When Tumia Romero quit her job in the City Hall press office in February to go back to school, her friends and colleagues gave her a quiet good-bye party and some gentle words of good luck.

But when she took a new job in July, those same old friends rushed for their phones, gossip pouring from their tongues.

Romero had been the top aide to Mayor Daley’s two press secretaries, Jim Williams and before him Avis LaVelle. Now she’s working for the other side, as press secretary for the fledgling mayoral campaign of Joe Gardner, the Water Reclamation District commissioner who’s attempting to resurrect what Daley loyalists most fear and detest: the coalition of blacks, Hispanics, and white liberals that elected Harold Washington.

“Some people who only know me from City Hall are wondering, “Tumia, how can you work for Joe Gardner?”‘ says Romero. “But people who really know me wonder how I took the [Daley] job in the first place. I was totally faithful to the Daley administration, but I couldn’t look my friends in the face because my heart was with the Washington coalition. I met Joe when he was Washington’s top political advisor. For me this is like going back home.”

To switch from Daley to Gardner–from the favorite to the long shot–may seem flaky, even politically suicidal. But Romero knows too much about city politics to be casually dismissed. For eight years she was the Radar O’Reilly of the City Hall press operation: the lower-level clerk who got things done. She sat at her desk in Room 602 answering calls from reporters and keeping track of day-to-day details for four different mayors–Washington, David Orr, Eugene Sawyer, and Daley–and their henchmen.

What might be most remarkable is that she got the job in the first place. Thirteen years ago she was a 16-year-old junior at Senn High School with a unique first name (pronounced tee-ama, it’s “an Indian name that means beautiful one,” she says) and a baby on the way.

“My family was pretty shocked,” says Romero. “I had always been the good kid–the big reader, getting good grades. I love my daughter, Jennifer, dearly. She’s 12 years old now and the most precious part of my life. But I won’t kid you: having a baby at age 16 is a major change in your life.”

She left Senn and enrolled in a special high school for pregnant teenagers. Eventually she graduated from Senn and enrolled at DePaul University. But her financial needs became too pressing, and she left college after a year to work as a clerk for Merrill Lynch, devoting most of her free time to politics.

“I was wearing Harold Washington buttons before they were popular,” says Romero. “I was a member of Network 48, our local progressive ward organization. I was always going to rallies, taking Jennifer, even when she was four months old. Mayor Washington symbolized so much to me. When he ran in ’83, my grandmother said to me, ‘Chicago’s not ready for a black mayor.’ I said, ‘If that’s the case, there’s no point in me staying in school and bettering myself. If a congressman of his stature can’t make it, no black person can.'”

In 1986 she was a volunteer in the epic 26th Ward aldermanic campaign of Luis Gutierrez, whose victory gave Washington control of the City Council. It was during that race that she caught the eye of Sun-Times columnist Vernon Jarrett, who mentioned her to Alton Miller, Mayor Washington’s press secretary.

“I had been looking for a secretary,” says Miller. “I wanted someone with fresh eyes, someone unknown, someone new. . . . I was spending an inordinate amount of time [interviewing people] for what seemed like an entry-level position. But I said, ‘Whoever’s sitting at that desk will be the anchor of my life.'”

Miller was carving a new role for his position, one that recognized the City Hall dictum that powerful operatives have no time for reporters. He became a strategist, spending his days riding with the mayor in his limousine, obsessing over television coverage and devising new ways to bamboozle the media. While Miller was out and about with the mayor, Romero was keeping track of the hundreds of phone calls that flooded the office every day.

“She was the gatekeeper,” says Miller. “What impressed me was her disposition. She had this countenance that communicated peace, stability, and order. [If you threw] 50 phone messages in [front] of a fan [aimed] at your office, she could take that flurry and keep track of it. She was unflappable. She could not be intimidated by the rudest reporter.”

For Romero the job meant dealing with local media celebrities. “Let’s see, there was Mike Flannery, Dick Kay, Andy Shaw, Harry Golden, Bill Cameron–he was very nice–and John Madigan, Basil Talbott, Joel Weisman, John Callaway, Don Terry, Walter Jacobson–I remember John Kass when he was just a cub reporter,” says Romero. “Most of the time I didn’t have the information reporters were looking for, so I had to find the right department head who did. I had everyone’s phone number–home, car, and office. I usually relayed their responses back to reporters. I was never quoted, at least by name. Sometimes I’d see in the paper, ‘City Hall sources said,’ and I’d realize, ‘My God, that’s me.’ It’s pretty funny when you think about it. At the time I was only about 21.”

When Washington died, Romero was devastated. “I felt like a big part of me had died–this was the man who gave me an opportunity to prove myself. Who else would hire a 20-year-old black girl, a single mother with no college degree? To a large degree Harold Washington is my generation’s Martin Luther King. He liberated us by standing up for what was right.”

Romero stayed on during the Sawyer administration, working under press secretary Monroe Anderson. With Daley’s election, rumors circulated that she would either be fired or quit. The exact opposite happened–her role expanded.

“This was never about politics,” says LaVelle. “I was looking for the best people to work in my office. I had been a City Hall reporter and I knew Tumia could do the job.”

LaVelle changed the press office’s operation. Under Miller, publicists in each department were permitted to answer queries from reporters. But now most reporters were directed to LaVelle. Whereas Miller’s office had been chaotic and wide open–with information accessible from many sources–LaVelle ran a regimented shop. Almost all questions, no matter how trivial, were directed to her, and either she or her top lieutenant personally returned the phone calls of even the most insignificant reporters.

It was all part of Daley’s attempt to shape and control the flow of information–an operation in which Romero had an important role. “Tumia was my right arm,” says LaVelle. “I might get a call from some reporter doing a story about, oh, something in Streets and Sanitation. Tumia would call the right person in that department–she knew who to call–and get the information. Then she would report back to me. And I would get back to the reporter. We worked fast because we knew reporters were on deadlines. Reporters said I knew so much, but in many cases I knew because Tumia told me first.”

And what does LaVelle, who now works in Washington as a press officer in the Clinton administration, think about her former “right arm” going to work for the opposition? “I’m really proud of her and proud of what she has become. She remains my friend. So much is made about political camps, but in politics there are no permanent enemies and no permanent friends, just permanent interests.”

Williams also has few disparaging words for his former assistant, who left the team on the eve of the 1995 mayoral campaign. “I’m disappointed,” he says. “It’s one thing to go work for another politician; it’s something else to go to work for someone who considers himself an opponent. I say that with this caveat: she’s free to make her own decisions, and whatever she decides to do with her life won’t affect our friendship.”

Romero’s currently attending night school at Loyola University while she works for Gardner; she’s one year away from graduating and plans to enroll in the University of Chicago’s divinity program. But she says she couldn’t resist Gardner’s invitation to join his campaign.

“There were things I respected and things I didn’t like about the Daley administration,” she says. “It was organized, but it wasn’t open. There was a sense of fear. Daley had his breakfast club of inner-circle advisers. They discussed and controlled every detail of government, even down to who got which conference room. They ignored whole parts of the city–there wasn’t the openness of the Washington administration. Put it this way: under Daley, a 21-year-old black girl like Tumia Romero would never have gotten her chance.”

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