All heads turned when city treasurer Miriam Santos walked into the auditorium at McAuliffe elementary, a largely Latino school near Humboldt Park. The reaction isn’t surprising; Santos has drawn starstruck attention almost everywhere since she won reelection in April with over 80 percent of the vote. She’s as close as one can come to being a political sensation in Chicago: a Hispanic lawyer with an MBA who’s backed by white ethnic firefighters and cops; a Democrat wooed by Republicans; an attractive, intriguing woman with barely concealed aspirations for higher office; the only local politician to take on Mayor Daley and win; and, for what it’s worth, the best treasurer the city’s had in a long time.

Yet despite her popularity there’s something mysterious about Santos. She stays behind a thicket of aides, every move seemingly calculated, every statement controlled–as during her current flirtation with a Senate campaign. “Will you run?” reporters ask. “Maybe, maybe not,” she replies, as usual, shrewdly allowing only tantalizing glimpses of what she wants you to see–which only makes people want to see more.

The principal introduced Santos, and she walked to the podium amid the raucous cheers of the graduating eighth-graders, who were sitting in blue caps and gowns on a stage festooned with red, white, and blue bunting and balloons. As the first Puerto Rican woman elected to citywide office, she’s a role model for many of these kids, and each eighth-grader had written her, almost begging her to be their commencement speaker. Now she’s here, and they’re giggling with delight.

“I want to thank you for the very special letters you wrote asking me to be here today,” Santos began. “I read every single one. And when it was time for me to write my speech for today I sat down and read them all over again to remind myself why you all invited me to be here for your special event and what you wanted to learn from my visit.”

She stood sideways, addressing both the graduates onstage behind her and the audience of parents and younger students in front. The audience hushed and leaned forward a bit to catch her words.

“More than anything you wanted to know how I managed to get where I am today considering that I am Hispanic and I grew up for part of my life in Humboldt Park. I’m going to tell you a little bit about myself and how I achieve the things I wanted in life, and why you should not be at all surprised that I have been successful.”

Santos was born in Gary, Indiana, in 1956, one of five children. Her parents had moved to the midwest from Puerto Rico so her father could work in the steel mills. As she tells the story to every interviewer, she was a brainy kid and a voracious reader (“I read every book in the Gary public library”), motivated and empowered by a close and loving family.

“I owe everything to my family, particularly my parents,” she says. “They taught me to be proud of myself and my heritage. I told my parents I wanted to be a lawyer. I was just a little girl. There wasn’t one person in our family with a high school degree, but they never doubted me. They said, “Miriam, if that’s what you want, that’s what you’ll be.”‘

Her father was disabled in a work accident, and the family bounced back and forth between Gary and Chicago looking for jobs, living in old, drafty apartments in humble working-class neighborhoods. “I always had some sort of job in a factory or a restaurant,” she says. “I had to work. We needed the money.”

In 1973 she graduated first in her class from Horace Mann High School in Gary, then enrolled at DePaul University. Other young Puerto Ricans of her generation were intensely involved in the politics of Puerto Rican independence. They grew their hair long, called for revolution, denounced America as an oppressive imperialistic regime, and read Marx and Lenin. Not Santos. She worked and studied and quietly earned a degree in political science, then advanced to DePaul’s law school. “She was not part of the hotbed of activism,” says Eduardo Camacho, a banker who once led student protests at Northeastern Illinois University. “That may explain her rise–she had no baggage to keep her back.”

In 1980 she went to work for Bob Mann, her family’s lawyer and an independent state representative from Hyde Park. From him she learned that in the city’s power structure everyone has a place, even independents. It was Mann who introduced Santos to Richard M. Daley, then a state senator–the biggest break of her young career. Mann supported Daley, even though Mann and Daley’s father, Mayor Richard J. Daley, had been on opposite sides of every great struggle of the 60s and 70s. It was a new day in Chicago politics. Let young Daley emerge from his father’s shadow and create his own political identity, the argument went. Why continue ancient battles?

“Bob was chairperson of Rich’s first state’s attorney campaign,” says Santos. “He worked with Daley on nursing-home reform. Bob felt Rich was right on a lot of issues.”

