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Numbers Man

He modernized Chicago’s emergency-response center, served as Mayor Daley’s chief of staff, and led (albeit briefly) the CTA—all before his 38th birthday. Now Ron Huberman, the Israeli-born gay ex-cop, has brought his intensity and his technocratic management style to the city’s public schools. Failure is not an option.

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After noticing Huberman in meetings between the police department and the mayor’s office, Richard M. Daley (shown here with Huberman in 2007) made the up-and-coming cop one of the youngest members of his cabinet.

 

For someone charged with educating hundreds of thousands of students, Ron Huberman got off to a rather unremarkable start in the classroom. He had come to the United States with his family when he was five, and they spent seven years in Tennessee before moving to La Grange, where his father, a cancer researcher, took a job at Argonne National Laboratory. Huberman didn’t distinguish himself at Lyons Township High School, and for college he settled on the University of Wisconsin mostly because he admired the beauty of Madison. He took his studies more seriously—pursuing a double major in psychology and English—but he didn’t have any real plan when he graduated. After working for a year in real estate in Washington, D.C., he moved home and did what he had been dreaming about for years—joined the Chicago Police Department.

Huberman has been openly gay since high school, and becoming a cop, especially in a department that has faced accusations of homophobia, might not have been an obvious career move. Yet, he says his sexuality was the last thing on his mind when he joined the force. Although his experience coming out as a teen left him sensitive to groups who have faced discrimination, he is part of a generation for whom sexual preference often bears little relevance to what happens at work. “It’s really never been an issue,” Huberman says. “It wasn’t one in the police department, and it hasn’t been one in this job either.”

Walking the beat in sketchy sections of Rogers Park, he quickly saw that law enforcement alone couldn’t begin to solve the problems plaguing low-income areas. So one afternoon in the mid-1990s, while deciding whether to enroll at the University of Chicago, Huberman sat in on a class there taught by Pastora San Juan Cafferty, a professor in the School of Social Service Administration. Midway through the lecture on social interventions in inner cities, Huberman raised his hand. When Cafferty called on him, he calmly dissected her argument and registered his disagreement. In 25 years of teaching, she had never seen anything like it. “My God, he’s bright,” Cafferty thought.

After a chat in her office, she called the dean of students. “I don’t know where he is in the process of admission,” Cafferty said, “but you should zero in on him.”

Huberman left the same sort of impression on Cafferty that he would leave on many prominent Chicagoans during the ensuing decade. Though he was confident almost to the point of arrogance, he was exceptionally smart, and a born leader. He enrolled in the U. of C.’s social service graduate school and later its business school, eventually earning two master’s degrees. The teachers and leaders who have worked with him overwhelmingly sing his praises—even the activist priest Father Michael Pfleger, who has sometimes disagreed with Huberman during his career, calls him “a gift to government.”

At the police department, where he worked night shifts through much of grad school, top brass quickly promoted Huberman through the ranks, first to tough field assignments, such as the tactical gang team, and later to managerial desk jobs. As assistant deputy superintendent for the Office of Information and Strategic Services—the department’s techie-in-chief—he created CLEAR, a system that gave cops real-time access to details such as criminals’ aliases and locations where crimes commonly occurred. The system became a national model. City Hall and the CPD claim that CLEAR, together with Operation Disruption, a surveillance camera system Huberman launched, were major drivers of the 25 percent drop in city murders, from 598 in 2003 to 448 in 2004.

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Photograph: Scott Strazzante

 

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