Juan Rangel’s resignation last week from his $250,000-a-year job as head of the scandal-scarred United Neighborhood Organization capped a classic Chicago tale of clout won and lost.
As a boy, Rangel, the son of undocumented immigrants, lived in an attic apartment in Little Village. He went on to become an ally of, and then as a liability to, some of the state’s most powerful politicians.
Rather than confront political leaders to get what he wanted, Rangel placed himself at their service. That helped him become a player in Chicago politics — and attract taxpayer funds for UNO’s schools in working-class neighborhoods.
Rangel, 48, came to prominence under former Mayor Richard M. Daley, who gave UNO its first charter to operate a school. From its roots as a Latino community activist group, UNO became the state’s largest operator of publicly financed, privately run charter schools. Daley also appointed Rangel proteges to high-level City Hall posts.
In 2009, Rangel’s ties to another South Side Democratic powerhouse, Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, yielded a $98 million state grant to build new UNO schools.
Then, when Rahm Emanuel came back to Chicago to run for mayor three years ago, he got Rangel to sign on as campaign co-chairman. On the day Emanuel returned from Washington, Rangel squired the former White House chief of staff through Pilsen on the first stops of his mayoral campaign.
Though, as a tax-exempt, not-for-profit organization, UNO is not supposed to get involved in politics, Rangel eagerly offered his personal endorsement to candidates for office. And he urged UNO’s contractors to make campaign contributions to the group’s benefactors.
Latino political rivals criticized Rangel for often supporting white, establishment politicians over Hispanic candidates, as in the 2011 mayoral race.
“He really propagated an assimilationist policy,” said Sylvia Puente, executive director of the Latino Policy Forum in Chicago. “That meant falling in line with the ugly side of Illinois politics.”
Rangel has said the alliances he forged were savvy and helped shift the image of Hispanic political activists from radicals to power players.
As his influence — and his UNO salary — ballooned, Rangel started driving a convertible sports car with vanity license plates that read “PATRON.” He shrugged that off as a tribute to the brand of tequila with that name.
But some saw it as a symbol of his desire for power: In Spanish, patron means “boss.”
Rangel was born in Texas and moved to Chicago with his family when he was four. He was one of seven children of a mom who cleaned houses and a dad who owned a corner tavern.
In 1994, after he became an activist on immigration issues and education with UNO, he received a bachelor’s degree from a Northeastern Illinois University program that awards academic credit “for demonstrating college-level knowledge and skills acquired out of the classroom,” according to a spokeswoman for the North Side school.
In 1996, Rangel succeeded Danny Solis as UNO’s chief executive, when Daley named Solis to fill a vacancy on the City Council. Two years later, UNO opened the first charter school in what’s now a network of 16 UNO schools with 7,587 students. In the year ending in June 2012, the UNO schools got more than $48.5 million in local, state and federal taxpayer funding, most of it from Chicago Public Schools, records show.
Rangel retreated from public view after the Chicago Sun-Times reported in February that UNO had spent $8.5 million from the state grant to hire companies owned by brothers of top Rangel aide Miguel d’Escoto.
After Gov. Pat Quinn suspended the funding in April, Rangel promised reforms, including the appointment of a new UNO board — which on Friday announced his resignation “by mutual agreement.”
Quinn ended up halting payments of the remaining $15 million after the federal Securities and Exchange Commission began investigating UNO’s bond dealings.