Early December was rough for Mayor Rahm Emanuel, sandwiched between news of plans to close four South Side high schools and the sudden resignation of Chicago Public Schools Chief Forrest Claypool, who stands accused of an ethics investigation cover-up.
But what’s bad for Rahm is promising for Troy LaRaviere, the mayor’s first official challenger in the 2019 election and a longtime critic of the mayor whom Emanuel’s administration, specifically CPS, has fought hard — and failed — to silence.
As wave after wave of unfavorable news breaks, LaRaviere (pronounced Luh-RAH-vee-ay) does not mince words.
“It’s sickening; who the [expletive] does that?” LaRaviere said of the proposed Englewood school closures. “Of all the things they’ve done — and they’ve done quite a bit — they just keep taking it up a notch.”
Loquacious and always ready for a fight, LaRaviere is looking to build a reputation as an unabashed truth-teller, a non-politician who can nonetheless eloquently quote Frederick Douglass and Maya Angelou as he recites near-perfect drafts of what will become his campaign speeches. He insists he’s not one to campaign via “soundbites,” but the statement is itself sounds pretty good.
It’s almost too easy to draw comparisons to Chicago’s first black mayor with the man vying to be its third, but there are some undeniable commonalities LaRaviere shares with Mayor Harold Washington: They are both U.S. veterans and lifelong Chicagoans, both looking to solve the rampant inequities of two Chicagos, and both confident they have the key to getting it done.
With LaRaviere’s plans for progressive income tax, reformatting of the CPS high school system, restrictions on charter school, and support for small businesses over behemoths like Amazon, he is instinctively positioning himself as the second coming of the people’s mayor, a champion of the working class.
“There are a lot of things Harold did [we can] learn from or strive to surpass,” he said. “Harold opened up public records, Harold had a more equitable division of city resources.”
But when it comes to the Washington mantra to be “fairer than fair,” LaRaviere thinks he can improve upon the original.
“I understand the politics behind that; just to get it to the folks who needed it, he had to give it to a bunch of other people who don’t,” LaRaviere said. “But that’s a waste. I’m about real equity.”
Still, it’s not Washington to whom LaRaviere is anxious to measure himself against: “I’m not running against Mayor Harold Washington,” he shrugged. “I’m running against Mayor Rahm Emanuel.”
In some sense, he’s been doing just that for years, ever since his 2014 op-ed in the Sun-Times slammed the mayor for a clamp down on principals speaking against CPS policies.
As he continued to speak out, LaRaviere found himself in the CPS crosshairs, eventually getting suspended as principal of Blaine Elementary for insubordination and accused of campaigning for 2015 mayoral hopeful Jesus “Chuy” Garcia during work hours.
Emanuel has denied having any hand in the decision.
The ouster failed to dim LaRaviere’s rising star, and he was elected last year as president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, with seven in 10 of the union’s voters picking him over the district-backed candidate.
As president, LaRaviere has probed special-education funding and asked the state board to intervene in what C.P.A.A. research shows to be a discriminatory appeals process for schools with majority black or Hispanic student bodies.
“‘I just want to see the organization fight,’ ” LaRaviere recalled one principal telling him. “She said, ‘You don’t even have to win, I just want to see it fight.’ So we’re fighting and we want to win, but at least we’ve cleared that threshold.”
In doing so, he revived an organization that was largely silent in the public sphere.
“He’s been a great advocate, and I think he better understands what the issues are from the lens of a former principal,” said Joyce Kenner, principal of Whitney Young Magnet High School. “I don’t get political, but I would say our city needs a strong voice and somebody who is going to be brave and speak up about what those issues are. And I think Troy would do an outstanding job.”
Born in 1970 to a white mother who was turned away from the North Side for having two black sons, LaRaviere grew up in poverty-stricken neighborhoods in Englewood, Back of the Yards, and Bronzeville. When LaRaviere was 14 years old, they moved into a Chatham apartment that featured carpeting, a sign to the teenager that the family “had made it.”
It was around that time Washington was elected mayor, something LaRaviere and other black Chicagoans saw as the first time a leader of their city was pulling for them.
Four years later, LaRaviere was two days into Navy boot camp when a commander told the company that Chicago’s mayor had died.
“I remember sitting there in my bunk in disbelief,” LaRaviere said. “He gave us so much hope, [but] everything he worked for died when he died. I have to build something that outlives me.”
But LaRaviere has a long road ahead of him and at least one likely competitor looking to keep his hold on the progressive vote; Garcia was strongly considering a second run before deciding, instead, to run for Rep. Luis Guiterrez’s seat in Congress. Already, Garcia had taken aim at his one-time supporter, suggesting LaRaviere lacks the governing experience the Cook County commissioner has in spades.
Even without Garcia in the race, the question remains: How can LaRaviere succeed where Chuy failed?
“Chuy ran a relatively centrist campaign: A thousand new cops, not a lot on revenue,” LaRaviere said. “We’re not going to ask public workers for a concession; we’re going to ask the people who have been exploiting them for concessions. That wasn’t what we heard from that campaign.”
As for Rahm, he’s “relentlessly focused on building a better Chicago,” and not thinking too much about the election, said campaign spokesman Pete Giangreco.
“The 2019 election is a long way away, and there will be plenty of time for politics,” Giangreco said.
In the meantime, the mayor is focused on schools, crime, and economic growth, and “if candidates don’t have real plans and real accomplishments on these issues, then they really aren’t ready for the job,” Giangreco added.
One other major question that looms is who will be leading the state by the time 2019 rolls around; next year’s gubernatorial race has the promise of being a game-changer, should Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner be replaced.
LaRaviere likes State Sen. Daniel Biss or Chris Kennedy for the job, but predicts a Rauner re-election should venture capitalist and early frontrunner J.B. Pritzker win the Democratic primary.
“He’s a really nice dude, and I’ll campaign like hell for him if Pritzker is the nominee, but his weaknesses are glaring,” LaRaviere said. “Hillary played to Trump’s strengths, and Pritzker plays to Rauner’s strengths. If it’s Pritzker, we lose.”
For his own campaign, there is no fear of doom; in the early days, as the only challenger on the field, he only hopes for a better Chicago and dreams of being the one to usher it in.
“I don’t want to be the next Harold Washington, and I never could be,” LaRaviere concluded. “I have a big enough ego to really feel like there will never be another Troy LaRaviere. I’m the first.”