Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Alderman Joe Moore Tries To Clear His Name

After that’s finished, the 49th ward alderman will head back to Washington to claim his “Champions of Change” award.

Joe Moore alderman

Photo: E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune

“Who had the worst week in Washington?” is a weekly Washington Post feature that I can’t help read, sort of like sneaking a peek at a car crash. If such a feature existed in the Chicago press, last week’s winner, hands down, would have been 49th ward alderman Joe Moore.

I wrote about the humiliation of his having a White House award (for being a “Champion of Change” and a “pioneer of political reform”) revoked last Tuesday after legislative inspector general Faisal Khan released a report that referenced—it didn’t name Moore but reporters soon figured the alderman’s identity—Moore for allegedly having staff do political work on the city’s dime and time.  Moore vociferously denies it all and blames it on Khan who had a “bone to pick with me” and on a disgruntled and “toxic” former employee.

In the aforementioned post, I mentioned that I had requested an interview with the long-serving alderman (since 1991) via Moore’s chief of staff who emailed me that she had forwarded the request and that if he wanted to talk to me he’d call. He didn’t, but after the post went up last Thursday, he emailed me that his COS had neglected to forward my email. 

We talked this morning by telephone and he answered every question, but interrupted our call several times to talk to his lawyer and others involved in helping him try to “clear my name.”

Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation:

CF: The IG’s report was released on Monday, your 55th birthday. When did you first learn about it?

JM: Yes, a happy birthday present from Khan. I first learned of it when I received a letter [signed by Khan], hand-delivered to my office, the Tuesday before. That’s the first time I was aware that he had conducted an alleged investigation of this issue…. I was quite surprised, particularly because I had had never spoken with Mr. Khan. 

CF: But you told the Chicago Tribune that you first talked to the FBI last May.

JM: The FBI asked me the reasons for Ms. [Anne] Sullivan’s departure. [She worked for Moore from 2007-2009, about 2½ years as a staff assistant before Moore fired her.] …. I just assumed Sullivan had filed some false claim with the FBI [which was doing] due diligence in investigating it…. I asked, “Am I a target?” and the FBI said no. When the FBI questioned me, there was no mention of Khan whatsoever. If [there had been] I would have called Khan a lot sooner. The letter arrived after hours, so the very next day I called Mr. Kahn and left a message that I wanted to talk to him….

I didn’t receive a reply, so I met with my attorney and together we drafted a letter to Mr. Khan… very serious concerns, no law cited I violated, he ignored procedure, code, how to conduct an investigation of the City Council. No chance to respond to allegations…. The letter was delivered to him on Thursday. I have not received a response; my attorney hasn’t received a response.

 CF: How did you come to the White House’s attention as a candidate for the award?   

JM: This was not engineered by a political handler. The White House was aware of the participatory budgeting process which I started four years ago in 49th ward. My constituents decide by direct vote how to spend my million dollar capital budget.

CF: Did Rahm Emanuel have anything to do with your getting the award?

JM: No.

CF: Have you spoken to the Mayor about Khan and his allegations?

JM: The Mayor offered words of encouragement. I’m not going share a private conversation. I’ll only say that he compared my situation to some of the unfounded allegations against Bill Clinton when president. 

CF: Is Faisal Khan the new Ken Starr?

JM: I’ll hold off making any aspersions against Mr. Khan at this time. And I’ll file away your analogy.

CF: You went to Washington thinking you were going to get the award?

JM: I traveled to DC on Monday afternoon from my vacation in Colorado. I was there on Tuesday. I experienced in very real time the extreme highs and extreme lows of being in public life. My expectation was that I would receive the award. Tuesday morning the on-line publication Politico picked up the Chicago Tribune story on these allegations and I believe they were tweeted. It wasn’t a big story, but enough to capture the attention of the White House. 

CF: A lot of political junkies, like me, read Politico.

JM: I’ll avidly vouch for that.

CF: So then what happened?

JM: I went to the White House, and shortly after I arrived, a couple of 20-somethings White House staffers, approached. They had read the Politico [post] and the Tribune article and wanted to discuss [them]. We went off to another room…. We agreed that,given the controversy… it might be best for all concerned if they delayed giving the award.

CF: Were you alone?

JM: I brought my wife with me, my old[er] son lives in Washington now. Joined me for the visit.

CF: Did these young staffers ask you not to stay for the ceremony? [Moore explained that there were 8-10 Champion of Change award recipients; Moore was the only one from Chicago.]

JM: It was a mutual decision. My family had an early lunch and then my wife and I headed to the airport, spent the day working, waiting for our evening flight.

CF: Have you been in touch with anyone in the White House since?

JM: No, I’m devoting my full energy to clearing my name. Once that’s accomplished, I can contact them, “Hey, I cleared my name; give me the award.”

CF: In 2011 you were working hard to get the appointment as state EPA chief. Gov. Quinn was all for it and then it just fizzled. Were you disappointed in Quinn’s apparent buckling under pressure from business groups?

JM: It was clear from the Senate President that I didn’t have the votes to get nominated. I let the matter drop.

CF: Are you going to support Pat Quinn for governor?

JM: Yes, I don’t blame the Governor; it’s toxic down there. I understand the political dynamics.

CF: Are you on the lookout for another appointment of that kind?

JM: Right now I’m very happy; I’m not actively looking. The only reason I looked at the EPA job is that the governor called me out of blue. I have not actively looked for another job since I ran for clerk of [Cook County] Circuit Court in 2000.

CF: What’s your dream job?

JM: This is going to sound corny. I have it. My dream job is alderman of the 49th ward. In my younger years, I had other ambitions. Over the last few years I have refocused on appreciating what I have. I represent a very dynamic and exciting community. I am doing fast breaking initiatives…. I have a strong marriage [to his second wife, Barbara Moore], two wonderful children.

