Lunch With Ald. Bob Fioretti
I met the Second Ward alderman at 312 across from City Hall—the restaurant at which Jesse Jackson Jr. and a business associate allegedly attempted to buy President Obama’s senate seat—and was surprised by how healthy Fioretti, 59, looked. He has been undergoing chemotherapy and radiation for a rare form of cancer found on his tonsil. Unmarried and childless, he looked thin—he told me he dropped 30 pounds during treatment—and natty; his shirt monogrammed, his hair blonde. He seemed to have boundless energy to talk about how to keep Chicago competitive and to offer his thoughts on our current mayor and his predecessor.
First elected in 2007, he sounds more likely than not to run for a third term in 2015. His ambition to run for mayor in 2010 was derailed, he told me, by his cancer diagnosis, and he claims now to have no ambition beyond representing his ward and continuing to patrol its streets with his brush, paint and scraper to rid surfaces of graffiti, particularly gang graffiti.
A graduate of the U of I in Urbana and NIU’s law school, he’s of counsel to a small law firm, but says he spends just a “couple or few hours” a week practicing, devoting many of his Saturdays (five hours the proceeding one) to driving the ward—currently encompassing the South Loop, West Loop and Near West Side—on the hunt for potholes, broken curbs, and, of course, graffiti.
(Fioretti was affected more than any other alderman by the remap. If he runs and wins in 2015, he’ll represent a ward shoved north to include parts of the Gold Coast, Lincoln Park, Old Town, Wicker Park, Ukrainian Village.)
Here’s an edited, shortened—we talked for two hours—transcript of our conversation:
CF: You’ve had some disagreements with Mayor Emanuel—you were one of only three to vote against the second budget, after voting, as did all your colleagues, for the first one.
RF: I was going to give him the benefit of the doubt the first time.
CF: Early on, Rahm floated the idea of cutting the city council from 50 members to 25. You agree with that?
RF: I had a talk with Rahm before the inauguration. I told him that I’m in favor of cutting the council maybe a third to a half…. Why do we have so many alderman? What’s the purpose of it?
CF: Was Rahm floating that idea as a threat?
RF: He said it wasn’t his idea. He said that he heard the suggestion from people as he was campaigning. I think the people are right.
CF: You’re sometimes criticized for having your eye on any and every office higher than alderman. Did you consider running for Jesse Jackson Jr.’s congressional seat?
RF: I don’t live in the district [Fioretti lives in a townhouse on Jackson Blvd. and Ashland], but I received between 50-60 phone calls…. My phone just didn’t stop.
CF: You’re saying you have no desire to go to Washington?
RF: I ran for alderman because I thought we could do better and I knew it was going to be uphill fight in a runoff against a 14-year incumbent [Madeline Haithcock] appointed by the Mayor.
CF: Who would you like to see replace Sandi Jackson?
RF: I would hope whoever the next appointment is understands the relationship between the council and the mayor. We should never forget… that ours is a weak mayor and strong council form of government.
CF: How’s Rahm doing as Mayor?
RF: I’m respectful of the office. I think being mayor of this city is the most difficult job there is…. [But] what has Rahm accomplished?
CF: Who’s the better mayor, Rich [Daley] or Rahm?
RF: I think we’ll have to see where this one goes, too early to judge. We ought to be attracting businesses from all around the world….. Job creation is different from bringing jobs from the suburbs to the city and saying, “I brought in lots of jobs.”
CF: People seem to appreciate Rahm’s intensity and hard work ethic.
RF: I hear it up and down now. I wish Mayor Daley was back…. I think Rahm has a long way to go to endear himself to the citizens.
CF: What’s your biggest mistake as alderman?
RF: Voting [during the Daley administration] for the parking meter privatization…. It turned out that everything they told me was a lie and not only that but they lied to us about how they were going to spend the money. They raided those funds and everything is gone. Would I have ever voted for this misrepresentation? I would never have voted for it.
CF: You were one of six aldermen to vote against the digital billboard deal?
RF: It’s going to come back to haunt a lot of people. It’s a bad deal.
CF: You grew up on the south side [Pullman/Roseland]. I assume you’re a White Sox fan?
RF: I grew up a White Sox fan, but I have season’s tickets for the Cubs. If the two teams were in the World Series, I’ll be rooting for the Cubs.
CF: Besides newspapers, what are you reading now?
RF: I’m reading To Kill a Mocking Bird again, I’m reading Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Kennedy. I just finished reading his book on Lincoln. I’m reading Team of Rivals. I loved the Lincoln movie and can’t wait to see it again.
CF: Did you support Obama for reelection?
RF: I’m a strong supporter of the President. I see what health care means…. I had my own personal insurance policies and my [cancer] treatment cost probably in the $400,000 range. I still have a stack of bills, $30,000-$40,000.
CF: Tell me about your family background, parents, grandparents.
RF: Fioretti means little flower. My grandfather was found in a field of little flowers. He was raised in an orphanage [in Italy]. They came here through Ellis Island. Can you imagine seeing that statue on a hot day? I have a picture of the ship they came on in my office in City Hall….. My dad was going to school in Pullman. His dad died I think when he was in the seventh grade and he had to support the family. He went to work. My mother was Polish-American and spoke seven languages. She was a nurse at Roseland Hospital where I was born.
CF: Who do you consider the great American mayor, either current or going back in history?
RF: Giuliani and Bloomberg have done a great job in trying circumstances. [An aide later specifies in an email that the mayor Fioretti “most admired or thought was most transformative” is Harold Washington.] Going back in our own time, I look at the first Mayor Daley, very difficult job, but he never addressed the problems of declining population.
CF: You call yourself “a cheerleader” for Chicago and describe it as a “great, global city,” although you’ve said more than once today that retaining that status will require some really smart policy making. What’s your second favorite city?
RF: I love New York and Paris.
Photograph: Chicago Tribune