By Neal Pollack
For months after Jim Williams announced he planned to leave the job of press secretary to the mayor, the Daley administration searched unsuccessfully for a replacement. Winter turned into spring and inched toward summer, yet Williams still showed up spinning at every mayoral appearance. Sometimes it seemed as though he wouldn’t be retiring at all.
Williams had been Daley’s press secretary since 1992, and he’d defined the job as his own. He was an excellent image manipulator, widely credited with saving Daley’s face during the Loop flood of 1992, and a highly competent administrator who’d handled hundreds of minor disasters, dog-and-pony shows, and occasions requiring a statement from the mayor. Daley wanted someone just as good, and in an administration whose prominent black faces are rare indeed, he needed to replace Williams with another African-American.
The answer, it turned out, was staring Daley in the face the entire time.
On July 1, Jacquelyn Heard took over as Mayor Daley’s press secretary. Heard’s previous job? City Hall reporter for the Chicago Tribune. Heard was everything the mayor had been looking for, and his selection of her was widely praised as what reporters call a “good hire.” The whole thing seemed to make sense.
“Where would you go?” asks Tribune columnist and former City Hall reporter John Kass. “To a used car dealership? I mean, where would you go? To a softball diamond and pick the third baseman to do it? The job requires people who understand the issues and understand politics and government. I think it’s a credit to the mayor and his administration that they chose a print reporter. In the age of slogans and sound bites and less attention focused on government by the local television stations, they picked up somebody very good. She’s just a great pro.”
Heard had been on the City Hall beat for a year, and was used to people from the administration coming up to her and saying, “Hey, you thinking about coming to the other side?”
“I’d laugh it off,” she says, “not taking it seriously at all, thinking they probably go up to everyone and say that. I had no clue that there was some seriousness to it.”
A month before Heard actually took the job, a couple of Daley’s people told her, “The mayor is asking for you by name.”
“I said, ‘You’re joking. Get out of here.’ And they said, ‘No, he really is, he’d like to speak with you.’ I thought, ‘Well, if the mayor wants to speak with you, you speak with him.’ For whatever reason, you talk to him. If he wants an audience with you, you give it to him.”
Heard and Daley met for breakfast one morning, and they talked for two and a half hours, “just about his goals and my goals. He explained to me his desire to have a person who he could look to for advice and direction on a lot of issues. He said I’d be able to voice my opinion on a lot of the issues that affected the city. That really made the job very attractive to me. Not once did he say to me, ‘You’ve gotta do this.’ I never felt like there was pressure. As a matter of fact, during the course of the meeting I told him that I was still sort of wavering. He said that was fine.”
Heard stopped writing about Daley. She didn’t want to give the impression that she was using her byline to boost her chances at getting the job. Meanwhile, she thought about the mayor’s offer. Primarily, she thought about his takeover of the public schools.
Heard was educated in the Chicago public school system. She grew up in East Garfield Park and lived for a time in the Henry Horner Homes. She attended an elementary school in her neighborhood and then Lane Tech. She had, she says, “ambitious cousins” who encouraged her to find a career track and stick with it, and she chose journalism. She won a scholarship to Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism and was on her way. After Northwestern, Heard went straight to the Tribune, where she was immediately assigned, as most beginning reporters are, to cover the suburbs. She got bored quickly, and begged her editors to let her cover the city, on whatever beat was open. They assigned her to the society pages. If nothing else, Northwestern had prepared her well for that. Soon she was covering crime. Before being assigned to City Hall, Heard covered education for four years. Few people in Chicago know the city’s schools better.
“After going to Northwestern, it started to dawn on me how much I’d missed in public schools in terms of education,” she says. “There would be whole blocks of history that I just never learned about, and I had to get up to speed on it. Which is probably what makes me so concerned about education in the public schools now. I know that people who go through the public school system, for a long time after they leave the system, are still suffering, still finding themselves out of the loop of information that they missed.”
Daley offered Heard a say in education policy making, and she was hooked. “Having covered the public schools, it was very clear to me that what was lacking was somebody who was willing to go in and make the tough decisions, to not be fearful of stepping on toes and hurting feelings,” she says. “What the mayor has said, and I agree, is that poor people can learn, poor children can achieve. I’m the living testament to the fact that that’s true. If they are given the guidance and the rules, they can follow them and they can accomplish what’s set before them.”
Now Heard’s professional love affair with Daley has begun. She has little but praise for her new boss. He’s “fair” but “demanding,” “hard-working,” “caring,” and “efficient.” In the month that Heard’s been on the job, she’s had access to the mayor that as a reporter she could only have dreamed about. Imagine her surprise, she says, when she discovered that the emperor has clothes after all.