Of course not all independents agreed, particularly in the Latino community. Many activists–including Luis Gutierrez, Jesus Garcia, Juan Velazquez, Juan Soliz, Gloria Chevere, and Miguel del Valle–were engaged in spirited, idealistic, often kamikaze runs against the powerful remnants of old Daley’s machine. They made the noise; Santos made the connections. Through Daley she met John Schmidt, a corporate lawyer who introduced her to Adlai Stevenson, who made her statewide Hispanic coordinator for his 1982 gubernatorial campaign. Then, after a short stint in Washington, D.C., as executive director of a not-for-profit social-service agency, she went to work for Daley in the state’s attorney’s office, backing him over Harold Washington in the 1983 mayoral primary.

“Looking back, I can see why she advanced,” says 43rd Ward alderman Charles Bernardini, who worked with Santos in the state’s attorney’s office. “I’m not a big believer in fortune falling in our laps. If a person has talent, opportunities don’t come out of the blue. Miriam was like a lot of us. She worked hard and was respected. She made good connections and she impressed people.”

In the mid-80s she left the state’s attorney’s office, taking a corporate job with Illinois Bell and enrolling in Northwestern University’s MBA program. That may seem a strange choice for a woman with political ambitions, but back then Santos wasn’t sure she wanted to run for office. “I wanted the corporate experience; I needed the money to pay off college loans. I never completely got out of politics. I never make enemies, only friends. I never burn bridges.”

She backed Washington in his 1987 mayoral run and was offered a job in his administration, but turned it down. Around the same time she also made campaign contributions to Gutierrez, del Valle, and other Latino politicians.

In 1987 she was one of 25 young Chicagoans chosen to participate in Leadership for Greater Chicago, a program sponsored by corporate and civic leaders. “We were the future, potential leaders of Chicago,” says Julie Hamos, a lawyer with her own lobbying firm. “It was intense and competitive to make that cut. We’d get together and discuss issues in great depth. Everybody had strong opinions, but Miriam wasn’t intimidated. Everyone liked her. We elected her to be one of our two representatives on the group’s board of directors. She was a star.”

Others who met her then say Santos had a wicked sense of humor that she revealed only at private gatherings of close friends. “I met her at a party, and I couldn’t believe how funny she was,” says a local movie-maker who prefers to remain anonymous. “She was doing some hilariously bawdy routines–everything was a four-letter word. She was the life of the party–she had everyone in stitches. I thought how strange it was that a lawyer for Illinois Bell had such a filthy mouth. I figured she was just letting loose at this party. It didn’t offend me at all. I’d have loved to have gone out with her. I thought she was pretty cool.”

Other people who were then engaged in the grunt work of political activism are less generous. “When we needed people to work the trenches building Hispanic politics, Miriam wasn’t there,” says one independent Latino politician who prefers not to be named. “She wasn’t there for any of the big campaigns or causes. She never knocked on doors or worked a precinct. She wasn’t a presence in the community.”

Of course Santos sees it differently. “I never divorced myself from the community. I served on boards of community groups. I maintained friendships.”

She also maintained her Daley connection. After he was elected mayor in 1989 Daley appointed her, John Schmidt, and banker Clark Burrus to his advisory transition team. At the time the city needed a new treasurer, as the incumbent, Cecil Partee, had resigned to replace Daley as state’s attorney. The mayor wanted a woman, preferably Hispanic, to balance his ticket. The leading contender was Gloria Chevere, who was closely linked with Ben Reyes, Daley’s top Hispanic adviser.

“I really thought they’d put Gloria up for that spot,” says Santos. “After my transition work I went back to Illinois Bell and never gave the treasurer’s job a thought. Then the mayor’s people called. They wanted to know if I wanted the treasurer’s job. I talked to Ben Reyes. He said I was the most qualified.”

She was brought in to meet Daley. “Rich told me he needed seasoned people for his team,” says Santos. “I struggled with it. I loved my job at Illinois Bell. I was making $100,000. Taking the treasurer’s job meant a big pay cut. I had no clue what the treasurer did. I thought maybe there’s some economic development I could do with it. I thought I’d come in and clean it up and go back to the private world. I saw it as an opportunity. The thing about opportunities is you have to take them when they come.”

