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Telling the Mayor Where to Go

Ed Hamb makes the schedule.


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What does a mayor elected by the people of Chicago have in common with a mayor chosen by the city's 50 aldermen? Invitations. According to the man who has had the job of telling both mayors where to go, Eugene Sawyer gets as many invitations as Harold Washington ever did. How a mayor arrives in office is not an issue. Personality and policies don't matter. It's the office itself that accounts for offers to attend more events than the world's most ambitious hand shaker could possibly accept.

"Everybody wants the mayor," says Ed Hamb, the 38-year-old special assistant in charge of the mayor's public appearances since 1984. Hamb, whose chief goal each day is to get through his mail, calculates that Sawyer was invited to nearly 2,500 events during during his first year as mayor. He attended 1,000 of them and sent surrogates to 600 others. Hamb has a three-person staff that made sure everyone else received the mayor's heartfelt regrets.

"Being the mayor's scheduler sometimes requires a lot of tact," says Hamb, who wades through the flood of invitations for $48,000 a year. "People are planning their major events 90, 100, or 120 days out--when we don't know what will be happening. So, if you want the mayor at your event and have to have an answer today, it's no. That's because you can always go from a no to a yes. But if you tell them yes, they aren't going to be very understanding when you have to tell them no."

Not all requests come through the mail or over the phone. The mayor might tell several different people that he'll attend their events, not knowing that they conflict with a gathering he can't afford to miss. "The mayor can sometimes get invitations to ten different events on a Friday night between six and nine o'clock. All of them are crucial to the people involved. But you know sometimes you can't make more than three or four of them. I might have six people that are saying, 'Well, that Ed Hamb, he's an asshole,' but four might think I'm the greatest thing going since peanut butter."

Hamb chairs the the Friday meetings in which top aides decide where their boss will go the next week. "You have to go through the groups and say which ones will best suit what we're trying to accomplish," he says. "The next time around you try to make it up to the people you tell no. Usually they say, 'I don't want him no more ever again.' But the next time they have the event, there you see the letter again in the mail."

Virtually no plan is cast in stone. "One Sunday during the '87 campaign, Mayor Washington was scheduled to appear at three black churches. We had gone to one, but with Lake Michigan backing up onto Lake Shore Drive, he wanted a firsthand look for himself. It was campaign time so he had to make a decision. Do you visit churches that are already supportive or do you go where people are being washed out of their homes?"

To maximize television exposure, planners try to avoid scheduling more than one big appearance a day. "We don't want to overshadow ourselves," Hamb explained, adding that the major media aren't totally reliable as conduits for the mayoral message. "You can lay out the best event in the world--like a Veterans Day hospital visit--and find that the media might say, 'Well, a person got hit by your car crossing the street. What are you going to say about that, Mr. Mayor?'"

Ed Hamb, who grew up on the south side and graduated from DuSable High, might have been a full-time Baptist preacher. When he was 12 he gave his first sermon before the congregation at the Fellowship Baptist Church, where his father worked as a janitor. He still preaches occasionally. Hamb was working in Continental Bank's trust operation in 1977 when he met state senator Harold Washington at a Jaycees fund-raiser. Hamb set up times for coffees during Washington's 1980 race for Congress. Victory meant Hamb had a job as a caseworker in the congressman's district office. Later he became district administrator for Washington's replacement, Charles Hayes, a job he kept until asked to move to City Hall.

"When Harold Washington was first elected, everybody wanted to touch him," Hamb said. "People throughout the city were asking, 'Who is this man Harold Washington?' This was also true in the white ethnic communities, where they had painted a picture of him during the campaign as a militant black racist.

"Mayor Washington always said, 'If an alderman asks me to an event, try to get me there.' Aldermen are busy enough themselves to understand that the mayor can't come to every event. But in scheduling, you try to make sure that the mayor touches base with each ward at least two or three times a year, even in the communities where you don't have much support. You try to make all the ethnic neighborhood festivals because you can get a lot of exposure, even if it's just in community newspapers."

The pressure to be accessible never stops. "Mary Flowers thought it was the end of the world because Mayor Washington couldn't come to her fund-raiser before the 1986 general election. She had some token competition in her race for state representative, but she looked like she was definitely going to get in. So I told her, 'In six months, after you're elected, I'm going to ask you if you understand much better now how the mayor has to spend his time.' She came back to me six months later and said, 'Ed, if only I had a couple hours to go and buy me a dress.'"

Hamb was in his office that November morning when he heard the news of Washington's heart attack. "I went upstairs and they said he'd just been taken to the hospital. I went to pick up his fiancee, Mary Ella Smith, and we went to the hospital. At that point, everything was moot. His condition was common knowledge so there was no need to call people and cancel appointments."

Hamb knew Alderman Eugene Sawyer from having scheduled many events in the Sixth Ward. Soon, he was sending the new mayor off to cut ribbons, break ground, give a speech, or to just say hello at crowded meetings. Having seen what happened when Washington neglected his own health, Hamb says Sawyer's staff has not given him such a rough schedule. "The public sees leaders as bigger than life, but those of us who work with leaders understand they're human beings just like everybody else," he says. "We can justify him going someplace every hour on the hour. But he needs some down time. If we don't give it to him, no one else will."

Although Sawyer didn't inherit his predecessor's popular support, Hamb insists that the scheduling strategy hasn't changed much. "We've tried to get Mayor Sawyer everywhere in the city. People don't know him. Once they get to see him, they say, 'Well, he's really not that bad of a guy.' Here's a man who won four terms as alderman in a ward with many affluent, thinking people. Obviously he was doing something right."

Hamb raises his hand to an imaginary plateau above his head. "Harold Washington was in a class by himself," he says. "Few elected officials anywhere are as articulate or flamboyant. Eugene Sawyer has an altogether different style. But the common denominator is a genuine concern for people."

As the election approaches, Sawyer's political advisers call more of the shots in the weekly scheduling meetings. Although Hamb is more involved in advance work for events, he says scheduling principles remain the same. "More appearances may seem politically motivated and less may seem day-to-day operational, city-government things like a ground-breaking ceremony. But what you do as a mayor will always affect you politically--either directly or indirectly. So a true politician is always in the campaign mode. There's never time to sit back. You're forever running because otherwise you lose."

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