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Real Leadership for Chicago: The Reformer v. the Players

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Asked about the city budget, the first thing out of every mayoral candidate's mouth is a promise to streamline city government. Asked about the city's biggest problems, all of them promise to fix the schools.

Miguel del Valle is the only candidate with actual, hands-on experience making city government more efficient -- and only one with a solid history of grappling with education problems and finding effective solutions.

Among the candidates, he has a unique record: decades of experience working in the trenches on the issues facing Chicago. It's a record that is rooted in a lifelong commitment to reform, to accountability, to public access and involvement, and to equity and other progressive values.

When del Valle was appointed city clerk, and later elected on Mayor Daley's ticket, some eyebrows were raised. But his move was vindicated by his signal success in reforming the office.

Efficiency and transparency

He inherited an antiquated agency where all clerical work was done by hand and where city residents had to stand on line for hours to buy city stickers and other permits. It took months for employees to enter everything into the system. Del Valle's thorough-going modernization made the lines much shorter (they're 10 or 15 minutes at the height of the sales period) -- and, just as importantly, eliminated many thousands of hours of overtime.

In modernizing City Council records, del Valle achieved similar results -- greater convenience for residents and extensive savings on overtime for taxpayers -- while acting on his commitment to openness and transparency.

In 2009, responding to increased public interest, del Valle added a feature allowing residents to track online all legislative activity related to the Olympic bid, from official reports to zoning changes. This month he announced "the biggest step yet toward transparency in Chicago city government" -- a legislative information service that offers online searches (with connections to social media) and custom e-mail alerts on particular topics, or on legislative activity by individual council members.

It's not flashy stuff, it's a focus on basics, on service and efficiency and creative thinking -- and it's the kind of thing that could be carried out throughout the city. It requires the kind of quiet, sustained leadership that inspires creativity and empowers colleagues to find better ways to get things done.

Other candidates can't match this record of hands-on administration. Rahm Emanuel and Gery Chico have been chiefs of staff and served on various official boards. A chief of staff is the top aide and traffic controller for the chief executive. He's the coordinator between his boss and the folks who actually run departments. The White House chief of staff evolved from the position of private secretary.

This is not to suggest that being the right-hand person to the top executive isn't great experience -- or even that direct administrative experience is necessary to be mayor. But the records and claims of the two former staff chiefs can tell us about their leadership style.

Rubber stamps and conflicts of interest

When Gery Chico claims he produced a series of balanced budgets, he's taking credit for other people's work. (And it wasn't a major accomplishment during the flush times in which he served.)

Rahm Emanuel's record in the White House is mixed. He helped produce major legislation but pushed big compromises. He alienated huge swathes of President Obama's base, selling out their highest priorities and even directly insulting them -- certainly contributing to the Democrats' debacle in November, when too many of the president's core supporters stayed home.

By far Emanuel's longest experience and greatest strength -- he's absolutely brilliant at it, as we've seen -- is fundraising. That's what first got him into the White House and into Congressional leadership. (It's a skill set that allowed him to become a multi-millionaire with a few years of "relationship banking.") And his sensitivity to the desires of big donors probably underlies many of the shortcomings of his government service.

He doesn't talk much about his role on the boards of CHA or Freddie Mac (or the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, for that matter). At CHA he backed a Plan for Transformation which -- as resident leaders predicted at the time -- has resegregated public housing residents far from downtown areas in the poorest neighborhoods, and which has fallen far short of its goals. Private developer partners are now seeking bailouts from the city.

During Emanuel's tenure on Freddie Mac's board, the corporation was making illegal campaign contributions; it paid a record $3.8 million fine to the Federal Elections Commission in 2006 for illegally using corporate resources to raise funds for House Financial Services Committee members between 2000 and 2003. In 2002 Freddie Mac donated $25,000 to Emanuel's congressional campaign. It was the third largest donation to his campaign.

He ended up on the House Financial Services subcommittee overseeing Freddie Mac, while he had outstanding options for 2,500 shares of the company; he abstained from votes affecting the corporation.

Gery Chico headed boards governing schools, parks, and City Colleges. That's an oversight role, not (as he suggests) administrative -- and his greatest impact may have been turning the school board from an oversight body into a rubber stamp. One of his first actions was suspending the school board's committees, where issues had been freely and openly examined with full public participation. All board discussions moved behind closed doors.

Today the school board is a joke, a formality, completely controlled by the CEO, voting unanimously and by rote in favor of anything put before it. That's Chico's legacy.

Chico has also mixed business and public service at will, continuing his lobbying while serving on public boards. Today he says that appointees to city boards and commissions should abstain from doing business with those agencies. That wasn't always his position. In 2000 the Chicago Tribune reported that he had abstained from 359 school board votes on matters involving his clients.

Carol Moseley Braun served as County Recorder of Deeds for four years - some twenty years ago -- where she instituted an ethics code and went after ghost payrollers and double dippers, but she was not given high marks on follow-through. Her troubles since then are all too well known.