The job Santos inherited on April 26, 1989, was more hectic and complicated than she’d expected. That year about $50 billion worth of city funds–including user fees, parking tickets, and taxes–would flow through the treasurer’s office to be deposited in hundreds of different accounts. As treasurer, she was also a voting ex officio member of four employee pension boards–police, fire, municipal, and labor–that oversaw about $6.5 billion in investments, as well as a nonvoting custodian of the $5.3 billion teacher pension funds.

“When I took over, the office was a mess,” she says. “A lot of the money was in non-interest-bearing accounts controlled by banks with close ties to the mayor’s office. We were not only not getting interest, we didn’t know what we had and where it was.

“It was a nightmare. There were 30-some employees not trained for financial tasks. There were people on the payroll, and I didn’t know who they were or what they did. I knocked them off my payroll. But that was the least of it. Here was an office that managed billions of dollars, and we only had four personal computers. We had an accounting department with no accountants. We had $1.2 million sitting in a vault next to billions of dollars of securities–and pop and potato chips. It was like we were inviting theft–we might as well have put up a sign saying “Steal me.”‘

She moved with authority, taking the cash out of the vault and investing it, firing employees, and appointing an advisory committee of business leaders to map long-term strategies. By 1995 20 of the 23 people in her own office had been replaced; among the first to be sliced was the first deputy, Ed Murray, a well-connected politico from Bridgeport. She notified the feds about irregularities in the books, and within a few months five people had been indicted on various counts of fraud. She took about 100 accounts that had been at First National Bank and turned them over to other banks, including Seaway and other minority-owned institutions.

“I was putting in 12-hour days and then heading off for classes at Northwestern,” she says. “It was exhausting.”

She thought she’d be praised for her efforts, but instead she became the target of snide gossip-column comments. “It shocked me at first. There were little nasty things. I didn’t know how to deal with it. I didn’t know any gossip columnists–why would they want to curry favor with me? I think it came from the mayor’s top aides, like Ed Bedore, who was mad at me for firing Murray and First National.” (Murray and Bedore did not return my phone calls; First National’s spokeswoman said, “We never, ever talk about our customers.”)

It was clear to Santos that she’d offended powerful people. “People would go upstairs and tell the mayor that I didn’t know what I was doing. I got nervous. I wanted to defend myself. I would try to get through to the mayor, but I couldn’t. The palace guard of his top aides, Bedore and Frank Kruesi, wouldn’t let me in.”

Then she fell in love with Ray Hanania, a City Hall reporter for the Sun-Times. Or maybe he fell in love with her. The story has never been clear, and it’s really no one’s business. They were spotted together once or twice, and tongues began to wag. Soon it was everyone’s favorite affair, rousing City Hall from its usual stupor with racy rumors. Even Mayor Daley was titillated; he called Hanania into his office. “He [Daley] said, ‘What’s this with you and Marian?’ He always called her Marian,” Hanania recounted in a 1991 Reader Hot Type item written by Michael Miner. (Hanania eventually lost his job in the fallout; he didn’t return phone calls either.)

All the while Santos was preparing for the 1991 Democratic primary, in which Murray was her opponent. Daley, afraid of angering Hispanic voters, endorsed her, and she won convincingly.

But her victory did little to repair the damage with Kruesi and Bedore. “They tried to bully me into hiring their friends,” says Santos. “Kruesi came down to my office and threw a resume in my face. I threw it right back. It was getting nasty.”

In the summer of 1991 Daley maneuvered a bill through the state house that would have stripped her of her ex officio status on the city’s four employee pension boards. His stated reason was reform, but most observers figured he was just trying to put Santos on a leash. Had Governor Jim Edgar signed the bill into law, Daley would have controlled who would be appointed to these seats.

“You bet I was upset,” says Santos. “It was a matter of principle. I was elected as the taxpayers’ guardian. It’s not good policy to give the mayor so much influence over the pension funds.

“I raised hell about it, and they didn’t like it at all. Kruesi came down to my office and sat there on the couch chomping on his unlit cigar–he never lit it, he only chomped on it. They said I owed it to them. They said I was being ungrateful to the mayor, who had made me treasurer.”

