Three years ago, Anna Valencia was the striking brunette in an Elle Magazine spread on “The Politics of Power Dressing.”
A 28-year-old assistant to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, she was interviewed and photographed in designer clothing, shoes, handbags and jewelry, hand-picked by the magazine. The story was about what to wear to office meetings, fundraisers and other work-related events.
Now, Valencia is dressing for success on her own dime, with even higher stakes: as Emanuel’s political point-person, otherwise known as director of the Office of Legislative Counsel and Government Affairs.
“When I came in, he said, ‘You have my respect and you will have their [aldermen’s] respect. That meant a lot for the mayor to . . . have my back in that way. He gives me extreme trust in my decision-making,” said Valencia, who served as field director of Emanuel’s 2011 mayoral campaign, a connection made through her political mentor Scott Fairchild.
“We see more women running for office, which is wonderful and refreshing. But you don’t see a lot of women in powerful positions. . . . Having this position and kind of breaking a barrier is really important to me.”
A native of the downstate Granite City, with a population of roughly 30,000, Valencia is the first member of her close-knit Mexican family to graduate from college.
“My dad . . . said he would sell a kidney or liver so I could go the U. of I.,” said Valencia, though nothing so drastic was required. She got to Champaign-Urbana on a scholarship.
After interviewing for a job she didn’t get on then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama’s staff, Valencia was connected through a family friend to a job as a campaign organizer for the Virginia Democratic Party.
“I graduated, bought a car, drove to Virginia and canvassed seven days a week in a very, kind of Republican area, where they called me a baby killer,” Valencia recalled.
“My dad was disappointed. He said, ‘This is a phase. She’ll go to law school.’ I was living in supportive housing and making no money.”
It wasn’t a phase. The same girl who wrote a third-grade essay about wanting to become the first woman president had politics in her blood.
Between Democratic campaigns in Virginia and Michigan, she returned to Illinois to do the same for U.S. Reps. Mike Quigley and Bill Foster, and then ran U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin’s 2014 campaign.
She also spent time on the staff of Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, D-Chicago, working closely with Cullerton’s chief of staff and now-state Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, chief sponsor of the bill to rewrite the state school aid formula.
Now, she’s on the hot seat to deliver for Emanuel and Chicago.
In the frenzied final days of the spring legislative session, Valencia is shuttling between Chicago and Springfield, trying to move a legislative wish list that includes pension help for the nearly bankrupt Chicago Public Schools and police and fire pension relief, which Emanuel’s tax-laden 2016 budget already assumes is on the way.
She also has to find a way to appease aldermen showing rare signs of independence and feeling emboldened by the Laquan McDonald controversy that has weakened Emanuel politically.
Although a new study by the University of Illinois at Chicago shows Emanuel loosening his grip on the City Council, Valencia said she doesn’t consider the situation “that extreme.”
“Maybe I thought that coming in. But I’ve had a really good welcome reception from the aldermen. They actually feel good or feel better in the last month where their relationship with the mayor is. He’s been pretty accessible to meet with them when they’ve had issues,” Valencia said.
“I’ve done one-on-one meetings with all the City Council chairmen. Any alderman who has wanted to meet with me, we’ve had 30-minute or hour-[long] meetings about what they’d like to see the next three years of the term look like and provide feedback on how we could work together as partners,” she said.
The outreach effort appears to be working.
“She’s driven. She’s passionate. She’s very smart. She can bring some unique qualities to the table that can help the administration,” said Transportation Committee Chairman Anthony Beale (9th), who has — over the mayor’s objections — lined up 33 aldermen to support his plan to license Uber and Lyft drivers.
Beale said Valencia “has her work cut out” with aldermen feeling their oats. But, he said, “That’s why you have somebody like that who knows how to get along with and work with people.”
Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) acknowledged he is “one of the more difficult aldermen to deal with” and can be “kind of a pain in the butt.” But he, too, embraced Valencia’s refreshingly open style after doing battle with the mayor’s office over Emanuel’s plan to regulate and tax Airbnb.
“She has a good lobbying style. She speaks to us with respect. She’s not as pushy as some of her predecessors have been. She’s more interested in give-and-take and working together. Her collaborative spirit is refreshing,” Reilly said.
That’s high praise for the daughter of a union painter father and teacher’s aide mother who got her first taste of politics as a kid knocking on doors with her dad, who was campaigning for the Granite City mayor.
“I don’t see the Airbnb [issue] as their way of pushing back because of something [tied to] the mayor. The Airbnb ordinance is very complicated. . . . It reflects the diversity of the city. . . . If that means taking another month or two months to get it right, I’d rather get the ordinance right than come back a year later or two years later and make changes to it,” she said.
Even if CPS gets pension help from Springfield, there will be some very difficult votes ahead for a City Council that has already raised property taxes by $588 million for police and fire pensions and school construction.
It’ll be Valencia’s unenviable task to round up the 26 votes.
“Hopefully, everybody likes me still. Hopefully, I’ve earned a lot of good will by then,” she said. But, she noted, between now and then, “There’ll be a lot of wining and dining.”