When Mayor Rahm Emanuel flew to Rome to witness the elevation of Archbishop Blase Cupich to cardinal, it was with a massive delegation that included Police Supt. Eddie Johnson, Fire Commissioner Jose Santiago and Chief of Staff Eileen Mitchell.
Chief Operating Officer Joe Deal stayed home to hold down the fort.
Now that trusted behind-the-scenes player will be stepping into an even bigger role: as Emanuel’s $195,000-a-year chief of staff.
He replaces Mitchell, who is vacating City Hall’s hottest seat after a rocky 15 months that showed her to be an uncomfortable fit in a thankless job.
“I’ve worked for nine chiefs of staff here and 10 if you count a guy [Emanuel] who worked as chief of staff for a president. It’s a hard job. I’ve seen it. I’ve tried to learn something from each one. It’s the volume of information that comes at you. The things you have to deal with — all of the varied types of issues that come at you. It can be wearing,” said Deal, 47.
“But it’s also an amazing honor for someone who tore a piece of paper replying to an internship off the wall at DePaul University . . . to be the mayor’s chief of staff,” he said. “I’m excited the mayor has confidence in me to do it.”
Deal credited Mitchell with working “hours that were almost inhumane” during a tumultuous period that included the court-ordered release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video.
That was followed by the firing of Police Supt. Garry McCarthy, months of protests demanding Emanuel’s resignation and a sweeping federal civil rights investigation of the Chicago Police Department that the mayor initially called “misguided” before embracing it.
Under Mitchell’s watch, the City Council and the Chicago Board of Education approved $1.2 billion in tax increases to solve the pension crisis. After hard-fought negotiations, aldermen also agreed to regulate the ride-sharing and home-sharing industries and approved a new multi-tiered system of police accountability.
As a result of those tough decisions already made and the 2017 budget unanimously approved, Deal’s seat won’t be nearly so hot.
His biggest challenge will be to deliver on Emanuel’s two-year promise to hire 970 additional police officers to stop a 50 percent spike in homicides and shootings that has put Chicago over 700 homicides with a month to go in 2016.
“It is an ambitious goal and it will be a priority of mine to see it through. This is a management issue and I will be on top of it every day. We have a team of folks working on it,” Deal said.
“We started immediately with an internal group on hiring with all the departments at the table clearing the bureaucracy out of the way and making sure that it’s everyone’s top priority to get this done,” he said. “Everyone was concerned about space. Where are you gonna do this training? We recently announced a partnership on that. And we’re looking long-term at a permanent state of the art training facility.”
Former Mayor Richard M. Daley spit out chiefs of staff almost as often as most people spit out gum. In 22 years, he went through a dozen of them, generating a one-liner at his last City Council meeting.
“I’d like to thank my chiefs of staff — all of them,” Daley said, laughing along with aldermen.
In 5½ years, Emanuel is already starting on his fifth chief of staff.
David Spielfogel, the mayor’s former policy chief, senior adviser and alter ego, said Deal is ideally suited for the pressure-cooker job. And it’s no wonder he’s the one guy who didn’t go to Rome.
“If there is anybody the mayor trusts to keep the government running day-to-day, it’s Joe Deal. Joe does not seek the spotlight. Joe is about getting things done. He’s able to anticipate problems before they happen based on his experience over the last two decades at City Hall. He has a smart political mind to anticipate traps the mayor may be walking into,” Spielfogel said.
“During any event, without even being asked, Joe basically moves into OEMC to help manage it. He basically lived at OEMC during the [Super Bowl Sunday, 2015] blizzard and sent updates once an hour. It was remarkable how little staff at City Hall worried knowing that Joe was managing it. That was true for the blizzard. It was also true in putting together a once-in-a-lifetime rally for the Chicago Cubs with 48 hours’ notice.”
Deal grew up in Terre Haute, Indiana. His father worked for state government in employment security and training. His mother was an administrative assistant at a community college. His wife is director of environmental studies at the University of Chicago.
After graduating from Indiana University, Deal moved to Chicago to get a master’s in public administration at DePaul. That’s when he tore that phone number off a bulletin board posting and applied for an internship with the city’s now-defunct Department of Environment.
“I might as well have been dropped in from Mars. I don’t have clout. I didn’t know anybody,” said Deal, who has a 3-year-old daughter.
When Environment Commissioner Bill Abolt became one of Daley’s rising stars — as chief management officer, then budget director — Deal rose with him.
When Daley forced Abolt to wear the jacket for the Hired Truck scandal in 2004, Deal kept on rising. He not only filled a power vacuum in the mayor’s office. He helped Daley start a coalition of Canadian and U.S. mayors advocating for Great Lakes issues.
“I just worked my ass off. I was willing to take on any project that anyone would give me. You catch breaks a lot of times if you’re working hard when people notice. To me, that’s how you kind of get ahead and succeed,” he said.
When Daley retired from politics, Deal was preparing to leave city government. He changed his mind at the behest of close friends Lisa Schrader and Matt Hynes.
“I loved it. I loved the pace of it. I loved the energy that was here. I liked that the mayor was really just on the move — from Day One,” Deal said.
“It was a different focus. Infrastructure investment is what I noticed right off the bat,” he said. “He was focused on water main replacement. We were going to pave more streets. We were going to do CTA improvements. Repair bridges.”
Deal said he has no idea whether or not Emanuel will seek a third term after surviving the darkest days of his political career.
But days away from the one-year anniversary of the court-ordered release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video, Deal is certain much has changed and that there’s no turning back — no matter what President-elect Donald Trump does with the U.S. Justice Department investigation of the Chicago Police Department.
“We’re committed to what we’re doing here in terms of rebuilding the trust, reforms inside the department and getting the resources to the Police Department that they need. That’s our focus. We’re gonna do that regardless,” Deal said.
Deal also pledged to deliver the missing piece of Chicago’s new system of police accountability: the appointment of a civilian oversight board.
But he refused to say whether the panel would be elected or appointed or whether Emanuel would insist on controlling a voting majority.
“We don’t have a timeline set in stone. But we’re working with all of the partners to work that out. We will get there,” Deal said.