As she saw it, this was the final act of retribution for firing Murray, taking business from First National, and other acts of independence. It was the administration’s way of telling her that the accolades from Daley and Reyes meant nothing, that quiet allegiance to Daley, not competence, had won her the nod over Chevere in 1989, that those who depend on others must pay a price for their advancement. “They wanted subservience,” says Santos. “They wanted me to go along. They didn’t know me at all.”

She hired a publicist and a strategist who met every morning to plot tactics. She reached out to the press, holding press conferences, going on John Callaway’s show, and tossing her own nasty bits of dirt to the gossip columnists.

For reporters, her feud with Daley was almost as exciting as her romance with Hanania. Each day brought new allegations. She released a report that showed some pension funds were underfunded, and the Sun-Times ran a front-page story. Political independents, feminists, and Latino leaders rushed to her support. Overnight she leapfrogged Gutierrez and del Valle to become the city’s most prominent Latino politician. Poor Ben Reyes, who depended on Daley for his paycheck, didn’t know which way to turn.

This went on for several weeks before Daley requested a meeting. “We met in his office, just me and him,” says Santos. “He told me he would reappoint me to the boards. I said that’s not the point. He repeated his offer. We went around and around. I don’t think he understood why I was doing this.”

She emerged to face a pack of reporters and camera crews. “Daley makes offer that Santos refuses,” the Tribune headline stated. “As an angry Santos dismissed her 40-minute meeting with Daley as basically a waste of time, worried aides to the mayor gathered again for more strategy sessions on how to counter her attacks without appearing to be bullies,” City Hall reporter John Kass wrote. “We can’t resolve this,” Santos said. “I won’t back down. It has to be resolved by the governor. I’ll fight this with every waking hour. This is not going to end.”

On November 8 Governor Edgar settled the fight by siding with Santos and vetoing the legislation. In an age of political cowardice she had defied the mayor. And she had won.

In the early months after her triumph she was the talk of the town. Local GOP leaders unsuccessfully tried to persuade her to switch parties. Today’s Chicago Woman splashed a shot of her posing in boxing gloves, a sleeveless T-shirt, and tight jeans on its cover and ran a long, glowing feature about her. In the article her secret vices (soap opera and junk food) were depicted as modest and cute. She told about the fights with Kruesi (the resume thrown in her face) and the potato chips in the vault. She was the embodiment of the American dream–her story was a fairy tale about a hardworking woman who rises to the top by refusing to give up.

“Every step of change I attempted to make was met with resistance,” she told the newspaper. “I was embattled for two years. I felt like the Lone Ranger. I’d try to hire someone, and the paperwork would get lost. . . . I couldn’t get paper clips.”

“You couldn’t get paper clips?”

“I couldn’t get paper clips. It would be funny if it weren’t so outrageous.”

Positioned as one of the city’s leading independents, she allowed rumors to circulate that she might challenge Daley in 1995. But then she did nothing, and many independents felt spurned. Santos, they finally decided, championed no causes greater than herself. “We were ready to rally around her, but she let us down,” says one northwest-side independent who didn’t want to be named. “You never saw her at our events. You never saw her lend her name to any causes. She didn’t get involved. She was never a real independent. She doesn’t have a strong political view. Think about it: what does she stand for ideologically? She fought Daley on one issue that was important to her. After that she was content to go with the flow.”

In the last year her old adversary Kruesi has left town for a job in the Clinton administration, and Bedore has become a consultant. And Santos sort of patched things up with their successors. “We don’t have any problem with the treasurer,” says Noelle Gaffney, a Daley press spokeswoman. “That’s all in the past.”

“She’s a very competent treasurer–I worked well with her,” says Paul Vallas, Daley’s former revenue chief. He and other administration officials don’t want to discuss her feud with Daley. “I’m not trying to duck the question, but in all honesty I don’t know how relations had become so frayed. Perhaps everyone was at fault.”

While Santos was making her peace with the administration a whole new set of rumors started drifting out of her office. Most of these stories and allegations were veiled in secrecy. Few critics dared to speak publicly, a testament to Santos’s growing power. They may not have liked her, but they didn’t want to fight her, since it looked like she’d be around for a long time. Nevertheless it was rumored that success had gone to her head, that she was venomous and egotistical–a shrew who once tossed her jacket over an employee’s head and said, “Hang it up.” She went through several press aides in one year and her key strategist, Jacky Grimshaw, left after a highly charged falling out. The way it works in City Hall is that a person who’s fired tells ten friends, who tell ten of their friends, and soon the story’s everybody’s business.

