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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.

Categories: Chicago Transit Authority Politics TRANSIT

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Michael Thaddeus Doyle

I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.

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19 replies

  1. Mike –

    An excellent rebuttal! Really. (It’s actually more persuasive than your original post, in my opinion.)

    I agree with some of what you say, but on the fundamental issue, we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

    But, thanks for the thoughtful response to my post.


  2. I just don’t feel in the mood to cut any local politicians slack given recent issues. Certainly not Daley, who has been under suspicion in several quarters for a long time (i.e. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s the next local pol to end up indicted this year.)

    As a non-native Chicagoan, while I appreciate Daley’s leadership and love for the city, I don’t feel I owe him blind faith. I come from a city–New York City–where politics is transparent and the idea that any mayor would shuffle agency heads on a whim like this (seriously, it took one month to find a new CPS chief?) would be laughable.

    Then again, in New York, the mayor couldn’t remove the head of NYC Transit–unlike in Chicago, NYC’s transit agencies are entities of the state.

    The whole “education is more important” argument is baseless. There was no breathless need to end the search after one month. It’s obvious Daley wanted a loyalist to manage this year’s school closings in the face of popular opposition. In other words, he needed somebody now.

    I fail to see the contours of any sort of well-thought-out plan in all of this. Certainly not in ignoring many fine other candidates and stifling the CPS CEO search after a month. Certainly not in removing the head of a critical transportation agency without the merest hint of a back-up plan.

    In fact, that’s what bothers me most of all. After so many years of transit angst and fear in this city, for Daley to think there are no ramifications from suddenly separating the agency from its head is pathetic.

    Transit riders in Chicago deserve a lot more respect than that and saying “education is more important” is an infantile answer on Mayor Daley’s part–he’s hiding behind children to shield himself from questioning on this issue and I’m sorry, but I see right through that and I’m questioning.

    As far as why I think the CTA will go downhill without Huberman? Have you been living in the came city I have? The agency only began to improve when Huberman arrived.

    His predecessor, Frank Kruesi, brought us falsified safety records, slews of slow zones, and derailment after derailment. Not to mention a sate legislature that hated him due to his douchebag behavior and refused to let him lobby for funding.

    Huberman instituted lots of positive changes and brought a lot of good people with him to do it. They’ll probably follow him to CPS, leaving behind an agency of the same people that did the same shit job they did under Kruesi.

    If the next head of the CTA is able to crack the whip like Huberman did, great. But until then, there’s nobody there now to do it. And I fail to see how a quickly elevated CFO is going to have any authority at an agency that the mayor’s own actions have so clearly just shown is considered second-class.

    That’s the problem in Chicago and I thought we had solved it when Huberman was placed at the CTA. If Chicago wants to be a world-class city, you have to consider transit among your most important agencies. It is not less important than education, or fire, or police, or any other department.

    Transit, in a world city, is a fundamental pillar of society. When it doesn’t work, the city doesn’t work. It must be sacrosant. That isn’t optional.

    Every other world city gets it. New York, London, Paris, Tokyo. Until Chicago gets it, too, it’s going to continue to be an also-ran world city. If you think this is the way our competition cities for the 2016 Olympics treat their transit agencies, think again.

    If Daley doesn’t consider transit a fundamental priority, then he’s completely out of touch–and if that’s the case, he deserves to be sent off to whatever dinosaur island we stuck Burt Natarus on while this city selects a new mayor who actually rides the transit system.

    Mayor Bloomberg in NYC has been taking the subway to work for 8 years. What’s Daley’s excuse for never setting foot on it like 1.8 million other Chicagoans?

  3. To correct my post above, Chicago Critical Mass is Friday night, not Thursday. Sorry.

    All are welcome. (And it’s free!)

  4. Hi Mike…

    Here’s the response that I tried to post on Huffington Post. It’s too long for them, maybe it will work here. Sorry for the length, but I thought your thoughts deserved a detailed response.


    Hi Again, Mike…

    First off, you posted an strongly opinionated, but interesting, piece. I disagreed, yet I think I responded in a respectful, intelligent manner. I’m perfectly willing to have a thoughtful dialog on the subject, but how about dialing down the attitude a bit?

