Gery Chico, Mayor Daley's former chief of staff, helped pass protections for gay and lesbian employees in the Chicago Public Schools when he headed that agency. And last week he made headlines as the only major Illinois Senate candidate fully in support of same-sex marriage—and calling it marriage.
WCT: Who is backing you from the community?
CHICO: Rick Garcia knows my position on a lot of issues, and when I began to run I sought him out. He was very good about it. The head of the Gay and Lesbian Police Association is somebody who I met through a brother-in-law of mine, a Chicago police officer. ... They thought I could be somebody they could support. Christie Webber is a dear friend, and a great supporter. She's been with me from day one, and is one of my more stalwart supporters. She's been there through everything —she's raised us a lot of money, and I had her introduce me at an event we had ... . The way I look at this is, I seek out everybody's help that I can possibly get, I talk to everybody. I think my record, and my position on the issues, is very aggressive on behalf of gay and lesbian issues.
WCT: Can you talk about some of the specific issues?
CHICO: Domestic-partner benefits while I worked for the city. I worked with Ald. Bernie Hansen, and other people in the City Council. Same thing at Chicago Public Schools. Boys Town, the construction of the rainbow pieces. I was in the city, we started it. I thought it was absolutely the right thing to do. Consistently, when I was at the Mayor's Office, we would work to provide the police protection necessary for the personal safety of people in the community. That's always a concern. There's too many idiots out there who ... aren't sophisticated enough, shall we say, to appreciate all people in this world.
WCT: Were there gay curriculum issues for gay and lesbian youth at the schools?
CHICO: From time to time. More of a general nature. Occasionally somebody would complain about a book that went into subject matter that a particular group of parents thought went too far, one way or the other. I would say, hey, wait a minute. This is America. We need intellectual freedom. And also, we need to sensitize our kids.
WCT: Were you there when April Sinclair's Coffee Will Make You Black was censored?
CHICO: I'll tell you where I fall on that issue. I am for more openness, not less openness.
WCT: Is there an appropriate level to integrate gay issues into the classroom?
CHICO: As early as possible, very early grades, when children start reading.
WCT: As Senator, what would be your position on the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act and federal hate-crimes legislation? How effective do you think you can be?
CHICO: I would support both pieces of legislation. I feel I have a lot of personal experience, having worked on these types of issues. I have worked with the police, I have worked with the Chicago Commission on Human Relations on matters of employment and housing discrimination, and particular crimes committed. That kind of personal experience in these matters gives you a pretty powerful voice to weigh in. Also, being head of the Chicago Public Schools system, you see every possible variety of the human condition. This is something that emboldens me to speak for my pretty aggressive position on same-sex message. I am for it. The only thing I stop short of is going into a religious institution and ordering them to perform marriage.
WCT: So you are totally in favor of marriage, not some parallel domestic partnership compromise?
CHICO: Yes. ... I oppose [the proposed] Constitutional Amendment [banning same-sex marriage].
WCT: How effective would you be in the Senate on these issues?
CHICO: Just as effective as I've been in turning around the third largest school system in the country. It was viewed as one of the worst in the nation. And, just as I've been called the most effective chief of staff that Mayor Daley ever had, that gives you a sense of the traction, and the aggressiveness, I approach anything with. So when you combine that background, that experience, with my positions on these issues, it's very powerful.
WCT: How much work have you done across party lines?
CHICO: Turning around the school system was a bipartisan effort. The genesis for Chicago school reform came about by a largely Republican effort. They said: 'Your labor pool is not very good.' They were the catalysts for the legislative reform down in Springfield. I inherited that legislation, and made it work. I worked with everybody. ... I've found that in order to achieve results, you have to be very deft at how you go about trying to achieve something.
... I did work with [Republican Gov.] Jim Edgar and his staff, and I continued to work with Jim Edgar after I became school board president, because if Jim Edgar can look back on anything as his crowning achievement, I think it's the Chicago School Reform legislation of 1995. I think it's really a matter of the experiences I've had, in law, in government, that have taught me how to work with people from all parts of the spectrum to get something done. I'm a pretty good consensus builder.
WCT: Let's talk about healthcare issues. What are your plans?
CHICO: We'll deal first with the framework, then we can deal with the specifics. ... Stop looking for a solution in Canada that rightfully ought to be here. Rather, deal with the problem directly, in a more holistic way. Prescription drug medications are so expensive, why? We are not getting straight answers on the true costs of research and development. We are not getting any information, in some cases, on costs spent to promote and advertise drugs. We are not getting full information on the expenses made by the pharmaceutical companies to lobby all levels of government to preserve their market position. Witness the recent $8.5 million spent by the drug companies simply on the issue to preserve the ban on importation of cheaper drugs from Canada and Europe. As a temporary measure, would I be in favor of such things? Yes, of course. But the answer lies in a much broader, a much more comprehensive, approach to healthcare. I've called for in my plan a standing committee of the U.S. Senate or a special session of Congress to deal strictly and simply with the issues of healthcare and its costs in American society. I think it's every bit as important as the era of civil-rights legislation that this country went through. It could be the civil-rights issue of our generation. Because what could be more fundamental to our way of life than to be able to preserve our health? And if this is going to be priced beyond our reach shortly—I think the No. 1 threat to healthcare is the cost. The overall price of healthcare to the American public is not on the agenda of Congress today. The only thing on the agenda of Congress today—one, prescription drug coverage for seniors under Medicare. Two, malpractice judgment limitation. Are you kidding me? There are issues much larger than those two issues, and it is begging for a broader approach. My hope would be that through calling a special session, or convening this committee, we could use the power, including the subpoena power, of Congress to summons those parties that make up each and every facet of healthcare and get some true information, and really inform some legislative options.
