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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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In October 2007, Huberman addressed the CTA budget.

 

Mayor Daley first took notice of Huberman in meetings between the police department and the mayor’s office, and in April 2004 the mayor hired the up-and-coming cop to overhaul the Office of Emergency Management and Communications—the agency that answers daily 911 calls and provides disaster response.

At 33, Huberman became one of the youngest members of the mayor’s cabinet, but he wasn’t the first unknown that Daley had handpicked to take over a crucial department. Like his father, Chicago’s current mayor often cultivates promising, talented loyalists, then deploys them to key agencies. In recent years, he has unearthed ever-younger prospects, elevating them to top positions in city government, installing many in powerful entities ostensibly outside city control. When the mayor took over Chicago’s flailing school district in 1995, he appointed his budget director, Paul Vallas, as CEO and his chief of staff, Gery Chico, as board president. Another acolyte, Lori Healey, has been shuffled from planning commissioner to chief of staff to her current role in charge of the city’s Olympics bid. Richard Rodriguez, 38, Huberman’s replacement at the CTA, was previously appointed by Daley to direct the aviation and construction and permits departments.

The strategy is simple: Find smart people, train them to manage, and throw them into problem agencies with a broad mandate. Those who thrive move on to bigger and better things: Key members of President Obama’s inner circle—adviser David Axelrod, chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, adviser Valerie Jarrett, and even First Lady Michelle Obama—cut their teeth working for the mayor.

“Mayor Daley is just, by and large, a great judge of talent,” says Paul Green, the director of the Institute for Politics at Roosevelt University and a coauthor of The Mayors: The Chicago Political Tradition. “Some of his most vocal critics who will not give him a break on anything will tell you Daley has been blessed in that area.”

The management tactic doesn’t always proceed without bumps. Frank Kruesi, a Daley associate since the mayor’s days as a state senator, ran into so many public relations disasters as head of the CTA that Daley eventually reassigned him to the city’s lobbying operation in Washington, far from public scrutiny. And Daley has caught flak from cops and community groups since bringing in Jody Weis, a longtime FBI official, as police chief. (The mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.)

Huberman, who eventually supplanted Kruesi at CTA, represents the most extreme example of Daley’s trial-by-fire approach, having doused three bureaucratic blazes and then moved on at Daley’s behest, leaving behind gushing underlings and astonished foes.

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While running the 911 center,  Huberman developed a performance management system that has become the open secret of his success. Cobbled together from business books such as Jim Collins’s Good to Great, the accountability practices at General Motors (back when the automaker was successful), and Huberman’s police and academic experience, it allowed him to ask a simple question: How did we do yesterday—and was it better than the day before? Similar management systems have been around for years in the corporate world, but Huberman came up with a simplified version that he could apply to government. He used it to quantify boring-but-important numbers, such as how quickly 911 calls were being picked up, and then used the figures to hold managers accountable.

When he became Daley’s chief of staff in the wake of the hired truck and patronage hiring scandals, Huberman adapted the method to scrutinize all 40-odd city departments. Every week, he would call dozens of city managers into a room, then interrogate them. The process was akin to an oral final exam. There were no excuses—if a manager blamed a problem on another department (say, CPD pointing the finger at Human Services for rising crime among the homeless), the department head could respond. When officials made legitimate cases for bigger budgets, Huberman helped find money. Goals were met, or heads would roll.

It was the ideal instrument for a demanding boss who works 12-hour days (not counting nights and weekends stacked with meetings) and expects underlings to do much the same. Though Huberman had barely spent time in the private sector, he developed a reputation as a brutal, corporate-style executive. (None of the critics or victims of Huberman’s sometimes-brusque style would speak on the record for fear of angering a powerful man who has the mayor’s ear.) At the CTA, his rapid reorganization shook things up, and managers who didn’t quickly meet expectations were ousted. The results of Huberman’s 21-month reign are remarkable: He took over an agency on the verge of financial meltdown, then corralled union leaders and Springfield lawmakers into agreeing on a multimillion-dollar pension-and-funding overhaul that kept buses and trains running. He led a campaign to cut down slow zones—areas of track where trains must run at reduced speed due to safety concerns—from 23 percent of the system to just 7 percent. He also oversaw a $530-million expansion of the Brown Line, the revamping of an awful CTA website, and cleaner buses.

“He definitely brought in a management style where you had to perform,” says Kevin O’Neil, the force behind the CTA Tattler, a blog that scrupulously tracks the agency. “If you didn’t, you were gone. Call it cleaning house, call it what you want to call it. It seems to me, that’s good management, period.”

Huberman also made a point of actually riding the trains and buses. On one occasion, while aboard a southbound Red Line train in 2008, he confronted an unruly man who had been harassing a female passenger. “You’re going to get off the train,” insisted Huberman, according to an e-mail submitted to the Tattler. Though protesting, the man finally did
exit the train—with Huberman right behind him. (Huberman’s office confirmed that the incident occurred.)

Around City Hall, people were already whispering that Daley sometimes spoke of Huberman as a potential future mayor. Inside CTA, his decisions weren’t always popular. Early on, Huberman hired a 24-year-old mayoral aide with no transit experience, Adam Case, to head communications, a role that put him in charge of three veteran managers and a staff of dozens. Some longtime employees resented the move, but Huberman credits Case with shepherding crucial projects, including adapting the CTA’s Bus Tracker notification system for mobile devices. “My ultimate responsibility was not ensuring that there was harmony and goodwill within the communications department,” he says. “My responsibility was ensuring the customers of CTA got the best information possible.”

At times, Huberman’s emphasis on riders irked overseers. He signed a deal with Google for a trip planning application, obviating an in-the-works planner from the Regional Transit Authority, the body that supervises the CTA. “I felt it was good for customers and I was moving ahead,” he says. “I did not want to get stuck in red tape.”

In several respects, Huberman fell short of his promises. Though he boasted about riding public transit, the CTA still maintained a car for his workday trips, with a staffer driving. (Huberman says it was necessary for emergencies and back-to-back meetings around the city.) He also left a $242-million budget gap—a shortfall he blames on a variety of factors, including the ex-governor Rod Blagojevich’s free rides for seniors and unforeseen drops in tax revenue. Still, his too-rosy 2009 projections were made last fall, after serious economic shocks. “I’m very confident that as soon as the economy comes back, CTA will be in good shape,” Huberman predicts.

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Photograph: José M. Osorio

 

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