Things got so bad that on the eve of Santos’s reelection campaign John Kass wrote an article for the Tribune saying, “If former Mayor Jane Byrne had a “revolving door’ administration, [Santos’s office] appears to be something of a wobbly Lazy Susan, frequently spinning out top staffers after only a few months. . . . It’s no secret that some of her former employees have banded together for what they call TOTS (Treasurer’s Office Therapy Sessions), meeting occasionally for lunch to share war stories from their Santos days.”

Ironically, her opponent in February’s Democratic primary was Alderman Larry Bloom, another of Bob Mann’s many Hyde Park disciples. Bloom hammered hard at Santos for firing too many employees, hiring too few blacks, and not filing accurate investment reports. Nothing worked.

“I called a press conference and said that she was violating a city ordinance that requires a statement of how much city money each bank holds and how much interest was earned in that account during the prior month,” says Bloom. “Two hours later she comes back with this big bunch of printouts that’s practically incomprehensible to the general public. It showed gross earnings on deposits from every source, but nothing broken down by bank. She said, “Bloom doesn’t know what he’s talking about. This is what I report every day.’ Well, that isn’t the point. She has to do it bank by bank.”

Daley was clearly unwilling to get dragged into another fight with Santos. The city’s revenue department issued a statement saying that she was complying with the law, and the issue died.

The public seemed satisfied with her performance, or what they knew of it. There were no reports of malfeasance coming out of her office. And certainly she was an improvement over her predecessors. She kept city funds in interest-bearing accounts that were generating a respectable return–$10 million in 1994, according to Vallas. True, the police and fire pension funds were underfunded, but officials from both unions cleared Santos of any blame. “She’s been with us on pushing the state legislature to increase the tax multiplier that would put more money into the pension funds, but they won’t budge,” says Bill Nolan, president of the Fraternal Order of Police. “As far as we’re concerned, she’s a great treasurer. She’s always there when we need her–all we have to do is pick up a phone. She’s our girl on the pension board.”

In February most voters apparently wrote off the talk about her being tough on employees as City Hall gossip. Besides, they wanted a vigilant guardian of the taxpayers’ money. It was almost as though she’d transcended such petty squabbles. People seemed fascinated by her jet-black hair and glittering smile. “I’m voting for her ’cause she’s a babe,” said one north-side publicist, echoing comments men tend to make about Santos when women aren’t around. “We need more babes in office.”

She beat Bloom in almost every ward, including those on the lakefront. By the time she crushed her hapless Republican opponent in April, word was circulating that she was among the leading contenders for Paul Simon’s soon-to-be-vacated Senate seat.

That’s when I showed up, snooping around for an interview. I called her office, and a press aide called back. The treasurer wants to read your clippings before she consents to an interview, I was told. It was a reasonable, if unusual, request–most politicians aren’t so picky. Several weeks passed without a word from Santos. She was always out of town or too busy to read my stories.

Finally I got wise. “Tell the treasurer I’m going to write the story with or without her participation,” I said. A few days later her scheduler, Joseph Cisneros, called to set up an interview. One half hour was all the time she had, what with all her other pressing appointments.

I showed up early for my two o’clock appointment and sat in the outer office, a modest fluorescent-lit room with pinkish gray carpet. Cisneros brought me a can of Coke, and I cracked a book, figuring on a long wait. But at precisely two o’clock an inner door opened and Santos stepped out. “Glad you could make it,” she said, as though the interview had been her idea.

She led me into her office and sat behind her large, clean desk. On a bookshelf and the walls were pictures of her with family, friends, and politicians, including the Clintons. Her press aide joined us and quietly took notes. Santos sipped water from a plastic bottle marked East Bank Club. She was friendly and charming, with a girlish self-effacing giggle. I tried to talk fast, figuring each second was sacred, but she seemed in no hurry. She started telling stories about growing up in Gary and Humboldt Park, and soon two hours had passed. I began to wonder about those other appointments–were they waiting in the lobby?

“I didn’t get to where I got by luck,” she said. “It’s knowing when to make the right choices in life. I always believed in the power of people, and I always believed in the strength of our great country.”

