THE LOOP — Now that disgraced Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett has pleaded guilty for taking part in a kickback scheme set up to stuff her pockets with $2 million in bribes, an important question remains unanswered:
“Why does the mayor just get to walk away from this mess?”
That’s what a former City Hall insider — someone who knows better than to utter such mayoral blasphemy on the record — blurted out when I called to talk about something else entirely.
And “the mess” we talked about wasn’t just Rahm Emanuel’s decision to hire an Ohio swindler to run the public school system.
The former insider’s message was this: The mayor has picked a questionable collection of out-of-towners to fill his administration’s most powerful positions in a failed attempt to run a Washington D.C.-style political playbook in Chicago.
Mark Konkol discusses the mayor's "Washington-style" governing:
Among the mayor’s crash-and-burn appointments, former comptroller Amer Ahmad — the former Ohio state deputy treasurer who abruptly quit his job here before getting indicted for taking part in a kickback scheme, fled the country, pleaded guilty to felony charges and got sentenced to 15 years in federal prison — stands out as a mistake Emanuel shrugged off without taking any blame.
Emanuel told the Tribune that it was reasonable to assume that Ahmad was a good pick for the city’s top financial job because the guy's background check came back clean during the application process. The mayor wouldn’t even admit the vetting process might have been flawed. Instead, he heaped all the blame for hiring Ahmad on, well, Ahmad.
Lost somewhere in the mayor’s avoid-the-blame game, the former insider said, is that there’s apparently no sign on the mayor’s desk that says, “The buck stops here.”
Apparently, a lot of people — even some who still work for Emanuel — feel the same way.
After a series of chats with people in the know, another part of the mayor’s “problem” — at least at the beginning of his reign — has been an almost-anybody-but-Chicagoans hiring philosophy for top city jobs.
That’s right, despite Emanuel’s penchant for provincial boosterism — his often repeated proclamations that Chicago is “the most American of American cities,” a world-class city and burgeoning technology hub — the mayor didn’t deem experienced locals qualified to fill some pretty vital leadership posts when he took office.
Here are a few more of the controversial outsiders Emanuel picked over Chicagoans:
• Former CPS boss, Jean-Claude Brizard, who hailed from upstate New York, lasted just 17 months in the job before his management style rubbed Emanuel the wrong way. That led to an allegedly amicable exit that ended with Brizard walking away with a severance package payout that cost the financially strapped school district — and taxpayers — more than $250,000.
• Former transportation commissioner, Gabe Klein, a Washington, D.C. transportation director whose experience before that job included managing bicycle shops, ZipCar operations on the East Coast and owning an electric food truck business. Klein quit the high-profile city job to take a wonky fellowship in D.C. and return to the private sector, but not before getting caught up in allegations that he helped steer Chicago’s taxpayer subsidized bike sharing contract to a former client, the company that owns Divvy. Crain’s Chicago Business reported those allegations launched a 2012 investigation by the city inspector general’s office. The results of that probe haven’t been made public.
• Police Supt. Garry McCarthy of The Bronx (by way of the Newark, N.J.) has been with Emanuel from the start and doesn’t appear to be going anywhere despite the department’s constant struggle to stem shootings and murders in violent parts of town saturated with illegal guns. The City Council’s Black Caucus’s recent call to fire the top cop citing Chicago’s spike in shooting and murders, but Emanuel says McCarthy still has his support.
Some of Emanuel’s wonky hires and carpetbagger bureaucrats have especially struggled to master the art of dealing with Chicago aldermen. Some ward bosses complain the mayor’s people talk at them like they’re giving orders and hardly ever return their phone calls.
One City Hall insider said those type of things have lead to strained relationships with the people the mayor needs when he wants a big vote" to go his way. Specifically, the budget vote on Oct. 28.
At City Hall, you can see evidence of that increasing frustration among some aldermen as the monumental vote on whether to approve the largest property tax increase in modern Chicago history nears.
A few weeks back, one alderman silenced a young mayoral aide attempting to apply political pressure to gain support for the mayor’s budget plan by forcefully demanding a meeting with someone who actually knows what they're talking about.
People who know about these things will tell you Emanuel's outsiders give the mayor a plausible disconnect from clout-politics of the past — but that comes at a cost.
“The mayor went out and got people from Wisconsin and Ohio and D.C., or wherever, who had no personal stake in their neighborhood or even a part of the city. When you tell them, ‘We really need to help West Chatham,’ they have no idea what neighborhood you’re talking about,” one source told me.
