Carol Felsenthal
On politics

David Hoffman Takes a Breather, but He’ll Be Back

The former inspector general and public-service vet took a position at Sidley Austin, and a teaching gig at the University of Chicago, after losing to Alexi Giannoulias in 2010. But don’t count him out of public service for good.

When David Hoffman ran in the U.S. Senate Democratic primary against Alexi Giannoulias two years ago, Hoffman’s first run for office, I wrote that if he had just a couple more weeks and if he had joined the race earlier, he would have beaten Giannoulias. I also opined that in the general election against Mark Kirk, Hoffman’s experience in law enforcement—head of the gang unit at the U.S. Attorney’s office here and the tough Inspector General of the city of Chicago during the Rich Daley administration—might have allowed Hoffman to best Kirk. (In Hoffman’s record, there are no embarrassing family bank ties or résumé embellishments.)

The 44-year-old Winnetka native—the father of two young children, married to Monique, and, since 2003, a Wicker Park resident—has a resume so stellar it looks like it was assembled by a hired consultant. A progressive, a social-justice crusader who carries peerless law enforcement credentials and clerked for conservative Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Hoffman is a graduate of Yale and the University of Chicago Law School. (For my detailed look at his biography, see “Republicans vow to make Illinois the next Massachusetts. Can David Hoffman stop them? Who is this guy, anyway?”)

For a short time in September 2010, after Rich Daley unexpectedly announced he would not seek reelection and before Rahm Emanuel officially announced his candidacy, Hoffman was in the mayoral speculation mix. (Conventional wisdom had it that Hoffman, whom Daley appointed to the IG job—Hoffman held that post from 2005 until 2009, during which time he gave Daley regular bouts of heartburn—might have challenged Daley in a primary.)

In a conference room at Sidley Austin where he’s now practicing law—he’s also teaching a weekly seminar at U. of C. Law called “Public Corruption and the Law”—Hoffman and I spent more than an hour talking late last week. I asked him repeatedly if he’d like to be mayor or U.S. Attorney or U.S. Senator or some such position that would return him to  public service, having 12 years under his belt when he left to run for office in 2010. He was cagey, but my takeaway is yes.

Here’s an edited, condensed version of our conversation.

CF: Is public service in your future?

DH: I was and remain a true believer in the importance of public service, doing that full time.

CF: So are you going run for office?

DH: I don’t know;  the answer is maybe…. I really haven’t decided that anything’s in and I haven’t really decided that anything’s out,  and I have faith that the future will take care of itself, whatever direction is the right thing.

CF:  I know that you were at the White House in October, 2009 to meet with David Axelrod about your Senate primary campaign,  and you used his old firm [AKPD] to run your campaign, and there was frequent speculation that the President’s men didn’t think Giannoulias was a strong candidate. Did you get any help or calls during the primary from the President?

DH: No, he called me [the morning after the primary election],  but I think it’s probably a call that … it’s respectful and appropriate to leave it personal…. I think I had met him once previously…. [At the moment he called] I was trying to strap my son, then two, into his car seat and I was doing it wrong and he was screaming. The first thing I said is, “Mr. President I’m really sorry about the noise but it’s my son and I’m trying to put him in his car seat and he’s upset.”

CF: You’re now friendly with Rahm Emanuel?  Did he ask you to play a role in his administration?

DH: Yeah,… we had met before [during that White House visit with Axelrod], but we hadn’t spent any significant time together prior to his campaign for mayor….. I spent a fairly substantial amount of time with him during the campaign at his request to talk about … anticorruption issues and other ethics issues regarding the IG ….We discussed [a role in his administration] very, very briefly and I told him that I had decided that the next step for me was to go into private practice.

CF:  What role did Rahm envision?

DH: There was no specific [role], just a very preliminary discussion about what might be next for me…. One of the things I said to him was, “If you want my help … I’m happy to give you my thoughts on ethics and corruption measures and help you design something if that’s what you’d like,”  but my only agenda is trying to have a city move in the best possible direction…. During the campaign we were in communication. Post [-campaign] we communicated some; less than during the campaign.

CF:  How’s Joe Ferguson doing in your old job as Inspector General? (Ferguson assumed the post in late 2009.)

