Bob Fioretti’s political career took a sharp turn in early 2012 when a gerrymandered remap of aldermanic boundaries extracted the alderman’s house from his own 2nd Ward and otherwise obliterated the ward as the city knew it.
Fioretti described the deal-making leading up to it as some of the worst he’s seen.
On City Hall’s third floor, Fioretti met with two powerful aldermen and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Fioretti was offered a bone: Agree to the remap and they would push legislation in Springfield allowing the alderman to run for the ward seat they were drawing him out of.
In an interview with the Sun-Times, Fioretti recalled the meeting with Ald. Pat O’Connor, former Ald. Dick Mell and Emanuel.
“Oh my God. Dick would sit there and lament the situation about his son-in-law [former Gov. Rod Blagojevich]. Pat O’Connor offered me a deal that they would change the law in Springfield that I could represent the new 2nd Ward without moving,” says Fioretti from behind his desk in his law office inside the historic Monadnock building.
Fioretti said he responded at the time: “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said. “It was to protect paychecks, pensions and not represent the people.”
Current city election rules say that an alderman in Fioretti’s situation may run for any new ward that contains at least some part of his old ward without having to move. If he sought re-election in 2018, he would have to live within the new boundaries one year prior to that.
Fioretti, 61, didn’t agree to a deal and he didn’t move into a new house.
Instead, he’s now looking to extract Emanuel from his job.
Fioretti had dabbled with the idea of running for the city’s top job in the past. In 2010, he bowed out after he was diagnosed with throat cancer.
The illness meant for some of the toughest days for the longtime Chicagoan. He underwent radiation and chemotherapy treatments, he dropped considerable weight and ate through a feeding tube. His neck size, he said, shrank by two full sizes.
Through all of it, he didn’t miss a City Council meeting, he said.
“It could be pretty intense. There were some pretty intense moments there,” said his fiancee, Nicki Pecori. “It changes you. It has the capacity to change you for the better.”
Pecori and Fioretti had dated for 15 years before he popped the question last October. Pecori, Fioretti’s caretaker during his bout with cancer, said he emerged from the illness with a different look on life.
“It kind of dialed up a bit his empathy for others that might be faced with a challenge,” Pecori said. “Now that he’s cancer-free, I think that’s redoubled that sense of commitment and appreciation and drive. . . . It’s easy for people to complain at whatever level of government. It’s easy for people to complain. But to have the drive and the wherewithal to put yourself out there, I think that’s very respectable. That’s resonated with his constituents. From his first term to being very solidly re-elected for a second term.”
When he was first elected in 2007, Fioretti was the first white politician to serve in the 2nd Ward in more than 90 years. The historically black ward is the place where Chicago’s first African-American alderman, Oscar DePriest, was elected. The place where U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill. once served as alderman, later calling it the “mother ward of black politics in the country.”
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The remap left out parts of the West Loop, South Loop and Near West Side and instead spread the ward across numerous neighborhoods from the Gold Coast to Ukrainian Village.
“He lost everything. Drew him out of his ward completely, out of his house, out of his office,” Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd) said. “They literally were chopping it up in a way, the backroom dealing was just the most awful thing I’d ever seen.”
Fioretti grew up in Chicago’s Roseland neighborhood on the Far South Side. His father came to the United States from Italy, his mother’s family from Poland. His mother spoke seven languages and often served as the neighborhood translator for immigrants who spoke Russian, Polish, Italian and other Eastern European languages and needed help sending letters back home.
“It was like a United Nations sometimes in my house,” Fioretti said of growing up. “No matter who you were, you’d come in have a cup of coffee, my mother would be there working out the letter, translating it, telling them what it was about and sending it back.”
Fioretti has taken on the “progressive” cause in his tenure on the Chicago City Council, serving as an integral part of the caucus pushing for change. Fioretti voted in favor of the controversial privatization of the city’s parking meters — one of the most unpopular actions taken by former Mayor Richard M. Daley.
Last week in City Hall, Fioretti stood with members of that caucus calling for a new ordinance requiring greater transparency before the city can enter into privatization agreements.
“After the parking meter deal, the first one, I think some people learned their lessons. A lot of alderman didn’t, they almost like doubled down. It was after that, that Bob started looking at some of the things I was pushing, the transparency ordinance,” said Waguespack.
The two worked together on that issue and others, including traveling to Springfield to advocate against the mayor’s move to close 50 schools in Chicago. Waguespack said he and Fioretti argued the state Legislature had the authority to demand that the city lay out in a master plan, the reasoning behind the closings, and detail the landing place of saved revenues.
“We were closing schools without any master plan. Rahm was saying: ‘Well. If we close these schools everybody else will get the resources.’ And we were saying:
‘Where? Where are you showing in your budgets that that’s really going to happen?’” said Waguespack. “Fioretti] kind of showed me that, hey, he’s really ready to step out there and take the lead on that.”
Despite building his progressive credentials, Fioretti is not the beneficiary of groups who are pouring money into the mayoral contest. Instead, the Chicago Teachers Union and other labor groups have backed Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia while still others have backed Emanuel. Fioretti lags both of them as well as businessman Willie Wilson, who has donated more than $1 million to his own mayoral bid.
But Fioretti doesn’t see that as a deal breaker.
“In some ways it frees me up,” Fioretti said. “I’m not tied to the big interest donors the mayor has in the banks or the hedge funds that he has, or the big numbers that come out of some of the other folks and some of the other unions. It makes me clearly the choice of the independent here.”
In fact, Fioretti said he thinks he has the support of the average union member, many of whom approach him when he’s out campaigning, he says.
One man whom Fioretti did wrangle onto his side is the legendary Bears Coach Mike Ditka, who headed a small fund-raiser for the alderman last week inside Ditka’s restaurant. Ditka did this despite Fioretti being a progressive.
“It means inclusive. It means inclusive,” Fioretti told Ditka when a reporter asked about their diverging political philosophies.
Fioretti made news last week when he said he would oust Chicago Police Supt. Garry McCarthy if he were elected mayor.
It wasn’t the first time he’s pushed for change at the Chicago Police Department. In the waning days of former Chicago Supt. Jody Weis’ tenure, Fioretti struck a similar note.
“We need somebody to bring up the morale of this department that is so low right now —that is at the lowest level it’s ever probably been,” the alderman demanded at the time.
Fioretti says he believes an Obama Presidential Library belongs in Chicago but opposes Emanuel’s proposal to give parkland to the University of Chicago for its bid. He accuses the administration of bungling the matter on the front end. Fioretti said City Hall should have guided each of the proposals at the beginning.
“They can put together a better bid, a better package. They had to think it out before hand,” Fioretti said. “Here we are at the 11th hour, the 59th minute and we’re rushing around.”
If elected, Fioretti would look at money set aside in tax increment financing accounts and would consider a 1 percent commuter tax. He opposes a property tax hike, which Emanuel had said could be necessary to plug a gaping hole in pension funds.
Fioretti said he relished the thought of a one-on-one contest against Emanuel.
“I could have beat him flat out,” Fioretti says with confidence. “Now there’s a lot of people in the race. Head-to head, I could have beat him. Now there may be a runoff.”
Fioretti said he recently sat down briefly with newly elected Gov. Bruce Rauner, known to be a close friend to Emanuel.
“He said he was looking forward to working with me,” Fioretti said smiling. “So I think that’s a good sign.”