“It’s as if the mayor disregarded 'Daley people' with a lot of experience as crooks or political hacks that don’t know what they’re doing. It sends the message that the mayor doesn’t think there are people out there who can do the job. Well, of course they’re out there.”
But how can anyone be so sure about that?
Well, all you have to do is take a look around City Hall. It seems that Emanuel, after getting burned a few times too often, has experienced what you could call a Come-to-Daley realization.
When times got tough — right around the time Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia forced Emanuel into a mayoral runoff — the mayor turned to locals who know Chicago best to win his re-election bid.
Guys like Terry Teele, a former mayor Richard M. Daley aide who resigned in scandal, and the late Cook County President John Stroger’s get-out-the-vote general Gerald Nichols, among others, helped run an election “ground game” straight out of the Daley playbook to pull off the victory.
And when times got tough at City Hall, Emanuel recalled Daley-administrations veterans to City Hall.
Emanuel tapped his pal, then-CTA president Forrest Claypool, former Mayor Daley’s go-to Mr. Fix It guy, to be his chief of staff replacing City Hall veteran Lisa Schrader.
And the mayor tapped Daley’s former CTA board president Carole Brown, an investment banker, to take as the city’s chief financial officer replacing Lois Scott, the Philadelphia native who served as a White House fellow when Emanuel was President Clinton’s senior adviser.
When Claypool got sent to CPS to replace the crook, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, just as the city budget proposal hit crisis mode, the mayor called Schrader back to City Hall to help sell the budget plan in a way aldermen might support even if the property tax hike and mountain of fees and taxes turned their stomachs and threatened their political future.
And here’s a bit of City Hall trivia: The former city comptroller who Emanuel passed over in favor of Ahmad, the Ohio kickback schemer, was Daley Administration veteran Steve Lux, who now works as the Chicago Park District chief financial officer. This year, while Ahmad was sentenced to prison, Lux was named a CFO of the Year finalist for large non-profits by the Chicago chapter of Financial Executives International.
By the way, Lux happens to work for park district boss, Michael Kelly, another Daley administration veteran from the 19th Ward, who became an unlikely star in the Emanuel administration by overseeing construction of Maggie Daley Park and shepherding the proposed George Lucas Museum of Narrative Art closer to reality.
It might not have worked out that way if Emanuel had his way. After all, Kelly got the job by default. In 2011, Emanuel first offered the gig to Milwaukee Parks Director Sue Black, who turned down the offer, and ultimately got fired from her Milwaukee post a year later for still undisclosed reasons.
“Sue Black would have been another train wreck,” a City Hall source said.
And if history has taught us anything, Emanuel doesn’t take responsibility for those kinds of train wrecks.
Instead, when his handpicked schools chief,Byrd-Bennett, gets caught steering a $20 million no-bid contract to her former employer, the mayor defends himself by telling reporters, “I don’t get involved in contracts.”
“What does that even mean?” the former insider who got this conversation started said. “If he’s not involved in contracts, then what’s he doing? Because if he’s not involved in contracts he’s not doing his job as mayor.”
That might seem harsh, but it’s fair.
Especially since every significant city contract that’s ever been signed — whether it’s a deal to lure a new corporate headquarters to town, build a Whole Foods in Englewood or build DePaul University arena — gets announced in a news release from the mayor's prolific City Hall spin machine.
In Emanuel’s City Hall, it’s become customary for the mayor to take the credit — even when he might not deserve it — but none of the blame.
That’s never been The Chicago Way.
The thing people forget about the hey-day of Chicago patronage — back when friends and family of people connected to power had all the juice — is that clout jobs could be traced back to a guy responsible for “his people.”
Back then, City Hall could send a message to an offending patronage worker’s clout — an alderman, ward committeeman, friendly union boss or an unsavory insider — and say, “Your guy is an embarrassment, either get him in line or it’s on you.”
People close to Emanuel say Byrd-Bennett’s kickback confession has left the mayor “deeply disturbed" even though he still won't take the blame for hiring her.
Well, Emanuel should be disturbed.
Patronage might be dead in Chicago, but Rahm’s still the boss. The ultimate clout.
The crooks and policy wonks Emanuel brought to town — even the out-of-towners who couldn’t find their way to a South Chicago taco joint without Google Maps — are his people.
When they become an embarrassment, it’s on Emanuel — whether he gets to walk away from the mess or not.
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