Edit Module
Edit Module
Edit Module
Edit Module
Carol Felsenthal
On politics

City Treasurer Kurt Summers on How to Save Chicago From Bankruptcy

The 35-year-old treasurer has a few ideas on how to get the city out of its current fiscal mess.

 Photo: Courtesy of the City Treasurer's Office

I met Kurt Summers, Jr. in his first-floor City Hall office just a few days before his Monday inauguration as city treasurer. Appointed by Rahm Emanuel last October, he ran in February without opposition. If there was one takeaway from our almost two-hour conversation, it’s that Summers, 35, has a sky’s-the-limit take on his career. He’s often mentioned as Rahm’s designated successor.

A child of divorced parents, he was reared at times by his struggling mother (he told the Tribune at at one point the family was using food stamps) as well as by two strict great-aunts and his grandfather, a top aide to Mayor Harold Washington. Kurt was a CPS academic standout—high school at Whitney Young; college at Washington University in St. Louis, where he gave the commencement address in 2000; and an MBA in 2005 from Harvard Business School.

Before taking a huge pay cut to become city treasurer as Chicago faces a five-alarm financial crisis, Summers was a Senior Vice President at Grosvenor Capital Management whose CEO and chairman, Michael Sacks, is a close friend, advisor, and number one financial supporter of the Mayor’s. So close is Sacks to Emanuel that, according to the Chicago Tribune, Sacks is said to be “the only private citizen” in many City Hall meetings. (Summers had been chief of staff to Toni Preckwinkle before taking the GCM job in 2012.)

He and his wife, whom he met at Harvard, live in Hyde Park/Kenwood, a block off Lake Shore Drive. They don’t have children yet, Summers told me, “but it’s in the plan.”

Summers is likable, forthcoming, and generous with his time. He postponed one appointment so that our talk could expand to twice the time allotted. Here’s a transcript of our edited and much-condensed conversation.

I want to start with your biography. Is your mother alive?

Yes, she is. She lives on the South Side, three or four blocks away from where we grew up in the Bronzeville area, right near Washington park.

You were reared more by great-aunts and a grandfather than by your mom?

The answer is both. My parents got divorced when I was five. They had me when they were 20 and 21 years old. They attempted college, but it didn’t work out. I think probably when they got married they just weren’t ready for what it all meant. Let’s just say I forced the question. They got divorced when I was five; my sister was two-and-a-half and we were split up. I went to live with my two aunts, and my sister went to live with my grandmother. My two aunts lived above my grandfather in the same building on 47th and Michigan. That’s where I started primary education.

Where?

I started at Goodlow Elementary. I was in the gifted program there. We moved away for a few years. My mom moved to Florida to be with her mom, in Fort Walton Beach. My stepdad was in the Air Force at Eglin Air Force Base. Then we ultimately made our way back to Chicago. I finished elementary school at Beasley on 53rd and State. It’s a high quality academic school, but it was across the street from the Robert Taylor Homes.

Somebody famous went there.

Derrick Rose. I like to tell people I went to the elementary school of Derrick Rose and to the high school of Michelle Obama. Typically kids will get excited about that. If I don’t get them with that, I don’t have a shot.

What was the neighborhood like?

This was a place where there’d be shootings. Just as we were leaving school for the day to get on [the] bus there’d be shootings from the towers of those [Robert Taylor] buildings. You have this great academic institution and it was in the middle of massive projects.

Growing up, your neighbor hood was called G-Town after the Gangster Disciples. How did you stay away from that influence?

God’s grace. Honestly, when I was a kid traversing gang lines I’d been shot at or had a gun held to me three times between the ages of 13 and 15. I had people around me that were friends growing up who decided to be in gangs, a lot of guys on my block and in my neighborhood, and they protected me because they said this isn’t really for you.

Why, because you were nerdy or studious?

I think I’ve always been a little bit different, and I read more, although sometimes I tried to hide it. I was curious about things that other folks weren’t curious about. It’s always sort of been my life. [In high school], I was on the football team and the tennis team, [and] captain of my debate team, but also was a DJ.               

These incidents with the guns, who was holding the gun [to your head]? Was it a gang member?

It was a gang member.

How did you get out of that?

I was with two friends. We were walking from 47th St. and King Dr. to my house in the middle of 48th and King Dr., walking back to my house from the corner store, and the guys came around the corner, literally pulled out a gun at my head. It was mistaken identity basically. The two guys that I was with were well known in that neighborhood, and they defended me and stood up for me and said you’ve got it wrong, this is our buddy. He didn’t do whatever you’re accusing him of, which I couldn’t even tell you what it was because I lost my sense of hearing at that moment.

