By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
Once upon a time in the far, far away city of Chicago lived millions of people who were governed by a mean ruler who didn’t want Blacks to be part of a machine that benefitted the rich and ignored the poor.
For decades, Blacks suffered at the bottom of a caste system where they toiled in low-paying jobs. To keep them from being promoted, they were discriminated against and treated like peasants.
But one day, Harold Washington—a smart, jolly man from the Ida B. Wells housing projects—became mayor, and in 1983, he brought an end to white rule with a bagful of opportunities for Blacks.
Washington appointed Fred Rice, Chicago’s first Black police chief in the department’s 182-year history. He also appointed the first Black CEO of the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA). In doing so, Washington broke racial barriers by hiring qualified Black public executives who, decades before, wouldn’t have had a chance to run important government departments.
Chicago’s first Black mayor accelerated a movement that began two years earlier when Ruth Love became the first Black to head the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) under Mayor Jane Byrne.
Since then, there have been nine CHA chiefs; four Black police superintendents; four Black CPS CEOs; one Black Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) chief; and one Black Chicago Fire Department (CFD) chief, a department that has historically been dominated by white and Irish males.
Blacks are also dashing through the ranks in Cook County, where four Blacks have served as board president for the past 23 years.
‘Tis the season to be employed in Chicago and Cook County where, right now, there are more Blacks than ever before, all heading government agencies at the same time.
With holiday parties in full swing, there is much to celebrate in Chicago and Cook County. It’s perhaps the result of the Laquan McDonald scandal that led Mayor Rahm Emanuel to turn from naughty to nice. Now, some 12 Blacks are running some of the largest government departments in the country.
Born in housing projects and poor neighborhoods, they wield power and make big decisions as they take home fat paychecks running the police department, public school system, transit system, housing authority, and scores of departments in city government that were off limits to people of color for the longest time.
The latest Black public executive to join this elite squad is Dr. Janice Jackson, who just over two weeks before Christmas, got a nice gift after years in CPS. She was appointed interim CEO of CPS after her predecessor, Forrest Claypool, resigned after an investigation cited him for serious ethics violations. Somehow, Jackson must save a school system with dwindling enrollment, a crippled $1 billion budget and scores of underutilized buildings that are costing CPS hundreds of thousands to keep open.
How Jackson made the final leap to the top is the same way many Black public executives ascended to the pinnacles of public offices in the last two years, after the ghost of years past has claimed their predecessors. They have the daunting task of turning around their departments and winning back the public trusts after years of corruption, mismanagement and bundles of allegations and discrimination.
Under heavy pressure and in the public spotlight every day, they must give account of spending habits, budget cuts, employee hires and important decisions, all while maintaining a spotless image as squeaky clean as Santa Clause’s.
For these Black public leaders, the standards are higher because of the color of their skin. If they are naughty instead of nice, the public scolding will be harsher than for their white counterparts. If they are nice, the appreciation won’t be as great if they were nice in bringing the gifts without taxes, layoffs or fare hikes.
Either way, they fight a daily battle heading departments that affect hundreds of thousands, and for some, millions. While some are cruising in office, others are under pressure to change departments in ways that many before them failed.
Most of these Black public leaders were appointed by Emanuel, who hasn’t been Scrooge when it comes to appointing Blacks. With scandals and public distrust rocking his leadership and administration, Emanuel has been battling to win back the Black community for the last two years after the release of a video that showed Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times.
Though he has denied withholding the video and implemented development projects in the Black community, the ghost of the years past continues to haunt Emanuel. He was accused of suppressing the video as he campaigned to get re-elected in a run-off against Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. Eight days after he won a second term, the city approved a $5 million settlement with McDonald’s family.
Exactly one month after he was re-elected on May 7, 2015, Emanuel appointed CTA veteran Doral Carter to head the 70-year-old transit agency as its first Black chief. Last month, Carter was forced to raise CTA fares by 25 cents to close a $33 million budget gap caused by cuts in state funding.
Carter was the first of Emanuel’s five Black appointments that gave Chicago its largest crop ever of Black public CEOs.
Five days later, Randy Conner became the first Black water commissioner after a slew of racist emails and reports surfaced accusing former commissioner, Barrett Murphy, of doing nothing to stop the alleged behavior.
CHA CEO Eugene Jones Jr.’s appointment came a month later. In recent years, Jones has drawn heavy criticism for sitting on hundreds of millions of funds from HUD after tearing down housing projects and not replacing them. Tens of thousands of poor people are on waiting lists for Section 8 vouchers, which allow them to live in apartment complexes that have more affluent residents. The Chicago Coalition on the Homeless estimated that 138,574 Chicagoans were homeless over the course of the 2013-14 school year.
Later, the appointment of Eddie Johnson replaced Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, whom the mayor fired in the wake of the release of the McDonald video. Earlier this year, the mayor decided to keep Lori Lightfoot as president of the Chicago Police Board despite her being an outspoken critic of his administration.
With his political future at stake, Emanuel is making this record number of Black appointments not just because he wants to, but perhaps to keep his job. With plans for running for a third-term, Emanuel is in overdrive. Under pressure from the city’s Black clergy, the mayor is likely to make Jackson’s appointment as CPS chief permanent.
In February 2016, Richard Ford, II became the second highest ranking Black after he was named deputy fire commissioner in the CFD. The position is the second highest post under Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago. Only one Black, Cortez Trotter, headed the 159-year old agency before Ford.
Santiago appointed Ford to the position, but the appointment is a surprising one for a fire department that has long been the most segregated because of its long history of racism that spread under Mayor Richard J. Daley. Questions remain whether Emanuel wielded his influence in getting Ford the appointment.
While the list of Blacks heading Chicago departments has grown, questions also remain as to whether these administrators can continue to function independent of the mayor’s power and influence. Despite their rank, there are questions of whether these Black leaders can truly help restore trust in the Black community by making decisions on their own. With lawsuits forcing the Chicago Police Department to implement reforms and a scathing Justice Department report, questions remain whether Johnson is a puppet controlled by the mayor.
Around Cook County, voters have added names to the roster of Black leaders. Kim Foxx became the first Black to serve as Cook County State’s Attorney after voters ousted incumbent Anita Alvarez in the primary in 2016. Foxx joins veteran Dorothy Brown who has served as Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court for 17 years. Judge Timothy Evans has served as Chief Judge for the Circuit Court for 25 years.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is campaigning to be re-elected for a third term. She holds a seat that has been filled by a Black official for 23 years. Preckwinkle faces former alderman Bob Fioretti, who’s riding a wave of angry public sentiment following his opponent’s controversial soda tax, which was repealed in November after many protests throughout the county.
Cook County Recorder of Deeds Karen Yarbrough is running to replace Cook County Clerk David Orr, who’s retiring after 37 years in office. Yarbrough’s office will merge with the Cook County Clerk’s office in several years; voters approved a referendum in 2016 to save hundreds of thousands of dollars in Cook County by merging the two.