The Saint Who Came In From the Cold | Essay | Chicago Reader

The Saint Who Came In From the Cold 

After years as an independent Miguel del Valle has signed onto the mayor's team

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It was obvious to anyone who knows anything about Chicago politics why Mayor Daley tapped state senator Miguel del Valle to fill the vacancy for city clerk.

By selecting a Puerto Rican independent from Humboldt Park with a sterling good-government record, Daley was clearly hoping to divert attention from ceaseless City Hall scandals, win over liberals disenchanted by his veto of the big-box living wage ordinance, and undercut any efforts Congressman Luis Gutierrez might have planned to rally Latinos for a mayoral challenge. It was just one of many moves Daley's made in recent days to shore up his support among progressives before February's mayoral election.

The real question is why del Valle took the gig. Let's be honest, the position--vacant since the last clerk, James Laski, was indicted on federal bribe-taking charges--is essentially a do-nothing job for ordinary pols looking for an easy paycheck ($135,545 a year). And del Valle's never billed himself as an ordinary politician. His first victory over incumbent state senator Ed Nedza in 1986 was viewed by supporters as the culmination of a long, hard struggle against Tom Keane's tough 31st Ward Democratic machine. I happened to be in the Humboldt Park banquet hall the night the results came in. The place was rocking, people were weeping with joy. "We beat Nedza!" del Valle bellowed with jubilant disbelief. "We beat Nedza!"

He remained an independent even after his mentor, Mayor Harold Washington, died and one after another of his old Humboldt Park allies backed Daley. His independence left him vulnerable at times. In 1990 Daley, teaming up with Gutierrez and Joe Berrios, Nedza's successor as 31st Ward committeeman, came close to unseating him.

But over the years del Valle steadfastly refused to endorse Daley--not even in 2003, when the mayor's only opposition was a lackluster assortment of no-name oddballs. So the obvious question is what's happened to make him join Daley's team now. The hired truck scandal? The conviction of former patronage chief Robert Sorich? Skyrocketing property taxes? The ongoing breakdown of CTA services? The school's persistently high dropout rates?

It's odd, but just as an independent movement finally shows a few sparks of life--even aldermen long loyal to the mayor are starting to break ranks--del Valle joins the loyalists. "I have said that he [Daley] has made mistakes," says del Valle. "But generally speaking I think the city has progressed under his leadership. There are more things that need to be done--he's acknowledged that. But when you consider the overall progress, I would say he deserves reelection."

After news of his appointment broke, some of del Valle's old Humboldt Park allies spread the word that the state senator had wrenched a major concession in exchange for agreeing to run on the mayor's ticket. "Daley promised to anoint Miguel as his successor after he retires," contends a Puerto Rican politico from Humboldt Park who used to work in the Daley administration.

Del Valle insists the mayor made no such offers. "Oh no, that never came up," he says with a laugh. "I would have been flattered by that, but it never came up."

Truth is, he says, he took the job in part because he's tired of the commute to Springfield. "I was thinking about running for [city clerk] four years ago, but the timing wasn't right," says del Valle. "I wanted a new challenge. I want to come home to work. I have a few good years left in me." (Del Valle is 55.)

He says the appointment stemmed from a chance encounter with Daley at an event at Malcolm X College this summer. "The mayor said, 'I'd like to talk to you," del Valle recalls. "A week went by and I called his office and said, 'The mayor would like to talk to me.' They called me back and gave me an appointment."

In early August he met with Daley in the mayor's office at City Hall, he says. "The mayor asked me point-blank, 'Are you interested in the city clerk position?' I said, 'Yes, I'm interested in filing.' His next question was 'Would you consider an appointment?' I said, 'Yes, I would.'"

Over a month passed. "I hadn't heard anything and then on Wednesday [October 4] I got a call from the mayor's office," says del Valle. "The mayor gets on and said, 'I want to appoint you city clerk. I want you to come downtown tomorrow to announce it.'"

At the press conference del Valle stood beside the mayor, who praised him as a man of "unquestioned integrity who will run the clerk's office as he runs his senate office--honestly, effectively."

As city clerk, del Valle says, he'll be content to run his office and offer behind-the-scenes advice to the mayor on education policy. "I'll be very careful about being drawn into other issues," he says. "I will leave those to the mayor and the City Council."

As for his old seat, in all likelihood the local Democratic ward commissioners will select state rep Willie Delgado to replace del Valle as senator and Delgado's old house seat will be filled by someone of 31st Ward committeeman Joe Berrios's choosing.

Twenty years after del Valle's miraculous triumph, Nedza's boys get the last laugh.

Daley's gain, Gutierrez's loss

You'd have to be one of their shrinks to adequately analyze the complex relationship between del Valle and Congressman Luis Gutierrez.