    Since probably neither of us know who the “other equally qualified” candidates really were, your asking me why I think Huberman is better than they are is a bit silly. How am I supposed to answer that? How are you supposed to disagree?

    Plus, I already stated why I think “education experience” is not crucial for this post. Keep in mind, the CPS has had, and still has, an excellent educational leader in Barbara Eason-Watkins, who has said she’s staying to work with Huberman. Also keep in mind…the Vallas/Duncan/Huberman post is titled CEO for a reason. They were, and are, there to manage a huge bureaucracy effectively. And the two-person CEO/educational leader management model has worked well.

    Second, as I said in my original post, Mayor Daley has always felt, and stated on many occasions, that his number one priority as Mayor is the public schools. I happen to agree with him, and I would speculate, with no proof, that most of Chicago citizens would agree. You, of course, are entitled to disagree.

    But if that’s what his priority is, if he feels Ron Huberman is his #1 public servant/manager, it makes perfect sense for him to move Huberman to his top priority – the schools.

    So now I’ll ask you…what makes you think it’s a zero-sum game? Your entire assumption in your post seems to be because Huberman is leaving, the CTA will collapse. I’m certainly not ready to assume that yet, and you shouldn’t be either.

    As for what we do now with the CTA, the answer is obvious. Mayor Daley needs to fill the job with the best person he possibly can (and it’s not Frank Kreusi!). Which I’m sure he’s going to do. I would respectfully suggest to you, especially since this appointment is a done deal, that you wait to see who Daley appoints, and skip the “sky is falling” rhetoric until when – and if – it actually starts to fall.

    And let’s look at some history here. You’ve only been here since 2003. but it wasn’t that long ago that the U.S. Secretary of Education called Chicago’s schools the worst in the country, and not many people argued with him. Then, in the mid-90’s, Mayor Daley, at huge personal political risk, became the first really-big-city Mayor to fight for control of the School Board, and begin to institute long-overdue reforms. And he did it because, as he believes, the schools are the most important thing in a healthy, successful city.

    First, Paul Vallas, then Arne Duncan, now Ron Huberman. Under the Mayor’s direction, Chicago’s schools have made real progress when nobody thought they could, and been in the forefront of urban education reform. And he has yet to make a bad pick for Schools CEO (even though none had “education experience” going in). Heck, Huberman had no mass transit experience going to the CTA, and you seem to think he did OK.

    In fact, the Mayor has done such a good job facing up to the challenge of the schools that other big-city Mayors, including in your home town of NY, have emulated his management approach by taking control of the schools and instituting reforms.

    So my respectful suggestion to you is to recognize his devotion to the schools, and his success to date in improving them, and cut him a little slack until he replaces Huberman. If you feel Huberman’s replacement is a dud and the CTA got shafted, feel free to fire away on the Huffington Post.

    To change the subject, I have enjoyed Chicago Carless for some time. I guess you’ve been here for six years, but anyway, welcome to Chicago! As a suggestion, why don’t you get your bike and join us for Chicago Critical Mass tomorrow night. It’s our ninth annual Polka Ride, and it’s our most fun ride of the year. I’m serious. If you’re interested, just reply and I’ll let you know how to contact me. And we can continue the conversation, if you wish.


    Thanks for listening.

  5. It’s a done deal, Mike. There’s an article on the Trib’s website about Huberman being booed at his first public meeting today.

    I don’t follow the public school system closely, but from what I’ve read, it was a mess until Daley took control of it and brought in professional administrators to clean it up. Apparently, it’s an ongoing process. I think Huberman proved himself a capable manager at CTA, so I’m willing to give him a chance at CPS. It’s a big system, and it needs a professional running it – not simply an educator.

    I do agree with getting rid of Daley. I’ve disliked him since I moved here. I also think the City Council is too large. We need city-wide government reform, starting with a council half the size of the current one — and a new mayor. The unions need to be reigned in, and Daley’s Democratic machine needs to be shut down.

    Of course, it’s not just the city; its the county, too. The Stroger Dynasty needs to come to an end.

