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Exclusive: Gery Chico to back onetime nemesis, Rahm Emanuel

In a major pivot from 2011, former Chicago Public Schools Chairman Gery Chico is putting his support for mayor behind Rahm Emanuel — his onetime rival for the city’s top job, Chico told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Chico, who lost to Emanuel in a contentious 2011 race for mayor, is expected to formally endorse Emanuel for re-election on Sunday.

The endorsement is a boon to Emanuel, whose favorability has taken a hit in the polls and who has particularly struggled with minorities.

Chico said he prevailed in 10 city wards and thinks he can persuade those voters to back Emanuel.

“I believe so. I am Mexican-American. I grew up on the Southwest Side of the city, won a significant percentage of the Latino population and a strong amount of labor support,” Chico told the Sun-Times. “I hope the people who believed in me then will listen to me now.”

Before Chico, Emanuel had sewn up support from another onetime opponent, U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez. Gutierrez, arguably the most high-profile Latino leader in the state, is co-chairman of Emanuel’s re-election campaign. Gutierrez in 2011 had backed Chico, even cutting Spanish-language TV ad spots on his behalf. Adding Chico to the mix could cordon off some of the Latino vote from getting to Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, potentially the mayor’s biggest threat aside from Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd).

In the 2011 election, Chico had been critical of Emanuel’s role in keeping immigration reform off the table in Barack Obama’s White House. Emanuel served as Obama’s first chief of staff before he ran for Chicago mayor.

During that mayoral campaign, Chico was rattled by the Emanuel camp’s targeting of Hispanic voters in Chicago with robo-calls, telling them that Chico had been endorsed by an “anti-immigrant group, the Chicago Tea Party.” Chico had forcefully rejected the endorsement.

Chico, who once served as chief of staff to former Mayor Richard M. Daley and was former president of the Chicago Public School board, is also a private attorney and chairman of the state board of education.

“This city has some serious challenges still ahead of it. We need someone who has had the history of looking at these problems and giving it their best,” Chico said.

Chico’s law firm, Chico & Nunes, has made millions of dollars lobbying City Hall on behalf of dozens of clients.

Chico would not directly comment on his personal reaction to Emanuel’s most unpopular decision — the closing of some 50 public schools in minority neighborhoods.

“I’m not going to comment on each and every one of his decisions. He’s the mayor. He has to make the decisions. He’s doing what he thinks is best.”

When pressed, Chico said: “Do any of us agree 100 percent with every decision? You can’t look at it that way. We’re here. We’re now.”

The school-closing decision though roiled a significant segment of the city, initially propelling the candidacy of Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. Just as Lewis was building a significant following, she suddenly fell ill and was diagnosed with a cancerous brain tumor. Lewis, as well as the teachers union, endorsed Garcia.

Fioretti spokesman Michael Kolenc dismissed the endorsement.

“Chico did not support an elected school board under Daley, did not support one during his failed mayoral bid, and is now endorsing a mayor that is opposed to one too,” Kolenc said. ”This endorsement is more of the same and it’s time we take Chicago in a new direction.”

Kolenc also noted that mayoral candidate Amara Enyia had dropped out of the race and backed Fioretti.

Chico held up Emanuel’s biggest contribution as overseeing the construction of Back of the Yards High School. However, the $120 million project was launched by former Mayor Daley, who celebrated its groundbreaking before leaving office.

Chico said as of now he doesn’t expect to take a formal role within the Emanuel campaign, but he didn’t rule out fundraising help.

Chico said he still admires others who are competing in the race.

“I have positive feelings about them. This is a matter of relativity,” Chico said. “I don’t think that they’ve had the breadth of experience of serving in the U.S. Congress, as serving as the president’s chief of staff and now one term as mayor.”