WCT: But they put so much in lobbying, how do you counter that?
CHICO: You have to motivate the American public to put pressure on their representatives to cause a solution. ... First of all, Congress has the attention span and latitude of a gnat. This place we call Congress in Washington has a very narrow capacity to deal with issues. I don't think our American complexity should allow that. We confront more than one issue a year, two issues a year. We confront multiple issues. Congress ought to set aside a special time, with a special agenda, just to consider healthcare matters. We ought to charge them with a certain period of time, taking testimony, analyzing the information, and coming back with some recommended solutions.
Number one, why is healthcare so expensive? You're going to get into issues like the pharmaceutical industry. It's profit margin is at 28% versus the average Fortune 500 at four. You want to know the true costs of R&D, the true costs of promotion and advertising. If you find some of those expenditures to be obscenely out of line with ordinary business practices, you may curtail them. Do you see the Marlboro Man on TV anymore? No! They cut that out! Society said, cigarette advertising's bad for us. Somewhere along the line, they said only persons 18 years of age and older should be allowed to smoke. ... It's not just pharmaceutical. They're other people involved in this too. We want to look at the insurance industry, the providers. Maybe we want to deal with the nursing shortage, as part of this inquiry. We have to give them the charge of—the goal is coverage for every American. How you precisely do it should be part of your inquiry. I, for one, do not want to take away the healthcare of someone who has a good plan, who may even be part of a union that's worked very hard to negotiate that particular coverage. I'm not going to do that, but I think all of these issues should be given their fair hearing. And my hope will be that once some of this information is brought out, you will create the environment to motivate Congress to take an action. Is it Herculean? You're darn right it is. This is a Herculean task. But can you think of anything more important to our future? America is getting older. The demography of this country is moving to an older mean age. We have to deal with this.
WCT: What is the role of government in working on the AIDS crisis?
CHICO: I would make that part of this overall inquiry that I'm calling for. Bush felt it important enough to comment on it in the ] State of the Union, when he offered up a rather unique appropriation, particularly based in Africa, to deal with the AIDS epidemic. But I don't believe these little shots here and there are going to do enough to solve the problem. Why don't we get the best experts, the best testimony possible. [President Franklin Roosevelt] had the right answers for a very, very difficult period of time in this nation's history. I thought that Lyndon Johnson, with his programs of the Great Society, were the right approaches to the problems of that era. We need to take this issue and put it in the same framework. You and I may not agree that people like Ronald Reagan—the Great Communicator —caused a debate in this country and the direction of this country to shift to meet his ends. He claimed the issue as one of downsizing government in an era of out-of-control government spending. He created a result. We need to take that same kind of approach and harness power to do this for healthcare. That's my vision here. Is it doable? Yes. Even Hillary Clinton took a stab at this. But I think Hillary's approach was doomed because it was too narrow, and frankly, the inquiry and the analysis and the charge ought to be handled by the people's representative—the Congress. Not by a little side room discussion in the White House.
WCT: On the military's 'don't ask' policy, where do you stand?
CHICO: My whole mindset is about openness. And unless you can tell me that it somehow endangers, from the gay and lesbian perspective, it's a bad thing to disclose? Disclose it. I am for openness on this issue. Unless you're going to tell me there's a groundswell in the gay and lesbian community for secrecy. I don't think that's the case. When you really peel away the logic of the military's argument about discipline and so forth—look, we have thousands of examples of gays and non-gays, lesbians and non-lesbians, working together in very, very important matters just as important as military defense. And do you want to know something? It works fine.
WCT: What about adoption and foster care for gay and lesbian parents?
CHICO: God only knows I've walked this city enough, as chief of staff, to visit some of the poverty-ridden areas, crack houses. ... There's no way in the world you can go through what I've gone through and not come away with an appreciation for two consenting adults who want to form whatever union they want to form raising a child. If you peel it all away ... what is the issue in the proper rearing of a child? Love, affection, guidance and nurturing. And two people of the same sex are just as competent as anybody else to provide that. In fact, I've seen it more often than not with my own eyes. I'd take that any day over a situation where a child is just blindly cast in the streets by his parents, or left home alone, or left to fend for him or herself at the age of a whopping five or six and figure out how to do homework, and cope with some emotional situation at school. How could you not be for it? I'm begging for it. I see so many kids who are not brought up correctly—how could you not want some kind of alternative places for our children to be brought up? I have friends who are lesbian who are raising a son. I think it's beautiful. They're more attentive to their son than a lot of people I know, heterosexual couples.