Did you go home and tell your aunt or your grandfather and call the cops?

At that point I was actually living back with my mom, and I don’t think I told her for quite some time because I knew how distressed she would be. You could get shot at for wearing the wrong color, wearing your hat in the wrong direction, or just being an unknown person in a place that you shouldn’t be. I truly believe it was really just God’s grace that got me through that and helped me realize that wasn’t the path for me, even though I had friends that were very active in gangs.

The other couple times were hold ups or muggings?

No, one case there was a pretty bad building and [I] was walking by with my cousin who was wearing the wrong colors, and I think they thought he was a member of a different gang and started shooting at us. Then a third time was really more of a festival or something at a park, just things got rowdy on the way home    

What was your relationship like with your grandfather [Sam Patch, who died in 2005]?

He was the patriarch of our family and he was and is my inspiration. He’s the screen saver on my phone. My grandfather lived below us and he would have Mayor [Washington] over at his house all the time. I’d be like literally the kid on his knee. We called him “Uncle Harold.” He was basically family. I was eight or nine when he died, and [I remember] just how everything felt different. It was sad for a very long time. I understood [he] was he was fighting really hard to help people and my grandfather was his right-hand guy helping him do it. [City Club of Chicago President] Jay Doherty was telling me the other day: “Harold would listen to people, whatever the issue was, he would listen. Sam would be in every significant discussion and then [Harold] would stop talking and then listen to what Sam had to say, or he would let everyone leave the room, ask Sam to come back, and they would figure out what the answer would be." No matter what the fight was and what the issue was, these were like super heroes in my eyes. They were going to prevail.

As a kid, to have a mayor as a superhero is kind of unusual.

One that you consider family and that you knew personally, right? Think about if like Superman was your uncle and Batman was your granddad. That’s what it was like.

Do you have a relationship with your father?

I do, yeah. I’m a junior, named after him. He moved to Nevada maybe about 10 years ago, but I’m very close with him. I didn’t live with him until just before I went to college.

What does he do?

He sells cars.

I know your wife’s name is Helen, and you met her at Harvard B School.

Helen and I met literally the first week of business school and by the end of that weekend we were studying together. It was very clear that we’d be studying together and hanging out together for a very long time.

What does she do now?

She is an MBA admissions coach. She helps people get into top MBA programs.

Did you vote for Rahm in 2011?

I voted.

How did your relationship with Rahm start?

I met Rahm when I worked on the [2016] Olympic bid. I was the chief of staff; Lori Healey and I were responsible for briefing Valarie Jarrett and the First Lady, preparing them for presentations in Copenhagen and here. Ultimately we had to brief Rahm.

I’ve read that you’ve said that not getting the Olympics was the biggest disappointment of your life.

Without question. Literally the only time I’ve ever shed a tear about something professional was that night. I was on the phone with my wife [he was in Copenhagen; she in Chicago]. I called her outside of what was the hall that was supposed to host our victory celebration and it was sort of like catharsis. You invest so much of yourself and so much energy and you give it all that you can truly for the belief that this would be a tremendous benefit to Chicago, and by the way would have the opportunity for tremendous economic development on the South Side and in the neighborhoods I grew up in that I knew sorely needed it. I called her and I was so overwhelmed and it was clearly the most disappointing professional moment of my career.

Were you involved in Chicago’s bid for the Obama library?

I have been a big champion for this happening and talked to everyone I could—informally, just because I know all the players, right? Susan Sher, Marty Nesbitt, Valerie Jarrett. Michael Sacks was an early donor and John Rogers is a co-chair. These are all friends. I was on cloud nine the other day. [In donations so far to the Library, Michael Sacks ranks number three.]

Rahm Emanuel was really a key player in getting that library.

One hundred percent, yes. It would not have happened without Rahm. No question.

Was it Michael Sacks’s idea transmitted to Rahm that you would be a great replacement for Stephanie Neely? [Neely resigned and went to work for Allstate.] 

At least as the story as told to me it was Rahm to Michael, not Michael to Rahm. I had lunch with Michael. I had just been on a 10- or 11-day road trip for work. We were catching up on the strategic direction and the future of the firm, and we spent an hour or so talking about that, and then at the end of it he said, “Now I’ve got to throw you a curve ball. The mayor called me four or five days ago, told me that the treasurer is going to step down and he would like to appoint you and wanted me to give you a heads up and make sure that was okay. I had to think whether or not to tell you because you’re really important to us.” A few days later I went to meet with the mayor and talk about it with him and we met a couple times about it.

Just the two of you?

Just the two of us.

Really, Michael Sacks wasn’t in the room?