“I ride around in the car with the mayor a lot, and I see him jotting down notes on what needs to be done all over the city. Some people would look at that and say that’s micromanagement. I look at that and say, ‘Here’s a guy who really cares about the city as a whole.’ Not certain neighborhoods. I see him riding down Chicago and Pulaski, taking notes just as furiously as when he’s in Beverly or Lincoln Park. He cares about the city as a whole. If there’s an abandoned building anywhere, it’s a nuisance and a hazard to a neighborhood. I look at that and it’s almost unbelievable. I’d heard he did that. I didn’t really believe it. To watch it is amazing to see.”
On July 13 of last year, Heard’s career, and life, was nearly ruined when her younger sister Karen was shot and killed during a west-side grocery store holdup. Heard was shattered. Her sister’s death colors everything Heard does in her life and her work. She took in the two young children Karen left behind.
“Every day continues to be a challenge,” Heard says. “It’s been very surreal. Even now, there are days when I expect that she’s going to call or something. Just last Saturday the mayor was out on the west side marching in an antidrug march. I’m with him as his press secretary, but I’m also remembering that maybe if there had been more marches like this, my sister would still be here. I don’t know the full effect of what that can do for communities that are downtrodden and under the weight of drug sales. I just know that it’s a really tough situation and I don’t really know the answer to stopping what happened to my sister. But to the extent that I can influence change that might make a difference here, I have to at least try. I can’t say if that hadn’t happened I wouldn’t have made this decision, but I think it helped make the decision. It is such a hardship to have lost someone so close to you that it’s impossible to coordinate your thoughts enough to think what to do. You’re so busy thinking about the fact that ‘I’ll never see her again’ that getting past that to think logically is impossible. But I imagine that time will come.”
Heard was one of the few mayoral beat reporters willing to bring outside perspectives into City Hall coverage. Her departure from the Tribune may be a victory for the administration, but it leaves City Hall press coverage in an even bleaker state than before. The mainstream Chicago media, with very few exceptions, are without a critical voice when it comes to the mayor. Now that Heard has left, the Defender’s Chinta Strausberg is the only minority reporter who covers City Hall day to day.
“I think Jackie’s a good person to have in that job both for the mayor and for the press in a lot of ways, and I think she’ll be good for the city because she brings a viewpoint that a lot of people don’t have,” says one City Hall reporter. “At the same time, I think her leaving journalism is a step back for the Tribune’s coverage of city issues. She has a background and an understanding of things that a lot of other people at the major newspapers in the city don’t have. She’s from Garfield Park. How many people at the Tribune or the Sun-Times, or the Daily Herald or the Daily Southtown for that matter, grew up in Garfield Park?”
Heard is also the city’s third political reporter in the last year to go to work in government. The Daily Southtown’s City Hall reporter, Jack Beary, recently took a job with Cook County Board chairman John Stroger. Thomas Hardy, the Tribune’s senior political writer, defected to work as Governor Jim Edgar’s spokesperson, a role that some say he was already performing. Then Heard joined the Daley administration.
To David Peterson, a left-wing media critic and the managing editor of the alternative monthly Chicago Ink, the interests of Chicago politicians, media, and big business are so intertwined they are almost indistinguishable, and Heard’s going from the Tribune to City Hall is a natural career progression. “I don’t mean to say that we have evidence that while Jacquelyn Heard was at the Tribune she was consciously acting as a flack for the Daley administration,” Peterson says. “That’s not the point. The point is that her performance as a journalist for the Chicago Tribune was such that the Daley administration had every reason to believe this woman could do something for us. The kinds of stories that she wrote were the kinds of stories that the Daley administration felt it could live with. Not only could live with, but ‘Gee, we want her doing that for us full-time.'”
Heard hasn’t had time to put anything up on her office walls, much less determine precisely why the mayor wanted to hire her. Still, she won’t deny that at times her Tribune coverage was friendly to the administration.
“Journalists are told from the beginning that it’s your job to hold the administration’s feet to the fire, and often you feel guilty if you write something positive,” she says. “I think a lot of reporters do. They feel guilty if they write a story that is void of criticism somehow. I can recall a couple of stories I wrote about the Lawndale neighborhood and the revival that’s going on there that other journalists either missed or refused to portray. It’s really difficult having grown up in a neighborhood and having seen it back then when there was no hope and where everybody accepted the status quo, which was vacant buildings and this threadbare community. Now people are saying, ‘Not only do we want a new theater, we want a new grocery store. We want to sweep up the streets. We want to do this.’ It’s kind of hard not to bring that perspective to writing a story. Because you know the history. You know it intimately. It’s not something you’ve heard–it’s what you lived. I think I bring some credibility to the job because I’ve lived it. I’m not trying to spin reporters. I’m just reminding them of what I experienced first-hand.”
John Kass, who was one of Heard’s closest friends at the Tribune, has a good eye for a sellout and says he doesn’t see one here. “Just because Jackie moved into the administration does not mean she checked her integrity at the gate,” he says. “Because she did not. If they pull any games on her over there, if they pull any internal politics or any kind of backstabbing crap, that woman’s going to walk right out the door.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Jacquelyn Heard photo by Robert Drea.