Why Daley Is Wrong to Move Huberman

(Photo: Back to the bad old days? The infamous CTA crash of 1977. Credit: Chicago Tribune.)

This week, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley made his most uninformed, misguided decision in recent memory by deciding to pull Chicago Transit Authority President Ron Huberman out of the post and install him as the CEO of Chicago Public Schools.  CPS needed a new leader because the old one, Arne Duncan, was tapped to be Secretary of Education in the new Obama Administration. But Huberman’s the wrong man for the job.

That’s because he’s the right man for the CTA.  In his past two years as CTA President, Huberman managed to turn around the long-beleaguered agency, ending decades of decline, disinvestment, deferred maintenance, anachronistic signage, falsified inspection records, feeble employee accountability, and a heretofore near total disregard for customer service or responsiveness that came to a nadir during the reign of his unpopular, unproductive predecessor, Frank Kruesi.

While I have been a frequent critic of some of Huberman’s decisions, I still recognize the sweeping wave of positive changes he’s wrought at the CTA–changes that would have been unimaginable before he came on the scene. Cleaner buses and ‘L’ trains, vehicles that don’t break down nearly as often and finally arrive on time, signage throughout the system that is actually a.) updated and b.) correct, the disappearance of slow zones, the introduction of an online bus tracker system, a commitment to the adoption of modern technology, an equal commitment to customer responsiveness both in person and via the agency website—these are all Huberman’s doing, and the 1.8 million people who ride the CTA every day have him to thank for them.

Much as I admire Mayor Daley and share his deep love for the City of Chicago (of the two of us, I’m sure I’m not the only one who can think about the history of this town and be moved to sentimental tears), I’m fairly certain he’s not a CTA rider. I’m sure he has no idea how painfully awful it got for we millions of Chicagoan CTA riders for such a long time.

Before Ron Huberman, the daily expectation of CTA riders was to wait twice as long we we should have on a platform with 1960s-era signage or on a corner with a 1990s-era bus stop sign for a half-broken, foul-smelling bus or ‘L’ train that would variously crawl down the tracks or bounce violently down the street to get us, eventually to our destinations.

It was depressing.  It made a lot of people decide not to take the system at all.  And it was embarrassing when friends came to town from other world cities and asked us why our transit system was so poor.

The greatest thing Mayor Daley ever did for the CTA was to put Ron Huberman at its helm–and more than likely the greatest work Ron Huberman has ever done for the City of Chicago was accomplished there, too. Why on earth Daley would consider it appropriate to take Huberman away from the CTA now that he and–for the first time since the 1950s–the agency, itself, together are on such an unbelievably popular roll is mind-blowing.

On Tuesday, Greg Hinz noted in his Crain’s Chicago Business blog that when he asked Daley why he was taking Huberman away from transit now, the mayor replied, ”Education is the answer to all the ills.”  What a simple-minded, facetious answer.

Mayor Daley, if that’s what you really think, let’s get rid of every other Chicago program, unfund everything else, and throw all our tax dollars and our best thinkers into Chicago Public Schools.  By your reasoning, since CPS is the answer to everything, maybe the City really wouldn’t collapse around our ears.

More reasonable Chicagoans, especially those growing numbers who ride the CTA to work, to school, to fun every day, recognize how rotten this decision is. It is a slap in the face for every CTA rider. And considering those 1.8 million rides taken on the CTA every day, that’s a lot of people to thwack.

It isn’t as if there weren’t other leading candidates for the mayor to choose from. There were–including several top candidates who, unlike Huberman, actually have education experience.  You’d think when an outgoing school district head goes to Washington, they would be replaced with someone who at least has education experience.

Not in Chicago, apparently. I’ve rolled this around in my head for awhile and all I have from it is a headache, as much from the hardship that may again become the average CTA ride once Huberman’s gone as from the unacceptable nature of the mayor’s likely motives.

That’s because it seems to me that Mayor Daley is trying to groom Ron Huberman to be his successor. Huberman sure has made the rounds of City departments–since 1994, he’s served at the Office of Emergency Management & Communications at the Chicago Police Department, at the CTA, and prior to that, as City Hall spokesperson.  Now he’s going to CPS.  All positions hand-picked by Mayor Daley.  If Daley isn’t prepping Huberman to be the next mayor of Chicago, I’d sure like to know why he’s taken such a keen interest in the younger man’s career.

For too long, Chicago politicians have regarded their elected positions as possessions to be passed down to their heirs.  They aren’t.  Frequently, when parents bless their offspring to be their political successors, the results are less than comforting (Todd Stroger, anyone?)

The best man for the job should be placed at the job he’s best at.  Ron Huberman and the CTA are a near-perfect fit.  If the mayor ever actually rode the system–or asked a rider, for that matter–he might know that.

More to the point, Mayor Daley’s job is to be the current mayor of Chicago, not to be concerning himself with who might be the next one. If Mayor Daley is pulling Ron Huberman out of the CTA in order to hedge his mayoral legacy, then he’s concerned with wrong era.

Mayor Daley, let us, the voters of Chicago, decide who will lead us tomorrow.  We’d prefer you concern yourself with leading us today.

And by taking Huberman away from the CTA, you’re certainly not doing that.

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