. "I endorsed Vilma in the last election, and I'll endorse her again," says Gutierrez. "But my gut reaction is that it's unfair for someone to have to quit his job to run for public office. If there's a conflict, Colon should be able to take a leave of absence. It's a basic premise of our society to engage in public discourse. That's a fundamental right."
Colon suspects the Y's administrators decided to fire him because they figured he couldn't possibly beat Colom. "I'm sure that whoever advises them of these things said, 'There's no way he can beat the incumbent. You don't want to go against the alderman.'"
But Colon insists that Colom's reelection is far from certain. Yes, she has support from Gutierrez and Mell. But the ward's boundaries have changed since 1999: in the 2001 redistricting they moved north and now include precincts around the proposed Home Depot. "The stupidest thing Vilma did was walk into that room and antagonize those voters about Home Depot," says Colon. "First impressions are everything, and their first impression is that she basically told them to go to hell. We're going to campaign heavily up there--we're going to campaign heavily everywhere. It's funny--Cole probably fired me because he didn't think I had a chance. But what does he know? Have he or his advisers knocked on doors? Have they talked to people? Do they know how upset voters are with Colom? I'm not backing down. I'm going to beat her. She took away my job, and now I'll take away hers."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.