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Ready to Be Mayor

Republican Candidate Nino Noreiga Dreams the Impossible Dream

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Asked why he wants to be mayor, Nino Noriega has an answer ready. "Plato, in his magnum opus, said a man is ready to rule when he's in his middle 50s. Why? Because by then he's faced all the trials and tribulations of life. He's no longer posturing. He's really living. He's no longer pretending." Noriega picks up a pad of graph paper, on which is drawn a time line. "That's the chart," he says. "That's from 1 to 100. I put this black line that goes all the way to the edge of 60, which is where I am in age. Everything that has gone before--all the religious experiences, all the philosophical experiences, the aesthetic, the poetic, the family, the enemy, the violence, the happiness, the sadness--it's all gone. That's it. I'm right there. If I'm lucky and I live to be the age of the average American when I die, between 70 and 80, this yellow line here, that's my net worth." He points to a highlighted section of the time line, which goes from age 50 to about 65. "That's all I have. I could have a zillion dollars, but once this big black ball descends, that's forever. It will never happen again. Ever."

Is Chicago ready for the rule of a philosopher king?

Noriega, an international businessman, poet, former foreign correspondent, and insurance lobbyist, was the first Republican to declare his candidacy for mayor (Larry Horist declared last week). The time has come, he says, for the Republican Party to regain its long-lost respect in Chicago, to throw off the political cliches that have surrounded it in recent years. "I call myself a Republican because I believe, as Abraham Lincoln did, in a government of the people, by the people, for the people. Chicago is a microcosm of the world. I run along the lake, I look at the skyline, I look at all the diverse people, and I say, 'Paris, eat your heart out.' And I love Paris. That's the way I feel about Chicago."

Noriega, who now lives in Printer's Row with his wife, traces his roots back to colonial California and aristocratic Mexican landowners. He grew up in Alamogordo, New Mexico, where, he says, two childhood events shaped his destiny. The first was the atomic bomb testing at Alamogordo in 1945. The second was the alleged UFO landing at Roswell, New Mexico, a few years later. "Those events set me off where I knew I was going to go through this life enjoying it. So many adventures, so much excitement in this world, and I love it. While I am bookish, when I cut loose I am not bookish anymore." The events inspired him to write an epic poem, "Americo's Travels in the Land of the Free," which he's been working on for 30 years. "It starts in the apocalypse," he says.

In 1957, at age 17, Noriega started a two-year stint as a reporter for the town newspaper. After a turn in the army as a drill instructor, he was hired by the Associated Press to cover Latin America. He interviewed Fidel Castro and Che Guevara during the Cuban Revolution, and reported on the Cuban missile-crisis story in 1961. He also interviewed John Kennedy, and Richard Nixon when they visited Latin America in the 60s. "I've always thought that of all the people that I've met, there were three guys where you could just sense that you were sitting next to greatness. It was Nixon, Kennedy, and Guevara. You couldn't have three men who were more different, but they had something. They had this greatness. So I learned a lot from those guys--I learned a lot what to do and a lot what not to do."

Noriega then settled into a more mundane life as an advertising executive and earned law and marketing degrees at night school. In 1972 he came to Chicago as a lobbyist for the insurance industry, and since 1978 he's owned the consulting firm Norcom International Corporation. He was also a major lobbyist for NAFTA in the United States and Mexico.

But the journalist in him still emerges from time to time. He covered the Nicaraguan revolution for the Sun-Times in 1987 and continues to work for documentary-film companies and trade magazines. "By week I am a businessman in the Loop, and on weekends I like to go cover revolutions. Or I did. I was a very conservative insurance executive, but nobody knew I was running around the place. I've always been a journalist. I just can't leave it. I would consult with these multibillion-dollar companies all over the world, and the guys sitting around a table would never suspect by looking at me, 'Well, this guy was shot at yesterday.'"

