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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Is This Rahm’s Rival for Mayor?

Alderman Scott Waguespack, a critic of Emanuel, says he wouldn’t run against him—but he leaves some wiggle room. Here are the legislator’s thoughts on what should change in Chicago’s leadership.

Scott Waguespack

Photo: Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune

I recently had coffee with Scott Waguespack, the alderman of the 32nd ward in Bucktown, where he lives with his wife and sons. Soon, when redistricting kicks in, the 32nd will encompass Logan Square as well. In an hour and half conversation, we covered a lot of ground—including the legislator’s rocky relationship with Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Waguespack, 42, and serving his second term, is one of the handful whom the mayor can count on—to vote no. (Most recently on the parking meter tweaks; he voted no in 2008 on the Daley-backed deal.) He has been so outspoken in criticizing Rahm that some assume he wants the mayor’s job. But Waguespack, whose unusual name is German (although his father hails from French Louisiana and his mother is Polish), says that he’s happy where he is now. He says he’s still figuring out to spend time with his two sons, the older only 15 months. 

Unlike many of his City Council colleagues, Wauespack, Chicago-born but Colorado-bred, with a degree in political science from Colorado State University, does not hold a second job. He graduated from Chicago-Kent College of Law, took the bar exam, and failed, but never retook it. As he explains: “I was never into it.”

When I ask him directly if he’s planning to run for mayor, he leaves himself plenty of wiggle room. “I don’t see myself doing it … I think the last time around, when Mayor Daley was contemplating his future, a lot of people were expecting me to run. But I think Mayor Emanuel is pretty well set, raising all that money.”

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

CF: Do you think Rahm wants to be Mayor for a while?

SW: My guess is he doesn’t want to stay in it too long; wants to go back to DC and run for president. A lot of people have told me that lately, a lot of political consultants. They tell me he’s just winding himself up for maybe a VP spot with somebody else. “Look at me, what I’ve done in Chicago”… Also, he seems like a candidate for something else when you look at the whole press machine … governing by press release. 

CF: Why do you think Rahm wants to be mayor?

SW: You can wield a lot of power, you can wield a lot of contracts, and you can dole out contracts by the hundreds of millions … Also being mayor is a jumping off point for national office. He could get reelected in ’15 and then spend the whole year of ’16 running for higher office.

CF: What has your relationship been with him?

SW: I’ve had a couple of sit-downs with him. The first time it was… right after he got elected but before he was inaugurated. That was extremely intense. He basically wanted to lay down the law…. My approach was “here’s what I saw being done wrong over the last few years. And here’s a list of things … that could be done better….” I’m not so sure he wanted to hear that. 

I met him about a year later…. We haven’t had a sit-down discussion since…. He kind of moves at a speed that… you have to walk with him if you want to get something said. I’ve met him in the… back hallways of City Hall during Council meetings…. Yes, lots of profanity [in response to] any position that I take… that’s contrary to him.

CF: Would you call Rahm heavy-handed? Can he be subtle?

SW: Not very subtle … One time when I was a thorn in his side on the O’Hare [janitors] contract, he used some profanities and got a little physical … Grabbed the elbow type thing … It bothers me in the sense if you can’t get your point across speaking appropriately, then maybe that’s something you should work on.

He refused to call on me during the parking meter [tweaks] vote which really angered me. I was [waving my hand]…. I could probably have pulled a Dick Mell and stood up on the table … I raised my hand a couple of more times and he and the parliamentarian both kind of looked at me and looked the other way. A lot of people were aware, texts going back and forth … I saw Rahm in the hallway after. He said, “I didn’t mean not to call on you.”

CF: Among your colleagues, who could see running for mayor in the next election?

SW: I think the only one will be Bob [Fioretti (2nd)]. A lot of people have tried to recruit him. One of the issues is if you run you have to give up your seat.  [Waguespack explains that Fioretti has been redistricted into oblivion so no reason for him not to run.]

CF: So you flunked the bar on your first try. Why didn’t you retake it?

SW: I was doing of a lot of international work in the Balkans and it’s kind of what I liked doing before that, and so I got about two-thirds of the way through law school and thought “I really enjoy doing this work vs actually sitting behind a desk.” I was in Kenya for the Peace Corps right out of college … Also [while I was in law school] I was working at Kirkland & Ellis trying to figure out what I wanted to do next … I worked on a couple of big cases … I was chatting one day with a partner and he told me that one of his sons was graduating and going off the college and he said, “I just look back at the last 15 years and I spent too much time working as an attorney. I didn’t spend any time with him” … I looked at that, and thought, that’s not what I want to do. 