Against this field of ethical clouds, backroom dealing, and conflicts of interest, del Valle presents a sharp contrast -- the one candidate whose integrity has never been questioned.

Real solutions

When it comes to schools, del Valle has decades of experience on the ground, forging coalitions to build effective programs and foster real parent and community involvement.

When he proposes expanding community learning centers, he speaks as someone who helped create the very first community schools in Chicago. When the Logan Square Neighborhood Association was launching the first community schools, del Valle stepped up with discretionary funding, and later he got organizers together with the Illinois Community Colleges Board to obtain ongoing state support.

Today Illinois leads the nation in community schools. At their best, community schools address several crucial issues: they provide more instructional time, they offer arts enrichment and recreational programming that many schools have had to cut back, and they foster parent involvement - and provide parents with skills to support their children -- a key factor in student success.

At Monroe Elementary in Humboldt Park, an LSNA school where del Valle has a long history of involvement, students get programming ranging from ballet to math enrichment, and parents are offered ESL, GED and computer classes. A UIC study found 71 percent of parents participated in adult programming, and students' homework completion rates and academic performance were dramatically up.

Del Valle has called for community learning centers in every school, starting with the lowest-performing schools, with a major push for funding from the business community. He emphasizes their role in engaging parents. It's a plan with the potential to improve every school and to strengthen neighborhood schools, without the conflict and disruption that has characterized recent efforts.

Emanuel has also pledged to make every school a community school, but it's likely he would follow in the footsteps of Arne Duncan, who decided that every charter school in Chicago should declare itself a community school. In many cases that meant offering some kind of after-school programming but little coordination or integration with the rest of the school, and generally nothing for parents.

Similarly, when del Valle proposes an ambitious program to address CPS's horrific 47 percent dropout rate -- based in neighborhood high schools and funded through an existing state program, along with increased per-pupil aid from the state -- he's speaking from experience. Not only did he consistently push dropout prevention while he was a state senator; back when he headed Association House, 25 years ago, he founded El Cuarto Ano, an alternative school that has succeeded in helping countless Chicago youth reclaim their potential.

Neighborhood schools

When it comes to the basic direction CPS will take, del Valle presents a clear alternative to the candidates who would continue the top-down, divisive, confrontational approach of Renaissance 2010.

Emanuel promises to "turn around" fifty more schools and bring in more charters. And Chico promises expanding "school choice" to include vouchers for private schools - an attack on public education funding at a time when schools are in desperate straits.

Emanuel says he would take away LSCs' power to hire principals -- the central accountability feature of school reform -- and return it to the central bureaucracy. Chico backed a similar, unsuccessful effort to gut LSCs by Paul Vallas and Mayor Daley in 1999.

Historically, before school reform, this didn't work well at all. It meant principal posts were patronage plums, and incompetent principals were kept in place in perpetuity. Under mayoral control, the schools where the central office has intervened and installed principals have not performed well.

Del Valle (along with Braun) was an original sponsor of the Chicago School Reform Act which established local school councils as a mechanism for community governance. Through his career in the state senate, he steadfastly and successfully defended LSCs from attacks from City Hall and the central bureaucracy. After becoming City Clerk he spoke out against the most recent effort, and his position carried a lot of weight in Springfield, where he is widely respected.

Del Valle points correctly to the large number of low-income neighborhood schools that have seen steady improvement over 15 years under the direction of effective local school councils. In a system with a rubber-stamp school board, LSCs remain the only avenue of public accountability. And in a city where 90 percent of students attend neighborhood schools, an approach which strengthens them, rather than abandoning them, is desperately needed.

Real leadership

Del Valle's influence on schools has been extended through his quiet leadership and team-building approach in Springfield, where he's mentored many progressive and minority legislators (including, by his own account, Barack Obama). At his urging, State Senator Iris Martinez took up the Grow Your Own Teachers program when she entered the Senate in 2003, and with del Valle's support, she has championed the program. It takes parent volunteers, provides them with full-scale teacher training, and develops teachers who are committed to inner-city schools, not for a couple of years but over the long haul.

Another legislator who proudly calls del Valle a mentor, State Representative Cynthia Soto, has led the charge in forcing CPS to develop a transparent capital budget, so neighborhood schools are no longer shortchanged on resources in a secretive, unaccountable process.

Miguel del Valle is a consistent leader with consistent progressive principles. There's a curious, rather adolescent notion of "leadership" at large in this campaign -- that it means being ballsy enough to pick fights, to insult teachers and other public employees -- being ruthless and domineering enough to twist arms and push people around. (One scary thought: while Mayor Daley avoided school strikes through his entire tenure in office, Rahm Emanuel seems to be chomping at the bit to go after teachers.)

The grown-up version of leadership means getting people to work together and inspiring them to do their best. It means respecting people and putting principles first. It mean, above all, integrity.

Del Valle is not a great fundraiser, and he's not a successful lobbyist. He's a dedicated public servant with the ethos and style of a community organizer. He's a guy who started out as a youth worker and understands communities from the ground up. He can't win, of course -- unless enough people vote for him.