WCT: What is your position on affirmative action?
CHICO: I'm a product of affirmative action at the university level. The University of Illinois at first didn't want to let me in—I was on the cusp. Then I got admitted, and I went on to be on the dean's list most semesters that I was there. Graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Became a lifetime achievement award winner. Was admitted to law school, made the Law Review, and went on to a pretty good career. I know firsthand the benefits of it. Again, I think in the larger context that you have to look at it like this: The playing field is not level in America. Pick your field: academia, corporate America, not-for-profit world, government ... . I was asked once to speak about affirmative action on Wall Street. I'm Mexican-American, so obviously this is an important issue to me. ... I think logic is one of the strongest weapons in all these issues. I said, how do I consider, as a Mexican-American chief of staff under Mayor Daley, and work with a cabinet that is 70-75% minority and women, and we oversaw the basic functions of government. This would be police, fire, water, sewer, sanitation, shelter, health. We had that set of responsibilities. Then I move over to the Chicago school board, as president of the school board. Again, 75, maybe 80 percent this time of all of our operating divisions are overseen by minorities and women. Now, that's education. How is it that minorities are competent to oversee some of the most important functions in society but yet they cannot sit on the board of a soda maker, a hamburger maker, a tissue paper maker, and a car company? What is going on here? The answer is, as you know, a latent prejudice. And sometimes it's more overt than that. That playing field is not level.
WCT: As a Mexican-American, what can you bring to the Senate.
CHICO: There hasn't been one [of us in the Senate] for 30 years. Hispanics number almost 40 million, I find it unacceptable that the most important legislative body in the world has no Hispanic perspective. That comes to the surface on issues like the Estrada judicial nomination, on immigration, Latin American policy. That's not to say that there must be somebody of a particular persuasion to be an effective representative, because that's not the case. However, you know as well as I do that it does matter to certain communities that they at least have the accessibility to have one of their own represent them in their own body.
WCT: What about the vote for Iraq war?
CHICO: I opposed it. They can question my patriotism all they want, but I think a true patriot is going to stand up, almost like the Founding Fathers did, and question the orders being given by England. I wanted more time for inspections, if we were going to take any action that it be done with a truly international force. Neither of those were the case. I think we have it wrong there. I think it's costing us in American lives, and others. I don't know what our strategy is right now. I think we're being outfoxed by a combination of Iraqis and new terrorists. And the problem is, when the Americans go it alone, and simply try to impose their will on a particular country, there's an awful lot of backlash. Which is being borne out right now. Witness the fact that there's no other countries to pay for the reconstruction of the country. $88 billion? Who else is sharing that?
WCT: Let's move to local politics. You endorsed Dean Maragos in the 44th Ward race, where there were two openly gay men vying for that seat. That caused a little controversy, as gays were trying to get one of their own into the City Council for the first time.
CHICO: As you can imagine, one's gender is unimportant to me. What your sexual preference is is unimportant to me. I apply that same thinking also to people running in a race. Tom Tunney and Rick Ingram are fine people. I've said that, even as I was endorsing Dean Maragos. But I've known Dean Maragos for a decade, maybe more. I know his father, I know his wife, I know his children. I know his relatives. And Dean Maragos was always there to support Gary Chico when he undertook something, including the Senate run. Therefore, I have a long relationship history with him, and I explained that to Tom Tunney.
WCT: How do you differ from your competition?
CHICO: I think I'm the only one that has gone into some very difficult and trying circumstances, particularly in the school system, and has been able to achieve a fairly dramatic result. The odds given to us of succeeding in that assignment, on day one, were one in a million. I think we showed that you can make change in a very, very difficult environment, for the better, to serve in that case, more than 400,000 school kids. I don't think anybody in this field can make a claim like that. ... When I was given the responsibility to oversee the City of Chicago, I was called the most effective chief of staff for, I think, probably, the best mayor in the U.S. That's my view. And when I was given the responsibility to turn around the Chicago Public Schools, there's nobody who can say anything except that I succeeded. Did the job finish? No. That's ongoing work. That's something that we do every day.
You have 100 professional legislators in the Senate. And I'm not particularly pleased with productivity in the body. My claim to fame would not be that I passed the bill. What have you done? Don't tell us about how you really worked to make things better for people. I got some of those bills, and I had to figure out how to make them work. And some of them worked, and some of them don't. But I think rather than any of us highlighting that we may have had legislative experience, that could be the problem in Washington. That body is full of accomplished legislative professionals. We don't need that. We need somebody who's going to go in there and shake it up. If you want results on issues that are important to your constituency, are important to me and all of my constituents, then you better take a different perspective.
WCT: What work have you done on the state gay-rights bill?
CHICO: I've worked with Rick Garcia particularly on this. I've called several senators who were on the fence, or opposed to the bill, in the first place, and I think we've had some good success. Rick would probably tell you that I helped bring Tony Munoz and Marty Sandoval over. I hope they vote for the final bill. I've lobbied several other senators, including Republicans, to say, do the right thing. I believe very strongly in my convictions, and I get out there and actually live them. I hope we're going to make one gallant push to get the majority we need.