The phone rang. It was Cisneros, reminding her of her next meeting. She hung up, rose from her desk, and said, “Let me give you a tour of the office.” And so I got to see the sofa where Kruesi threw the resume at her, the safe in which the potato chips were stashed, and the computers her predecessors had never acquired. All the time she talked I had my eyes peeled for signs of fear-ridden, downtrodden employees. I saw none. In a rear room four or five guys in white shirts–the accountants, she said–sat around a table, relaxing at the end of the day. They didn’t spring to attention when Santos walked into the room. Quite the contrary. They casually said hello, then returned to their conversation. It occurred to me later that the reason operations seemed to hum along effortlessly was that she had cleared the room of ill-fitting clutter; everyone left was a little like her.

After that I got one last interview–30 minutes on the phone.

I asked her whether she was going to run for senator, and she said she was exploring the possibilities, even talking to fund-raisers in Washington, D.C. “I don’t have any plans to run,” she said, “but you never know.”

About the employee revolving door in her office she said, “We had turnover, and we’ll have turnover. I have tried to bring this office into the future, and that required people with incredibly different skills than the ones we had.”

About Hanania she said, “That was the most difficult part of my professional career, a sad part of my life. You learn from all your experiences.”

What did you learn from the experience of your feud with Daley?

She paused, as if lost in thought. “I learned that policy is important. I learned that you can educate the public about economic issues. We go through life thinking there is no hope; I walked away thinking there is hope. I’ve always been grateful to the public that they allowed me the opportunity to serve them and restored my faith in government.”

My jaw dropped. “That’s what you learned from fighting with Daley?”

“Yes,” she said.

“You didn’t learn that people are snakes?”

She laughed kindly.

“I heard that you can be different in private life,” I said. “I talked to someone who went to a party where you were, and he said that you made hilarious dirty jokes.”

She laughed again. “Sometime when you finish your article we’ll go out for a beer, and I’ll tell you all the jokes.”

When she hung up I had a feeling that there was really nothing more she was going to tell me. Sure enough, from then on the press secretary was our go-between. It was a precise arrangement: I called with my questions each morning, and she relayed Santos’s perfunctory answers in the afternoon.

On a steamy day in early June I drove to McAuliffe elementary to hear her commencement speech. Cisneros was her advance man, waiting on the sidewalk, in constant contact with Santos’s limousine via his cellular phone. The sun baked in a breezeless sky, but Cisneros was wearing a spiffy charcoal gray suit.

The limo pulled up right on time. The driver swung out and raced around to open the door for Santos. The press secretary handed her a notebook containing her speech, and she strode into the school, stopping to shake hands with security guards and teachers.

The title of her speech, which she read straight through without additions, was “Reach for the Stars.” Family, education, and the “ability to have dreams and set goals” were the keys to her success, she said. At the end of the speech she said, “There’s one more thing I want to share with you today. It’s my own personal recipe for achievement, including all the qualities that make up a successful person. I like to call it my ABCs of success.”

From there she went down the alphabet starting with “A for attitude–the attitude you will have throughout high school, college, and the rest of your life must remain positive.” She ended with “Z for zeal–always be enthusiastic about everything you do. Maintain your zeal for the community you came from. Put back what you have taken.”

When she was done the kids cheered politely. I too was a little disappointed. I’d have preferred the ABCs of real life–or at least real life in Chicago politics–starting with A for arrogance, B for betrayal, C for cronies, D for duplicity, E for ego, F for fraud, and so on and so forth. But Santos doesn’t dwell on such unpleasantries, at least not in public. “This is the greatest country in the world,” she likes to say. “Only in America can a little poor girl from Gary grow up to become treasurer of a great city like Chicago.”

After the speech Santos posed for pictures with students, parents, and babies, then took off in the limo, windows up, AC blasting, heading for a private lunch downtown with bankers.

The kids poured out of the building, done with school for the summer. They stripped off their caps and gowns and headed down a side street, past a vacant lot, and under a dirty viaduct to their homes in the tenements alongside the crumbling Schwinn bicycle factory that was abandoned years ago. It’s a great country all right–the greatest in the world, once you learn to play the game.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs/Jon Randolph.