By: Michael Golden
Moments after a 2004 U.S. Senate debate at the Abraham Lincoln Library in Springfield, Illinois, then-State Senator Barack Obama walked over to me, leaned forward, and said quietly: “I wish we could get these other five off the stage so that Gery and I could really discuss the issues.”
That year I was managing Gery Chico’s campaign in a seven-way Democratic primary that included, among others, the Illinois Comptroller, Cook County Treasurer and a multi-millionaire businessman. Obama ultimately emerged from the field and won handily. The rest is history. But it was clear to every opinion leader I spoke to that Gery was the only other candidate with the heft and substance to go toe-to-toe with the future president.
Gery would have done good things in the Senate, but I could tell it wasn’t where he most wanted to serve. Nor was it the office best suited to fully leverage his talent and experience. Gery had always been more at home in the role of executive, and the office that he’s truly been preparing for his entire career sits on the famed fifth floor of Chicago’s City Hall.
Gery is more knowledgeable about how Chicago works and the history of the city than anyone I’ve ever met. This doesn’t qualify him to be mayor, but it helps.
My old boss was born and raised on the Southwest Side. He’s lived in neighborhoods all over the city, including: McKinley Park, Rogers Park, Edgebrook, Budlong Woods, the Near Westside and University Village. This doesn’t qualify him to be mayor either, but it helps.
What does qualify Gery to be mayor, far better than anyone else in a crowded and still growing field of candidates, is that he’s managed nearly every major department in the city — and delivered results. He has served as Chief of Staff to Mayor Daley, Board President of the Chicago Public Schools, President of the Chicago Park District, Chair of the City Colleges of Chicago and twice as Commissioner of the Chicago Buildings Commission.
In 2011, during Gery’s first Chicago Mayor race, I helped him. Similar to the Senate primary, he drew a tough field and an extremely formidable frontrunner in Rahm Emanuel. Gery finished second, five points from forcing a run-off with Rahm.
A few months after the election, Gery answered Governor Pat Quinn’s call to serve as Chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education. During that term, Mayor Emanuel and Gery teamed up to launch the Engineering Futures Initiative in the Chicago Public Schools, helping thousands of students to obtain the STEM skills and training to be competitive in the technology economy.
Of course, every Chicagoan will have his and her opinion of Emanuel’s tenure in office as they contemplate who they want for their next mayor. Gery, too, will voice his review of the last eight years. He will shoot straight both about Rahm’s successes and shortcomings — as he sees it.
But what is not a matter of opinion is the weighty set of challenges that still confronts the city, including: excessive gun violence, crushing debt fueled by unfunded pension obligations, controversy over cases of misconduct in the Chicago Police Department, a legacy of racial division that still haunts the city today, population losses in neighborhoods on the South and West Sides — it’s a long list.
The day Emanuel announced he would not run for reelection, 42nd Ward Alderman Brendan Reilly described the next four years as “perhaps the most difficult four-year mayoral term we’ve seen in recent history.” I would hasten to add that the Chicago Mayoralty is arguably the toughest in the country.
This is a serious time for the city of Chicago. The city that so many of us know is a singular place unlike any other big city in America. It is no time for amateur hour. So when Gery Chico asked me to co-chair his campaign, it was easy to immediately sign up.
We have work to do. Yet joyfully. Everyone on Gery’s team positively agrees on at least one thing: Chicago’s best days are ahead of us.
All of the candidates in this five-month sprint will present their platform of ideas for the city’s future. Knowing Gery, the agenda he proposes won’t be short on substance. He takes this stuff dead seriously and takes nothing for granted.
Yet as much as ideas matter in political campaigns — and they do — what counts equally in a mayoral race, if not more so, is evaluating who’s best prepared to put those policies into place; to unify people from a broad range of backgrounds into the service of accomplishing big picture goals. In short: To lead.
Track record matters. Knowledge matters. Listening matters. Learning from your mistakes matters. Decisiveness matters.
The city of Chicago is known both for its hardscrabble grit and signature Midwest warmth. Carl Sandburg famously branded us the “City of the Big Shoulders.” Others in history took shots at our politicians and came up with “The Windy City.”
Chicagoans get all of it. We know who we are, and the potential that we’re capable of fulfilling. We also know that it takes bold and resolute leadership. No lightweights allowed. You don’t turn over the keys to a city like Chicago to anyone who’s operating on a learner’s permit. The next Mayor who runs this metropolis has to be an executive who’s battle-tested and knows how to do the job on day one.
The newly populated Chicago Mayor race is wide-open and it already promises to be a wild one. It’s a good thing for the city. But at the end of the day, no matter how many candidates ultimately get in, only one candidate will clearly stand out.