CF: You were first elected in 2007 when Rich Daley was mayor. Having worked with both Rich and Rahm, who’s a better mayor?

SW: Daley was kind of an old school guy for sure, but I think he really cared about meeting people and being very cordial with them and was really more into the neighborhoods of the city. I’m not sure I get the same sense from Rahm. I think he’s more kind of elite. He does things in a way that I think kind of paints a picture of him: “Here I am working up here for all of you,” whereas the former mayor, as much as he and I jousted, he would show up in the neighborhood. 

I think Rahm has kind of thrown a wrench into some of the old stuff a little bit, certain things, but there’s a lot of things that … haven’t changed. I think it’s because he doesn’t want to focus … on mid-level, lower level issues.

CF: Such as?

SW: Services in the ward, following up on major issues like red light cameras, trash pickup, like in six months I’m going to come back and we’re all going to sit down and look at this. There’s not a lot of that. It’s more like,  “I’m just going to put out a press release and it’s done. Whoever has any dissent, it’s done, because I put out the press release.”

CF: How long do you plan to stay as alderman?

SW: I don’t want to do it like these other guys who have been doing it for decades. Long enough to get the job done and try to get more people in the city to either run and get to the point where we’re actually having Council battles where we’re getting 15, 20, 30 votes. I don’t know how long that’ll take.

CF: But you’ll run in 2015?

SW: Yes.

CF: What would you do after being alderman?

SW: My wife is from Malaysia. I met her through Peace Corps friends. We have a lot of foreign service friends. I could go back to the [international] work I was doing before.

CF: Did you vote for Rahm?

SW: No, I voted for Miguel del Valle … I didn’t feel like Rahm had a grasp of Chicago’s issues or problems.

CF: Will you send your sons to CPS?

SW: Yeah, I’ve got great schools … always sit down and once or twice a year do a kind of think tank [among] all principals. I try to reach out to all the LSCs to keep tabs on what each one is doing. A bunch of the schools [in my ward] are like level one, high performing, everybody in the city wants to send their kinds there. City commissioners send their kids to one or two of the schools, aldermen. There are one or two of them that have been kind of on the lower rung, two of them that were possible on the closure list a few years ago; one of them [Prescott] I just graduated a class yesterday, and they were on the closure list a few years ago and now it’s an upper-rung school.

People who say the public school system sucks, then you obviously don’t know what you’re talking about.

CF: Which one would your sons go to?

SW: Pulaski, which wasn’t a high performing school. We brought in an IB program and shook it up.

CF: Did you have any closed schools in your ward?

SW: Had one this time around, Brentano, but they took it off the list. We did a huge amount for CPS, the community area, how it’s changed, we basically did their homework for them.

CF: Then they changed their minds and took it off the list?

SW: Yes … I don’t think they have any clue. They don’t look at the demographics, like Logan Square right now: if you look at that area, in terms of business coming in, a lot of younger people moving in, a different demographic, new buildings going up all the time. The two or three schools around there, their scores have consistently gone up and they’re getting more community participation.

CF: Who would you like to see take Penny Pritzker’s place on the school board?

SW: I think Terry Mazany. I don’t know if he would, but I think he’d be a good addition. He had experience as the [CPS] CEO. I’ve had discussions with him, very impressed. I think he would accept, but I don’t think they’d ever ask him … I think he understands from a number of different perspectives the needs of CPS and he has been outspoken … He said things that I was like, wow, you never heard anybody speak contrary to what the mayor was [saying].

CF: Are you supportive of an elected school board?

SW: Yes, absolutely. I think a hybrid would work best so the mayor would appoint some people and some elected. You’ve had so many CEOs over the years and no consistency. As each one comes in they come up with some newfangled idea because they have that idea set in their minds or the mayor doesn’t like the direction it’s going and wants the change. Or the board doesn’t really think this stuff through or there are competing factions within CPS.

A group of aldermen [last year] tried to get an [education-related referendum] on our ballot … and the mayor’s office basically told me, “We will never allow you to have a referendum; we will fight it and we will stop any attempt that you make to try to get an elected school board.” I was pretty offended. I said it’s not up to you what my voters want on their ballot. It’s up to me and it’s up to the other nine aldermen who also wanted it on there, and they used a technical maneuver to basically keep us off.

CF: Are you going to make another attempt?

SW: I think it’s going to be organic. I think the Raise Your Hand Coalition and a bunch of others will go door to door for the next election.

