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Campaign Notebook

February 25, 2004 3 min read
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Former Head of Board Touts Chicago Record in U.S. Senate Contest

In 1995, Gery J. Chico was appointed to lead a “superboard” charged with reforming the struggling Chicago school system, which had just come under the control of Mayor Richard M. Daley. Now he’s chasing a seat on a different kind of superboard, with 100 members and duties extending far beyond the City of Broad Shoulders.

Election 2004

Mr. Chico, who served as president of the Chicago School Reform Board of Trustees from 1995 to 2001, is running as a Democrat from Illinois for the U.S. Senate seat of Peter G. Fitzgerald, a Republican who is retiring after one term.

The former board president is one of seven Democrats seeking his party’s nomination in the Illinois primary on March 16. Six Republicans are seeking their party’s nod the same day.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Chico, 47, has made education a central theme of his campaign. He has pledged to change the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which he says labels schools as failing without providing them with financial resources to improve. He says his experience in Chicago’s 432,000-student system would help him push for the necessary fixes.

“There are things that are time-tested and work,” Mr. Chico, now a private lawyer, said in a recent interview. “We used [certain] tools in Chicago and saw improvement. ... We need a strong voice on education in the U.S. Senate.”

Nearly nine years ago, Mr. Chico was one of two key aides to Mayor Daley who took top positions in the revised governance structure of the city’s school system. Mr. Chico was the mayor’s chief of staff, while Paul G. Vallas moved from city budget director to become the school system’s chief executive officer.

The mayorally led effort is generally credited with improving student achievement and financial oversight of the problem-plagued system. Mr. Chico left the board in 2001. Mr. Vallas came close to winning the Democratic nomination for Illinois governor in 2002 and now leads the Philadelphia district.

Mr. Chico pledges to seek more funding for the federal Pell Grant program of college aid, and for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. He also says the federal government has done too little to attract more students into the teaching profession.

“It makes no sense to talk about education without talking about the single most effective ingredient, which is teaching,” he said. “We’re headed toward a major shortfall.”

His rivals include Blair Hull, a former securities trader who has spent some $12 million of his own money on the race; state Comptroller Dan Hynes; state Sen. Barack Obama; and Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas. Mr. Chico had spent $2.4 million in campaign funds at the end of last year, but he appears to be facing an uphill battle for the nomination. According to a Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV survey of likely primary voters in January, Mr. Obama, Mr. Hynes, and Ms. Pappas all hovered around 14 percent support each, Mr. Hull had 10 percent, and Mr. Chico just 6 percent.

Youth Voting

Secretaries of state play an important role in elections. Not the globe- trotting federal foreign-policy leaders, but the state officeholders in charge of election machinery, voter registration, and the like.

The National Association of Secretaries of State held its convention in Washington last week, and one day was devoted to a “Young Voters Summit.”

The association notes in a report discussed at the Feb. 17 meeting that about 33 percent of eligible 18- to 24-year-olds voted in the 2000 presidential election, part of a 25-year trend of decline that the group calls “alarming.”

States are responding by stepping up their outreach to young people, including those in school. The report says 59 percent of state election offices, which are usually headed by secretaries of state, conduct outreach in elementary schools, while 90 percent work with high schools.

Arizona sends birthday cards to residents turning 18, reminding them to vote. California encourages high school students to become polling-place workers. Georgia encourages grandparents to bring children age 12 or younger into polling places, and it provides an activity book for the children to learn about voting.

Meanwhile, numerous states reported working with such groups as Kids Voting USA and the National Student/ Parent Mock Election.

—Sean Cavanagh & Mark Walsh

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