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Schools chief Brizard, the mayor's human shield

John Kass

September 2, 2012

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Before there was a looming teachers strike and before the mayor had to go through Friday's charade of giving Chicago Public Schools frontman Jean-Claude Brizard a vote of confidence, the schoolmaster was engaging in social networking.

Brizard got himself put on the prestigious Field Museum board. The next board meeting is scheduled for Sept. 24, and by then either teachers will be on strike or they'll be at work.

Assuming Brizard's political head is still attached to his body, and not on some platter served to the Rahmfather, don't be surprised about those empty chairs next to the school superintendent at the Field board meeting. One empty chair will be to Brizard's left, and the other to his right.

Why?

Influential Chicagoans who sit on important boards are experts at forecasting dangerous political storms, and who wants to get hit in the forehead by mayoral lightning shooting from the Rahmfather's angry eyes?

Nobody.

All the spin and votes of confidence aside, please don't forget the reality of this thing: Mayor Rahm Emanuel is famous for saying that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

And he won't waste this one, either. He will get rid of Brizard. It is written. But it will be done on the Rahmfather's timetable, and only after he's used him for whatever utility value remains.

One possible scenario: The teachers actually do go on strike, Brizard becomes the focus of all the bad news, parents who can't find day care begin to get furious and he soaks up all the negativity.

Then the Rahmfather relieves him and steps in and makes a deal.

School chiefs, like police chiefs, are not mere administrators. In political terms they are human shields, buffers of skin and bone standing between the mayor and bad news. They're grown-ups, so they know they are hired to be fired.

Emanuel is himself a buffer, playing caretaker for the last mayor who spent all of Chicago's cash, and spent all the future cash as well, as he threw money Chicago didn't have at the unions to buy peace and maintain power.

When Emanuel promised the downtown real estate kings that he'd maintain continuity and stability, he knew he'd also own the crime and school issues. He's the mayor. That's how it works.

Some buffers run their departments and do hard work. Others spend their time networking and going on long vacations.

Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy is a worker. But he's losing the street gang war, and Emanuel had to bow his head and allow the Nation of Islam to help patrol the South and West sides. McCarthy did save his job temporarily with some great public relations at the NATO summit, but every weekend the city becomes a war zone.

Brizard knew what a frontman was when he took the job. He didn't pick his own team. It was handed to him, like his $250,000-a-year contract, which he must have known was payment for what was to come.

Still, Brizard could have led. But by most accounts, he hasn't. And it's an open secret in Chicago, among aldermen and on the fifth floor of City Hall, that Emanuel has profound regrets.

What made it worse was Brizard's bizarre decision to take a more than two-week vacation in July, at a time when he should have been uniting parents and community groups against the teacher demands. His absence astounded Emanuel.

The charade that the mayor still has confidence in Brizard was forced by an excellent, detailed front-page Tribune story. The gist? That Brizard had been told by business and political insiders he may be on his way out for poor performance.

And that Emanuel blamed him for the schools being on the brink of a strike.

So Emanuel was forced to make himself available to the press he loathes, and some broadcast reporter sucked up to him and asked about the "rumor" in the news.

That's how some reporters play in Chicago. If you don't have the story, you knock it down and call it a rumor, and ask the powerful to help you dismiss it.

"I think you characterized it correct. Rumor," said the mayor, who knows it is not a rumor. "I'm going to speak for Rahm Emanuel. Nobody will speak for me. As soon as I heard about this, I called J.C. and said, 'You focus on the full school day, full school year. You're doing a great job.'"

Emanuel certainly wasn't happy with the Tribune report. The last thing he needs with a possible teachers strike only days away is a show of weakness in his ranks. Brizard, who wasn't standing with the mayor for his vote of confidence, joined WLS-AM's "Don Wade & Roma" show for a phone interview and was asked who might have told the Tribune that his job status was shaky.

"You know, I don't know where it started," Brizard said. "I spoke to the mayor last night, and he again affirmed his confidence and support of my leadership. … Not sure where it came from, but certainly the confidence is there ... and no one needs this kind of distraction."

He's right about one thing. No one needs the distraction. Not the students, not the schools, not the parents, not the taxpayers and not the mayor.

And soon, the time for distractions will be at an end.

jskass@tribune.com

twitter: @John_Kass