DH: I think Joe’s doing excellently. I think he clearly has a commitment to independence in the office…. The core element is independence. That’s something I saw really needed improvement when I got there. I think there was some concern the mayor [Daley] was going to choose someone who wasn’t going to be as independent and he chose Joe and right out of the U.S. Attorney’s office….  I am in touch with him; we talk from time to time.

CF: You have endorsed Ald. Rick Muñoz in the Democratic primary (on March 20) for the position of Cook County Circuit Court Clerk over the incumbent Dorothy Brown. Why? (See my interviews with Muñoz and Brown.)

DH: I like Rick. I think that during his time as alderman he … was very independent, and I saw that first hand when I was IG and … there were not a large number of aldermen who were that way and it wasn’t very easy to be that way, and he also was someone who was outspoken and considered a leader in the City Council on ethics and reform issues—I’d say along with Joe Moore and Toni Preckwinkle and a relatively small number of others. I saw that when we were sometimes doing battle on the IG budget or other things regarding our independence,  and Rick … was right there as one of the group of people who would speak up…. I think that the Clerk’s office could stand some improvement in the way that it’s run and, some of [that is] ethics.

CF: Could you be more explicit?

DH: No…. There’s been a lot that’s been written in the media about apparent problems with regard to the way that office has been run involving fundraising and related matters. I think that having someone like Rick who has a track record of being independent in somewhat difficult circumstances and of being strong on ethics issues … would be a positive.  So I think he’s a better candidate.  He had the bad judgment to call me and ask for my endorsement. I decided to give it to him.

CF:  There was recently a story in Chicago about the nexis between Chicago gangs and politicians and it alleged that Muñoz has old—the story describes him as “an admitted ex–gang member”—and perhaps even current gang ties. [Through a spokesman, Muñoz denied any gang involvement.]  As former head of the gang unit in the U.S. Attorney’s office, how did you arrive at the decision to endorse?

DH: Let me just say that if I had any concerns that Rick was involved with gangs in any way, I would not support him. To me the gang problem in the city is one of the most important social justice problems we have because it is the number one thing that creates violence in low-income neighborhoods…. Kids who live in these neighborhoods are experiencing violence every day. There are few things that make me angrier…. Only L.A. has a problem as bad as ours…. The fight against gangs requires … all parts of law enforcement, federal and local, to come together…. U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, both he and I  felt very strongly … and we started putting new systems in place to … provide incentives for different parts of CPD and different parts of federal law enforcement to work with each other…. So the time I was in the US Attorney’s office, especially the last four years, that was my life, and I was very passionate about it…. I know that many years ago before [Rick Muñoz] entered into public service [he was] in a gang as an older teenager…. I think he’s been a good public servant. If I had any doubt about involvement with gangs I wouldn’t be supporting him.

CF: You mentioned once addressing a group of young people on the West Side who were participating in the Mikva Challenge. Something that happened that day seems to have surprised you in one respect, but, in another, it wasn’t that much of a surprise? Elaborate?

DH: I’d been spending a lot of time on the West Side because that was our [U.S. Attorney’s office’s] initial pilot , that police district which had the highest murder rate in the city, which is around Garfield Park…. There were 40 kids, all of them were from low-income neighborhoods…. They were between 14 and 17.  About 10 minutes into the meeting [the subject was supposed to be election law], it was clear the students wanted to ask about gangs …. I said,  “How many of you know someone who’s been shot?” and every hand went up but one…. The daily experience is if you’re walking down the sidewalk to school or you’re going to the store or something it’s always on people’s minds. There’s a risk and the emotional effect that has especially on kids really cannot be overstated—very, very serious and for 39 out of 40 kids to say they personally know someone who has been shot…. It changes you in terms of emotional security and other things…. It’s completely unfair…. That’s why it’s a social justice issue because it’s an element of inequality in our society to which we all need to pay a lot of attention.

CF: Would you like Patrick Fitzgerald’s job?

DH: My hope is that Pat stays there forever because I think that he just does such a great job…..I think a lot of people would [like his job].  I think that would be a very exciting and fulfilling position.


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