When Rosa Escareño agreed to stay on as Chicago’s commissioner of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection under Mayor Lori Lightfoot, it was only supposed to be for one year.
Little did she know the shutdown triggered by the coronavirus pandemic, and then two rounds of looting, would take such a devastating toll on the business community she was charged with regulating that it would force Escareño to put her retirement plan on hold.
Now that Chicago is on the road to economic recovery, Escareño is finally free to leave City Hall, ending a remarkable 30-plus-year career that began straight out of high school, as an administrative assistant in the Office of Budget and Management. She will be replaced, at least temporarily, by her five-year veteran first deputy Ken Meyer.
Escareño’s July 31 departure will mark yet another turn of Lightfoot’s revolving door, but that’s not why she’s calling it quits long before the mayor’s kitchen sink of a pandemic relief package can be implemented.
The woman whose widowed mother of six brought her to Chicago from Mexico at age 8 is simply ready for the next chapter in her life after an emotional roller-coaster that, at times, reduced her to tears.
“I was getting calls … saying, ‘My business is failing. I’m out of cash.’ I knew that the businesses were on their last straw and holding on for dear life. And then, the first looting happened just when businesses were about to open. And then, the second looting happened and it was so, so hurtful,” Escareño said.
“I remember going out to the community, helping stores clean up. Going into these places that were completely looted. These were no longer business owners. They were human beings that were hurt. … Thinking about peoples’ lives just being completely devastated is really emotional and it’s personal because I know the business owners. I know their families.”
During a wide-ranging interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, Escareño denied her notoriously demanding and sometimes abusive boss had anything to do with the timing of her exit.
“She was hit with a pandemic. So we all worked together to see our city through. And people are just now doing what they would normally do like myself. I’ve been here 30 years. It’s the right time,” Escareño said.
“My experience with Mayor Lightfoot has been nothing but a wonderful experience. … She has been nothing but gracious. She has been nothing but a champion for all the causes that we have implemented. My experience has been nothing but good. … I’ve seen a strong leader trying to move our city ahead after a historically devastating time.”
Escareño’s rise is a glaring exception in for a city government known for the slogan, “We don’t want nobody that nobody sent.”
She earned her bachelor’s degree from Loyola and her master’s in communications from Northwestern while serving under four mayors in jobs that ranged from administrative assistant and deputy press secretary to deputy chief operating officer and director of media relations for the Chicago Fire Department.
The stint at CFD is a memory Escareño will never forget.
That was the tumultuous year that the Chicago Fire Department revamped high-rise training and firefighting techniques to prevent a repeat of mistakes that contributed heavily to six deaths at the Cook County Administration Building at 69 W. Washington St. on Oct. 17, 2003.
There was a 90-minute gap between the time firefighters arrived on the scene and the time the bodies of six victims were found.
A commission chaired by former federal judge Abner Mikva concluded there was a communications breakdown so severe that frantic people in a smoke-filled stairwell — trapped there by doors that locked behind them — were making calls to 911 that went into a “black hole,” while the Fire Department changed commanders every time a more senior officer arrived.
“We had one year to radically change the fire safety code [and rescue protocols]. … Having had the opportunity to help improve the quality of life from a life-and-death perspective is really humbling to me,” Escareño said.
“I call it my dog year because it felt like seven.”
As for the pandemic relief package her successor will now implement, Escareño said it would be a mistake to focus on the City Council defeat Lightfoot suffered after aldermen narrowly blocked that portion of the package that would have ended the requirement for a separate ordinance for every sign over the public way.
“We have to focus on how we championed over 150 pages of legislation with 20 programs. When we talk about one piece of it — to me, it’s missing the point about the benefit that both workers and businesses are going to gain through this really awesome package,” she said.
“When we fight for the things that are gonna benefit businesses, it’s a worthy argument. It’s a worthy fight to say, ‘Yes. We could make the business process better, faster, more efficient. Why? Because, if not now, when?”