CF: Speaking of Barbara, it was portrayed in the press that had you gotten the EPA job, Barbara [who has never held elective office but is executive director an organization called Democratic Municipal Officials] would replace you as alderman. I figured that you must have had a deal with the Mayor before deciding to make a run for the EPA job.

JM: Neither of us ever talked to the mayor about it….

I was taking one step at a time. My first focus was on making sure I was introducing myself to state senators….. Believe it or not, [there was] no plan whatsoever to replace me. I was not going to put the cart before horse. 

CF: If it wasn’t your plan, why did Barbara withdraw from running for a seat on the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District?

JM: She didn’t run because we didn’t want a conflict of interest. EPA regulates Water Reclamation. We didn’t want to create an issue to be used against us…. We decided together that it was best she withdraw.

CF: What do you think of the Mayor appointing Deb Mell to succeed her father?

JM: Obviously it’s the Mayor’s choice to make. I don’t know Deb but I know people who do, people I respect say very, very good things. I look forward to working with her. It’s the people of her ward who will decide.

CF: Nepotism is okay with you?

JM: Really up to the voters. The argument was made against John and Bobby Kennedy, and it’s not unusual that there are families of people who believe in public service and holding office, just [as there are] families of doctors, lawyers. I don’t think that should be held against them; each person judged on merits; shouldn’t be supported because of who they happen to be related to, shouldn’t be opposed.  Voters will have opportunity to judge Deb Mell on her own merits. I trust the voters. This is not like you’re working in Streets and San and you hire your son to work garbage. That’s wrong. Here the voters will soon have an opportunity to judge Deb on her performance.

CF: But Deb Mell will have an advantage because she gets to run next time as an incumbent.

JM: Based on my experience, I will admit there are advantages, but I’d strongly argue that there are real disadvantages.

CF: Will you continue to advocate for getting rid of Faisal Khan and giving his duties to Joe Ferguson?

JM: Stayed tuned…. Let me say the events of last week have done nothing to change my opinion about the wisdom of that approach [replacing Khan with Ferguson]…. I think there are two reasons. One he had a bone to pick, certainly he would not look kindly on anyone calling [for] eliminating his job. I also think, not necessarily personal to Joe Moore, I think he’s trying to justify his existence. And to take down a person such as myself who is an advocate of political reform, nice scalp to hang on his mantle. So I think I am a target because of my outspokenness and my political philosophy.

CF: Have you spoken about this with the Mayor, who seems to be moving to oust Ferguson?

JM: I have not talked to Emanuel. From what I read in the papers, he has decided that he feels that the law requires him to ask Mr. Ferguson to reapply for the job.  That’s his interpretation. I think Mr. Ferguson is doing a good job and he should be allowed to remain.

CF: What do you say to critics who claim that you left your independence behind when Rahm took over?

JM: I say that being politically independent and progressive is more than just simply being against who happens to be mayor. It’s issues that matter, not personality. I have not had a reason to oppose Emanuel on a major initiation. He listens to me and,  from time to time, [I’ve had] serious concerns. He listened and modified [these initiatives so they] became something I could support

CF: What’s your relationship with the Mayor?

JM: Mayor Daley and I had a cordial relationship, but there was very little active engagement between us. Mayor Emanuel is much more dynamic. By that I mean we talk with each other on occasion, correspond with each other on occasion. I give him my opinions. I think I’ve had some influence on things he has done.

CF: Did you support Rahm when he ran for Mayor?

JM: At the time I said I was going to sit out the mayor’s campaign, which is what I did. As soon as he was elected we had a good conversation, about starting fresh and about pushing the reset button, without preconceptions.

CF: Is Rahm Emanuel a better mayor than Rich Daley?

JM: I‘ll let history be the judge. You can examine my voting record; [Emanuel] is doing a better job than the previous mayor.

CF: Whose idea was the Paul Douglas Alliance? Did Rahm have any input?

JM: This was an idea from discussions with several of my colleagues—Moreno, Dowell, Burns—who were not necessarily comfortable with the style and approach of the Progressive Caucus; disagreed with their approach, particularly when we had a mayor who was engaged, unlike the former mayor.

CF: Who picked the name?

JM: Will Burns. He represents the area that Paul Douglas represented. [Yes, U.S. Sen. Paul Douglas was an alderman.] Will Burns came up with [the phrase] “pragmatic progressives.”

CF: What do you make of [former alderman and UIC professor] Dick Simpson’s opinion that “the split in the progressive ranks makes the mayor’s control more complete.”

JM: I think my friend Dick Simpson is wrong about that. Not a split in ranks. We’re not fighting. If we disagree it’s respectfully and not antagonistic…. In many respects makes us stronger. Nearly 20 members, nearly 40 percent of the City Council identify as political progressives.

CF: Do you have a second job?

JM: No, I’ve been doing this job full-time since [1991], full-time plus. Not a week goes by that I’m not working 60-70 hours a week.

CF: Either of your sons [ages 23 and 16] interested in politics?

JM: Not after they’ve seen what their dad’s going through.

CF: Did you grow up in Chicago?

JM: I was born in Chicago but raised for the first  10 years in Oak Lawn. Then my family moved to Evanston; lived there for next 12 years…. I moved to Rogers Park in 1980 when I was 22; lived there ever since. [Currently a block and a half from Lake Michigan.]

CF: You went to suburban public schools. How about your sons?

JM: My older son went to high school at Evanston Township. My ex-wife moved there after the divorce. She has since remarried and lives in Highland Park, and my younger son went to junior high and high school in Highland Park. Before that he went to public schools in Evanston. My older son went to Rogers Park Montessori [before moving to Evanston].  

CF: How much longer do you intend to remain as alderman?

JM: As long as voters will have me.

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