The sword is mightier than the pen | On Politics | Chicago Reader

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The sword is mightier than the pen

Mayor Emanuel cuts library staff and drives out the system's biggest advocate


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Here's how old I am—I actually remember when Mary Dempsey took over as commissioner of Chicago's library system.

That was in 1994, when then-mayor Richard Daley picked the librarian/corporate lawyer/wife of legendary personal injury attorney Phil Corboy for the gig.

Corboy, as it happened, was also a good buddy of Daley's. Something tells me the connection didn't hurt Dempsey's chances of getting the job.

Let's take a time out to extol Phil Corboy. Pound for pound, he's the best personal injury lawyer I've seen. One time I saw him convince a jury to make an airline pay thousands and thousands of dollars in damages to a judge because the judge was bumped from a flight he planned to take to Kentucky to watch his prized mare give birth.

Or maybe get inseminated. You know, my memory's not what it used to be.

Hey, hold on—this is supposed to be an article about the wife, not the husband.

So as I was saying, when Dempsey got the gig I wrote an article called "Checking out the new library boss." It came out February 3, 1994, when half the people who are now reading, editing, or tweeting this article were still watching Sesame Street.

Give Dempsey credit—she came in swinging. She issued declarations like: "I'm willing to do what it takes to build a world-class library system." And: "I will fight for more staff." And: "I don't think corporate leaders have been as vocal as they could have been when we faced cuts." And: "Volunteers are great, but you cannot depend on them to operate a system."

I won't lie to you—over the years I had my share of run-ins with Dempsey over her often heavy-handed attempts at centralizing the system.

But I'll say this—she loved building libraries and promoting books.

As did her mentor, Mayor Daley. Together they built 44 new neighborhood branches and instituted the One Book, One Chicago program, which actually encouraged people to read real books, as opposed to tweeting their thoughts of the day.

Dempsey had so much clout, I'd never thought she'd leave the way she did—basically shoved out the door by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who seems to be much more of a Twitter kind of guy.

In his first budget, Emanuel proposed to cut the already woefully understaffed library system by 363 positions.

Dempsey let it be known in terse comments at October's budget hearings that she was not happy with those cuts.

The mayor backed off and restored 251 of the jobs. This prompted his aldermanic flunkies to fall to their knees and thank him for funding the libraries even though the libraries actually had dozens fewer employees than they did before.

Obviously, Emanuel wasn't pleased with the whole concept of dissent, even from the well-connected wife of one of the city's great personal injury lawyers.

Wait a second—I just remembered something about lawyers. As brilliant as Corboy is, I think he may actually be the second-greatest trial lawyer I've ever seen. Shout out to the late Eugene Pincham, one of the finest courtroom orators of my lifetime.

Anyway, it was only a matter of time before the inevitable occurred. On January 25, Mayor Emanuel announced that Dempsey was stepping down to be replaced by a 37-year-old librarian out of San Francisco named Brian Bannon.

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