Noriega has written four unpublished novels and three unproduced musical plays. He's also listed in the Anthology of American Poetry and under the byline "Onin Age Iron," his name spelled backward, regularly publishes poems, including "The Ultimate Warrior," which he wrote in 1961:

I am invincible for I'm ready,

Past the fear of the unknown, to die

For the pains of my realities

No longer permit me to cry.

You can destroy my body,

My atomic dust set free

Maim, mutilate, evaporate

But never conquer me.

For in the field of honor

There always comes a day,

The ultimate warrior finally wins,

For his is the people's way.

Now Noriega is heeding the call to duty. His business experience and world travel have led him to envision a Chicago economy refueled by multinational corporations. "There's going to be a renaissance in Chicago. It's happened like this in history many times. It's nothing new. There's going to be a renaissance of all the cities that are multicultural, diversified, and have lost a lot of population. It's kind of like the plague in Europe, after everybody was celebrating and everybody was buying up all the empty houses. Because we've got the paved roads, we've got the infrastructure, the sewers, we've got the electrical lines, we've got the telephone lines. All that's missing is the businesses. And here is all this ready to be filled. I see the renaissance coming because we have a global economy now. I see the guys in France and Germany, in Mexico, in Chile and Brazil, looking at Chicago and saying, 'That's a good place to do business with the Americans.'"

Asked how investment by multinational corporations could positively affect any area in Chicago other than the Loop, he says, "That's what I'm talking about. Downtown is prospering, and there's a rim of--they call it decay, but I don't call it decay. I call it opportunity. Then we have the suburbs. The suburbs are the biggest welfare queen in the country. We have to have an urban policy in this country, and that urban policy is going to be along the lines of what I'm going to do in Chicago. Take advantage of the global economy. Take advantage of the fact that you have diversity.

"You see, my company is a management marketing firm that is engaged in creativity. Leadership is the ability to manage change. Change has occurred in Chicago so that three-quarters of the city is ethnics. White ethnics, black ethnics, brown ethnics, Asian ethnics--whatever you want to call it, is gone. The days when the German and the Irish dominated is gone. Change has occurred. You've got to manage that change."

Like Ross Perot, Noriega criticizes politicians who, he says, are more concerned with getting votes than with helping the city. He wants to run the city like a business, not a government. "Nothing's wrong with this city. It's just being mismanaged. There's nothing wrong with the people who are there--it's just that they're not managers, they're not administrators, they're not creative people. They're politicians and bureaucrats. In this election you've got three black bureaucrats going against a white bureaucrat and politician. I mean, Chicago needs better than that, whether it's Nino Noriega or somebody else. It needs someone to bring it into the new renaissance."

This philosophy, he says, could apply to any of the city's problems, including public-school reform. "There's nothing wrong with public schools that management of change couldn't fix. No one saw fit to go to these neighborhood councils--who are not educators, who are not professional teachers, who are not academics--and gather them all together and say, 'You now have a big responsibility. It isn't one that's going to be based on emotion. You're not going to hire your neighbor and end up being as corrupt and bureaucratic as City Hall. Here's what councils are supposed to do, and here's your objective: to have Johnny read when he gets out of high school.' Nobody told them that. Why? No creativity. So they're out there scrambling and playing the Chicago corruption game, a lot of them."

Noriega has solutions to other burning Chicago issues as well.

Casino gambling: "I will bring gambling to Chicago. Let me tell you the difference between Chicago and Aurora and all these little towns. Who goes gambling in all these little towns? People from around the area, ma and pa. Chicago will have some of that, but Chicago will have an ingredient that other cities don't. The guy from Monte Carlo is going to call the guy from Hong Kong, going to call the guy from Rio, the guy from New York, and say, 'Hey, let's go do Chicago.' They'll probably dump $20 million in one night. Ma and pa could never match that."

Welfare reform: "Now I'm for a no-welfare state, but that doesn't mean let's get rid of all the welfare mothers. Let's have an urban policy so we aren't subsidizing the suburbs all the time, and then they arrogantly say, 'My God, I pulled myself up by my bootstraps.' Yeah, with our taxes. It's easy enough for people to say, 'Get 'em off of welfare and tell them to go work.' Where are they going to work?' More government jobs? No. I say, let's wean them away from welfare into private-sector jobs that we help create by giving businesses a break."