CF: When Rahm was running he made what sound like a threat: that he was going to halve the size of the City Council to 25. Are you for that?

SW: I’m okay with that. They should have done it during redistricting, should have pulled the trigger then … I actually produced a map of 35 alderman during the last redistricting. They didn’t want anything to do with it. We actually did the work for them. We pitched it to Mell, Burke, O’Connor, the guys who were dealing with the mapping, which was basically the mayor’s office. Didn’t want it… word came down, don’t do it … I think you have to do it through redistricting  in one fell swoop. It would be almost like a lottery … When I proposed 35 I said we could do a lottery, put us all in, I don’t care if I lose. This is serious. Nobody bit on it.

CF: If you decrease the number of aldermen how do you service your constituents?

SW: That’s where if you really want to change the way the system works, you have to  give the departments [more responsibility] … A parking meter deal, a contract at O’Hare … the red light camera system, I would spend a lot more time on that kind of stuff. I don’t think a lot of aldermen are capable of really digging down in the legislative side of things, and they feel comfortable letting the mayor handle all that kind of stuff.

What do other cities do? I’ve met a few … legislators in other cities and they can’t believe how much time we spend dealing with [broken garbage cans].

CF: Your colleague Ameya Pawar (47th) has been in the news for proposing an independent budget office so aldermen could have at hand their own analysis of policies such as the parking meter deal and not just swallow the Mayor’s analysis. Are you a supporter of that?

SW: Yeah, I proposed it about five years ago and it died in the last go-round. We talked about it in the last couple of years … New York tried to do it and it took them about five or six years to actually get the mayor on board … Somebody at the top has to commit to it, which is basically the mayor and I don’t think he ever will.

CF: Because it’s a threat to him?

SW: Exactly. “Yes guys, we’ll deal with it [parking meters, red light cameras, etc.], don’t worry about it. Just sit over here.”

CF: If there had been an independent budget office in place in 2008 when the Council approved the parking meter deal?

SW: It would have made a huge difference.

CF: Ald. Pawar explained to me that, at least at first, it involved hiring one person to run the office and a couple of staffers to help him. Pawar estimated that it would cost $250,000-$350,000 a year.

SW: Won’t work … The volume of contracts that come through … need $8-10 million to start out, to have the right kind of crew come in to get started. You need a city ordinance that says you will have this authority to review every contract, all documentation, all people involved in it … Have an administrator, 10 or 15 auditors who start digging into every contract. It can’t be a couple of guys … You’re going to have to bring in economists, heavily data driven, ton of interviews of all the people who would be involved in it.

The mayor’s pumping out contracts every day.  A hundred million here and two hundred million there.

CF: What’s been the most satisfying part of being alderman?

SW: The schools and challenging some of the major big deals that happen in the city, especially the parking meter deal. We’ve exposed the way business is done in the city for a long, long time and how detrimental it can be if you don’t get elected officials looking at this stuff and doing the right thing, doing the analytics, legislative work. I feel that we’ve educated people about how this really works and I think that puts fears to a lot of the people who benefitted for decades, who have been at the trough, who are apologists for corruption, who have looked the other way for too long,  and there are people out there who have really started to look at it, who say this is not the way the city should run.

I think if you see how many people run in this next election for aldermen you’re going to see more people educating people about what’s really going on in the City Council. 

CF: Which Democrat do you like for governor?

SW: I don’t think I would support Bill Daley.

CF: Lisa Madigan?

SW: It’s one of those issues where you’re kind of looking at everybody and you’re thinking, “Has she really gone after things in a way I think we would have liked to have seen?”… Daley, the old connection to the family. Kind of like: I don’t know if we want that.

A lot of people say Pat Quinn’s kind of back and forth on things … But, he says, “I’m not going to give you a casino without any oversight.” I hope he sticks by his guns because that one issue in itself could open up the biggest can of worms ever. I can’t imagine that a mayoral panel operating free of any other control [on a casino]. Nothing could be worse.

CF: So you can see yourself supporting Quinn?

SW: The Democratic party is always like, “well, we don’t care who the challenger is; we always go for the incumbent.” I’m looking at this and well, Quinn is obviously doing something you guys don’t like. You’re  gonna jump ship on him? Whereas before we don’t care how bad the guy is.

CF: Do you think Rahm would secretly like his friend and financial supporter, Republican Bruce Rauner, to be mayor? 

SW: I think Rahm and Rauner come from the same mold … ”Oh, we want to run the city like a business.” Rahm has already proven that you can’t do that, making more mistakes than helping by claiming to run it like a business.

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