Chicago Sun-Times - Steve Neal
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Steve Neal

Chico knows his way around political fast track

May 21, 2003

BY STEVE NEAL SUN-TIMES COLUMNIST

What makes Gery Chico run? In his bid for the U.S. Senate, the former president of the Chicago Board of Education is going against all odds.

State Comptroller Dan Hynes, Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas and state Sen. Barack Obama, who are leading the Democratic pack in early trial heats, have the early advantage in name recognition and proven records as vote-getters. This is Chico's first political race.

Even though Chico has failed to break out of single digits in the early polls, he is surprisingly optimistic about his prospects. Chico's camp observes that the '04 senatorial contest is still wide open and that since former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun's withdrawal from the race there hasn't been a clear front-runner.

It should also be noted that Chico has a few things going for him. He is a tenacious fund-raiser and has already collected more than $1.8 million in contributions. Chico has raised more money than Hynes, Pappas or Obama. It is his goal to raise $8 million before next year's primary.

Ordinarily, this would give Chico an early advantage over the field. But millionaire businessman Blair Hull, who has already shelled out more than $4 million on his senatorial bid, intends to spend an Illinois record of $20 million on his bid for the Democratic senatorial nomination. Even though Chico has raised a lot of money, Hull will have more resources than the rest of the field combined.

Chico's strength is his message. As president of the Chicago Board of Education from 1995 to 2001, he gained national acclaim for his educational and fiscal reforms. It was on Chico's recommendation that Mayor Daley named Paul Vallas as chief executive officer of the schools. As a team, Chico and Vallas got results. They improved the quality of public education, as demonstrated in test scores. Chico and Vallas also got the city to spend more than $2.5 billion for the construction of new schools and renovation of some old schools.

A year ago, in his first run for elective office, Vallas came close to winning the Democratic nomination for governor. Vallas, who is now running the schools in Philadelphia, is supporting Chico for the Senate.

Before running the school board, Chico spent three years as Mayor Daley's top aide. At City Hall, Chico is still regarded as the most effective and productive chief of staff of Daley's 14-year administration. Chico was responsive in his dealings with elected officials, knew how to cut through the bureaucracy, and wasn't timid about disagreeing with the mayor.

Chico is the third former mayoral chief of staff to seek elective office. Daley did not support the other two--John R. Schmidt in last year's Democratic primary for Illinois attorney general, or Forrest Claypool in the primary for the Cook County Board. Nor is Daley supporting Chico.

Without the mayor's help, Schmidt lost and Claypool won. Chico went into this race without counting on Daley's help.

Chico, a Mexican American, is seeking to become the first Hispanic elected to the U.S. Senate in three decades and the first ever elected from Illinois. His campaign is attracting support from state and national Hispanic leaders and could spark an increase in voter registration among this predominantly Democratic constituency.

He has deep roots in Chicago's Mexican-American community. Chico is a past president and co-founder of the Mexican-American Chamber of Commerce of Illinois, and he has served as a trustee for the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum and as vice chairman of the Mexican American Lawyers Scholarship Fund.

It is Chico's strategy to win at least 80 percent of the Hispanic vote in the '04 primary, which he predicts could be 100,000 votes if his candidacy generates a 20 percent increase in turnout. Chico then hopes to attract between 35 percent and 40 percent of the white vote and about 8 percent of the black vote.

''In many respects Hynes is considered the front-runner,'' a Chico strategist acknowledges, adding that at least a half-dozen state officeholders like Hynes have failed when they tried to win higher office.

 
 












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