Crime: "Crime is the result of joblessness and lack of education. This is a symptom, and when you say, 'Let's build more jails,' you're talking about the symptom, not the cause."

Gun control: "I believe in the Second Amendment, but I don't think people should go around with Uzis and cannons, for God's sake. I also think that people who have arms accept the responsibility that comes with that arm--how to use it, how to take care of it--and realize that when someone pulls their gun out they're not going to pick their teeth with it. You've got to respect that. There's got to be a stringent requirement on that."

Racism: "I am going to go to rural lawmakers and show them--articulate with leadership, with information, with knowledge--that they have the same problem that the inner city of Chicago does. I'm going to go to the suburbs--everybody talks to the suburbs as though they were united. They need unity. Chicago can provide that, because all three million people in Chicago are Chicagoans. Although we have different communities, we are Chicagoans. I've got to eradicate fear, and one of the ways to eradicate fear is to know you have a rational, intelligent manager, administrator, creative person at the helm. Not someone who is playing the politics game. That's why I'm running for mayor of Chicago. And that's why I'm gonna make it. You don't turn people around by beating on them or fighting them. You do it by appealing to their minds."

Asked how long he intends to serve as mayor, he says, "I don't think any politician should serve more than eight to ten years, because a decade is enough to make you decadent. In 1995 I will send the word out to the world, 'Chicago is ready to do business.' I will market. I'm going to take care of the companies that are here, and they can attract other companies. And they'll get the word out that of all the cities in the world, Chicago's where it's at. I visualize that ten years down the road, when I have left Chicago, the people of Chicago are going to feel as they did when Big Bill Thompson was mayor." That is, he says, like true American citizens.

"I feel very American, not only because I'm a native son of the greatest country that ever existed on the planet. I feel very American in the sense of the Americas. It's a feeling that's going to become more intense as 500 million Hispano-Americans in Latin America impact with 180 million Anglo-Americans here." As cultures continue to intermingle, society will transform, he says. "These are dramatic times, very exciting times. I thought the 60s were great, but the year 2000--that decade will make the 60s look like child's play. And I don't mean in libertine or lascivious or promiscuous ways. I mean in the whole change, the information age, the global economy."

The biggest change, Noriega says, is yet to come. "Who knows? Maybe in my lifetime, certainly in yours, we'll have a visitor. Can you imagine? What would you do if we got our first visitor from outer space--not like the one in Roswell--that we knew about for real?"

He says he wants to help us through the close encounters that lie ahead. "People say, 'Are you running for mayor because you want power? Because you want fame?' No. I'm just a little speck in eternity. If I'm lucky I'll last maybe 80 years. No, I just love Chicago."

He points to a model of the Daley Plaza Picasso sculpture on his desk. "Like this statue here, which I've written a novel about. The kids, they have a great time on it, they slide down it. It's a living piece of Chicago. They don't know that this is an immortal work of art. All they know is that this is their Chicago, and they're sliding down it and having a good time. And Picasso's probably up in his heaven thinking, 'Good. Enjoy it.' And the wind hits it here, and you hear it sing. I'm up at four o'clock in the morning--I don't sleep too much. I've walked out there at four o'clock in the morning in the winter. The wind hits it and it sounds like cellos."

So what prompted him to run for mayor?

"This city is so rich in culture, so rich in grit," Noriega says. "We were coming back, my wife and I, from a party in the suburbs, and I said, 'Let's drive down Milwaukee. It's one of my favorite streets.' It was empty and quiet. The city was sleeping. You could see the skyline coming at you. And I said, 'You know, Mary, somewhere in this city that has spawned all of these huge giants of American history, somewhere in this city there has to be someone who can get our shit together.' And she pointed at me and said, 'You.' All of a sudden you feel like you can, you feel like you must. And you go out, you get your lance, and you attack the windmill."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.

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