No. At that point Michael had done his duty and delivered the message. Then it was up to me to figure out what I wanted to do. My wife and I got a place downtown in a hotel for a couple days and we talked, we prayed, we fasted, we did some soul searching to figure out if we were ready for this because we had to be in it together and it was a real team effort. After all that, it was also a tremendous financial sacrifice, and this wasn’t the first time I’d done that, right?

You mean going from business to the public sector? [Summers has worked for firms ranging from McKinsey to Goldman Sachs.]

Yeah, so you know when I left working for Pat Ryan [as chief of staff for the bid when Ryan headed the Olympic effort], I was the first employee of Ryan Specialty Group, which is now one of the largest wholesale brokerages in the world.   

But then you left him to go to work for Toni Preckwinkle.

Right. The deal I had with my wife then was this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to turn around Cook County and turn around county government. I love Toni. I think she is a wonderful leader, incredibly courageous and responsible and thoughtful, and first and foremost she puts people first, and she, like Harold Washington, is an example for me. She empowered a 31-year-old kid to do some pretty great things. [I told my wife] “Don’t worry, maximum two years, three budgets and then I’ll go back to the private sector and build that.”

I wrote my business school essays on leaving business school, going and having a great career in the private sector, building a skill set, and then devoting my life to public service once I built that up.

Kind of like Bruce Rauner?

No. I wouldn’t say that. I think Bruce, who I know fairly well…we’ve taken different paths. I’d say more like Deval Patrick in Massachusetts, who had a very successful career in the private sector and in the public sector. I never thought honestly that it would be through elected office. I wrote my essays about maybe one day being in a position where I’d be considered for a cabinet of a president that I believed in and inspired me.

If you were to choose a cabinet position for yourself, which would it be?

I guess I’d say Treasury, but I think Commerce. What Penny Pritzker is doing with Commerce is phenomenal and what Bill Daley did there was phenomenal. I told Bill that when I wrote those essays I was thinking about him.

Rauner has said the state’s not going to help out the city, but people say that there really is a genuine friendship between Rauner and Rahm.

No question.

There was some controversy over the fact that Rahm didn’t announce the vacancy, appointed you and then you could run as an incumbent and were so formidable that you didn’t have an opponent. It was criticized as being an example of “the Chicago way.” [Stephanie Neely told Rahm of her intention to leave in October 2014, and Summers was appointed later the same month.]

Formidable? I like that. I only knew about a week or so before the world did. I think the mayor acted as soon as he knew. All I could do at the time was figure out if I could be of service to the people of Chicago and if I’d be willing to not just be a seat warmer, which is also a tradition here, but actually want to run for the office and hold it and transform it. Let me say one more thing about the formidable—it’s actually as laughable as it is flattering. As a 35-year-old who had never run for office before, had no campaign organization or a dollar in a fund, for folks to think, “Well, that’s just too formidable for me,” I think means they probably weren’t the right person for the job.

Do you see yourself staying in this office until 2019?

I didn’t know that I would love this job as much as I do. I jump out of bed. I’m not a morning person. I don’t sleep at night. [My staff will] tell you get they emails from me at all hours. Yes, I’ll be doing that [staying four years]. After that, who knows?

Do you see bankruptcy in CPS’s future—or the city’s?

This is a place where the governor and I vehemently disagree. I don’t believe that the best answer for the schools or the municipality is bankruptcy, in part because I don’t believe that every party has put their best foot forward in a good faith effort to solve the problem. I don’t want to be in a position where we have to hire an emergency manager, who, by the way, will get paid a lot of money to make fiscal decisions in the interest of creditors and not in the interest of kids. I think that until I’m convinced otherwise, my mind won’t be changed on that. As it relates to the city, we’re not there at all. We’re not close to there financially. We have real challenges and I think that some of the actions of the credit agencies, specifically Moody’s, I think were impetuous.

Do you agree with what Rahm’s been saying? He has been very tough on Moody’s.

As well he should be. They’re responding to a Supreme Court decision about a state bill that applies a completely different framework to the solution for reform than the city bill does. It does not apply. We’re in the middle of the legislative session where anything could be done for police or fire. It’s not going to happen until the end of the session.

Do you think if Moody’s was going to do it [downgrade our credit rating to junk] they should have waited until June 1?

One hundred percent. I think it’s disingenuous and impetuous and misleading to do that now in advance of the end of the session. To take the two notches to junk is really more signaling and messaging than anything else. I truly believe it’s irresponsible.

Will Bruce Rauner and Rahm be able to, as buddies, work things out behind the scenes?