    I think Chicagoans have simply given up on trying to fight the two ruling families.

  6. Im tired of hearing about schools. People – schools and healthcare are going to bankrupt this country. There the 2 issues you cant be against or risk being “evil”. They’ve spent billions tearing down schools to rebuild them accross the street. Theyve filled them with computers for no reason other than “its the future” even though the kids cant read or write.
    If you go back to the 50s, it wasnt uncommon to see 40 kids in class. And that generation was argueably the best educated, and for a lot less adjusted for inflation.

    CPS’s problems arent money, arent leadership or visionary schools “ceo”, its poverty. Kids comming from poor families, with little support or proper social skills. And the root cause of poverty is jobs loss. And the root cause of jobs losses is taxes/ unions / forign competition. Kids whose parent(s) work at subway are doomed no matter how much money we throw at the schools.

  7. Cheryl, I have to disagree about one thing. This is only a done deal if Chicagoans who don’t want this to happen refrain from voicing their concerns–and loudly.

    It’s 2009, the decades-long idea that any Chicago Mayor with the last name of Daley is above question or correction by the people who elected him has got to go. Just because Mayor Daley says something is a good idea and a “done deal” in no way makes it so.

    Not unless we decide to let it be that way. If America can put a black man in the white house, the least Chicago can do is grow some backbone about standing up to its own politicians. I guarantee you, Daley will be the last Chicago mayor who gets away with acting as if he is above reproach by the electorate.

  8. Since this is a done deal I would like to see Ron take Mary Dempsey’s example to heart and go back to school. When Daley appointed her head of the public libraries, she got herself an MLS. Ron could avail himself of a number of programs in the city to get a Masters in educational administration, or just become a certified teacher. The public librarians I know appreciate MS Dempsey’s commitment to their profession and I would assume teachers would be a little happier if they thought Ron understood their concerns.

  9. Kevin, you raise a good point. People who arrived with Huberman and did great work at CTA are likely going to leave with him–replacing people who were starting to do great work at CPS under Duncan before he left.

    Matt B., I also can’t imagine what Daley is thinking regarding the Olympic bid, unless either he doesn’t think we’ll get the games or…perhaps…Huberman wanted out of CTA and won’t wait until the IOC decision.

  10. Agreed fully. I was very upset to hear that Daley was reassigning Huberman to CPS. While I think he’ll probably do a decent job at CPS, we need him more at CTA.

    I’m honestly not too surprised at this decision as I’ve always heard that Huberman’s tenure would be short. Rumor had it that the plan was for him to just solve the operating funding crisis and then move on. The collection of police hats in Huberman’s office tells you where his true heart lies, but likely much to his disappointed the police chief job was given to someone else.

    While education is important and Chicago’s school system could arguably be in worse shape than the CTA, from an Olympics perspective the CTA is a more critical piece. While snubbing education for the Olympics may seem wrong, we all know Daley’s #1 priority at this point. That said, I’m surprised Daley didn’t at least leave Huberman on board the CTA until the IOC decision.

    The other thing to remember here is that it’s not just Huberman we’re talking about. When Huberman came to CTA, a lot of other people came with him. Presumably, they’ll also leave with him. One example is Adam Case, the 26 year old “boy wonder” who helped implement a lot of the recent communication improvements. With the possibility of others leaving as well, I’m concerned about the future administration being able to carry on the positive changes Huberman brought to CTA.

  11. Daley’s move doesn’t make sense in any regard. His highest priority right now seems to be the Olympic bid, but he’s just shooting himself in the foot if that’s the case. The city’s change relies on our ability ro provide a world-class transit system come 2016. Will Daley find someone (a loyalist, of course) who can get as much done as Huberman did in only a couple years? “Lightning doesn’t strike twice.”

    But we shouldn’t be SO surprised. This is par for the course for Daley; just ask John Harris or Paul Vallas. And unfortunately for Huberman, this will be just another setup for failure.

  12. I wonder if Ron will have two drivers and three agency cars assigned to him when he moves over to CPS? Instead of highly-paid bus operators as drivers/gophers, he could pull a few top-performing science teachers to drive him around.

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