They represent the first generation of independent Puerto Rican politicians who came of age in the 80s under Mayor Harold Washington. Other than that, they're polar opposites. The forceful Gutierrez has always been boldly ambitious, a wheeling-dealing political operator unafraid to challenge authority and impose his will as he clawed his way to the top. Del Valle was more cautious. His nickname was the Saint--the joke was that he'd never make a deal, not even to advance his career.

Both were key members of Washington's so-called "black-brown coalition" of Hispanics and African-Americans on the near west side. After Washington died, Gutierrez, then 26th Ward alderman, killed the coalition by endorsing Daley in the 1989 mayoral election. In return for Gutierrez's support, Daley eventually slated him to run for Congress in the Fourth District.

Back in 1989 del Valle blasted Gutierrez for endorsing Daley. Seventeen years have passed, but Gutierrez can still recite from memory the invective del Valle traded in that year. ("The machine has a new voice--it's better dressed but underneath it's still the same rotten machine," he said.)

In 1990 Gutierrez exacted some revenge, putting up a neophyte named Nelida Smyser-DeLeon to run against del Valle. With backing from Gutierrez, Daley, and the ward bosses from the near northwest side, she almost took the seat. Afterward, del Valle went hat in hand to Gutierrez seeking peace. Since then they've maintained a fragile truce.

Once in Congress, Gutierrez pulled away from Daley. He endorsed independent candidates, criticized the mayor for hiring scandals, openly battled with mayoral appointees, ripped the mayor for his negligence as state's attorney when allegations of police torture under Commander Jon Burge surfaced, and has openly toyed with challenging him in February's election. Of course, del Valle's deal with Daley deprives Gutierrez of a key ally--a fact that has many of the congressman's political enemies chortling with glee. "It's a brilliant move by Daley," says one northwest-side activist. "He's using Miguel to cut Louie off at the knees."

According to del Valle, he will endorse Daley even if Gutierrez runs: "I've already made a commitment to the mayor. What am I going to do--reverse myself?"

Gutierrez says del Valle's spot on the Daley ticket will have no influence on whether he runs for mayor, a decision he'll announce sometime next month.

"I don't understand why Miguel took the job," says Gutierrez. "Once he took it he is in essence the running mate of the mayor, and that makes him an apologist for Jon Burge and the big-box veto and the City Hall scandals."

In many respects the two have reversed their previous roles from 17 years ago--now it's Gutierrez defying Daley and del Valle making the deals. "We used to call him Saint Miguel," says Gutierrez, barely hiding his sarcasm. "Now he has taken a position of great value, power, and influence in the state senate and traded it in for the ability to hand out city stickers and dog tags."

TIF Watch

So far the LaSalle Central TIF has been rubber-stamped by two different oversight panels. Next stop is the City Council's finance committee, which meets on October 23. After that it's on to the full council for approval, probably at the November 1 meeting.

Meanwhile, in the last few weeks several high-profile commercial skyscrapers in and around the TIF have sold for hundreds of millions of dollars, which underscores the absurdity of taking an estimated $550 million in property taxes from the schools, parks, libraries, and county and using it to eradicate a nonexistent problem. As we all should know by now, TIFs are intended to transform blight in low-income communities. But the financial district is clearly a booming real estate market--just look at the recent sales.

Four office buildings, at 2 N. LaSalle, 550 W. Washington, and 10 and 120 S. Riverside Plaza, went for $485 million to an out-of-town investment group. Within a couple of days the group announced it was looking to sell 2 N. LaSalle for about $155 million. Earlier in the month the Pritzkers announced they were hoping to sell 85 percent of their newly constructed 48-story headquarters at 71 S. Wacker for about $600 million--$375 million more than they paid to build it two years ago. Even the Sears Tower parking lot was a hot commodity, going for about $67 million.

Granted, the boom's not related to anything particularly logical, like demand for commercial office space. According to Thomas Corfman, the reporter who covers the downtown property beat for Crain's Chicago Business, rising prices are partly the result of investors looking for relatively cheap (at least in comparison to New York City) trophy buildings.

In the long term this phenomenon could spell problems for Chicago taxpayers. To meet their mortgages, investors will have to raise their rents, which means risking the loss of tenants when they're already relatively scarce in the downtown commercial market. The more tenants they lose, the less money they'll have to pay off the money they borrowed to buy their buildings at inflated prices in the first place. So what are they going to do? You guessed it. Come to the city, pleading for some sort of TIF handout. We'll wind up subsidizing the maneuvering of millionaires while the public schools, parks, and county scramble for cash.

If this were a Frank Capra movie, hundreds of taxpayers would jam the council chambers to force the aldermen to cut the cord on this corporate welfare. But this is Chicago. If Mayor Daley and the local alderman (in this case, Burton Natarus) want a TIF, they're going to get a TIF. At this point it looks as though the only remaining issue is whether this TIF will sail through four separate oversight bodies without a single official even asking a question.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph, Alex Wong/Getty Images for Meet the Press.

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