I think that on issues like whether or not Chicago Public Schools should go bankrupt there’s a fundamental philosophical disagreement between the two of them. That’s not for show. On the issue of whether or not Illinois should be a right to work state, another thing that I vehemently disagree [with], that’s not for show. But I do think that the fact that they have a relationship will allow them to work through other issues like [casinos]—what should the state versus city mix be if the casino bill passes.

You’re for the casino, a city casino?

Yeah. I believe that a casino can be a great revenue source, but most importantly can be an asset rather than a detriment to our community. When you think about, and I have no role in the design of this thing, but I think that it’s intended to be a casino for tourists and visitors and people who are coming here to spend money and make it a part of their experience in visiting Chicago.

I happened to be at the one in St. Louis and there were a lot of really sad looking locals there.

Well having gone to school in St. Louis I’d agree with that. Even across the state border to Indiana [you] see the same kind of sight, but I think that the intention of this is very, very different and the clientele very, very different.

How do you stop people from collecting their paycheck and going and wasting it on gambling when in the end they’re going to lose? Why would this be a great tourist attraction and not something that would attract local people who can’t afford to lose the money?

I told you my dad lives in Nevada. Ask any local there. They don’t go to the high-end places on the strip with the high table minimums. It’s designed that way. That’s not what the local folks do. When you have high table minimums, when you market and promote yourself to a certain clientele, that’s who you attract.

What about a property tax increase? There will have to be one, right?

That’s not clear. I think that there will have to be a dedicated revenue source to fully fund our pensions, whether that comes from expansion of sales tax, casino, property tax.

Or all of the above?

Or all of the above, but there will be a combination of dedicated revenue from any or all of those streams.

I was surprised to learn that our property taxes are low compared to …

To neighboring suburbs, or other large cities. They’ve been, candidly, kept artificially low for a very long time. It’s not politically popular to raise, particularly the property tax, because it comes in such a big number that it’s a constant reminder that’s a big check to write.

Rahm Emanuel was going to do it. Then he didn’t do it because of politics, right? Because Pat Quinn didn’t want to run on that.

One thing that I’m learning very quickly in this job is no matter how great the idea, there has to be the political will to do it. Another thing that I’ve learned is, it’s an old saying, but people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. You have to have people behind you, and people have to know that you’re doing this because you care about their best interests. When those things aren’t there the formula just doesn’t add up for an idea no matter how good it is.

You’re routinely described as Rahm’s designated successor. Is that a conversation you’ve had with him in which he has said, “Look, I see you as the next in line.”

I don’t think about it at all honestly. Thankfully I don’t have to. It’s kind of a ridiculous notion in a democracy that someone can designate their successor.

This is not a discussion that you and the mayor have had?

No.

So when he offered you your job he didn’t say treasurer today, mayor tomorrow; first floor today, fifth floor tomorrow?

No. I get a kick out of it; my mom really gets a kick out of it.

I noticed that you had been at the Chicago State University Mayoral Forum in the run-up to the April 7 election. [Chuy Garcia, who forced Rahm Emanuel into a runoff, had confirmed his attendance; but Rahm hadn’t until an outcry from the African American community caused Rahm to change his mind and attend.] I wondered if you had anything to do with persuading Rahm that he might want to participate?

Yeah, so [I] certainly talked to Rahm a lot about that event and just sort of his strategy in general during that campaign. That one in particular I rode with him out there, and I think it was great that he did it. I think he did a great job in an environment that was not inherently friendly.

The audience warmed up to him a little bit?

Ultimately, yeah. I think in part because they respected that he came and that he represented and defended his positions on things. I advised him that he should come for sure and we definitely had a discussion about it and talked about what to prepare for and how to respond.

Did Rahm have another event that was in conflict?

Barney Frank was in town for his book signing at the same time and [Rahm] had already committed to [former] Congressman Frank to being there.

You were chief of staff to Toni Preckwinkle from 2010-2012. Was it awkward at all during the election? [Preckwinkle declined to endorse either Rahm or Garcia, her floor leader on the County Board.] Following that race closely, the great speculation game was who she would endorse. Just like [the speculation] that had Rahm not shown up that night there would have been trouble for him.

I so want to say so much more. [My communications director] won’t let me.

Your talking about Harold Washington reminds me of the conversations I had with Chuy Garcia about Harold. Do you know Chuy well and was it awkward so publicly to support his opponent, Rahm Emanuel?

Chuy was close with my grandfather. Chuy’s known me since I was born. I think that Rahm was clearly the best choice. I firmly believe that, and I love Chuy. I think he is a phenomenal public servant, but wasn’t the right leader for Chicago right now.

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

Share

Edit Module
Submit your comment

Comments are moderated. We review them in an effort to remove foul language, commercial messages, abuse, and irrelevancies.

Edit Module