As America's banking system began to freeze in mid-2008, Juan Rangel's nonprofit United Neighborhood Organization was in trouble.
Because of a gubernatorial funding veto, the Latino group, which runs one of Chicago's largest charter school networks, was running out of money. Its contractors were about to walk off a three-school construction site, and its bankers were balking at extending loans.
Rangel, who said he was scared, turned to Ald. Edward Burke for help. Not only is Burke Chicago's most powerful alderman, his 14th Ward on the Southwest Side is majority Latino and home to the jeopardized construction project.
Within days, Burke summoned executives from three banks to City Hall. He put them in a conference room with Rangel, his two attorneys and three elected officials, all UNO allies, and told the bankers not to leave until Rangel got what he needed. The resulting $65 million loan, which closed in June 2008, saved UNO from ruin.
This being a tale of Chicago politics, the story doesn't end there. Less than two years later, Burke's brother, Illinois state Rep. Dan Burke, found himself in a tough re-election campaign against Mexican-American Rudy Lozano Jr. At Edward Burke's request, Rangel backed the Irish clan, lending his name to a mailer, introducing Dan Burke to voters and getting people to the polls.
"I went all out," Rangel, 46, said of his efforts on Burke's winning campaign. In a separate interview, he scoffed that there was a quid pro quo. "I'm not that simplistic about 'I'm going to go with the Mexican.' If you want to think about it in simple terms, I run charter schools, and Dan Burke is super supportive of charter schools. Rudy Lozano is against charter schools. So where should I be?"
When Lozano made another run at political office earlier this year, Rangel seized the opening. He knew Edward Burke was still steaming about Lozano's challenge to his brother. So Rangel asked Burke to support Silvana Tabares, a 33-year-old journalist and graduate of UNO's Metropolitan Leadership Institute, a training program for young Latino professionals.
With Burke and Rangel's support, Tabares won the February Democratic primary for an Illinois House seat by about 300 votes. "Why would I support a candidate who had run against Representative Burke in the last election?" Edward Burke said of Lozano.
Rangel's job as chief executive of UNO, which will operate 13 schools by year's end, requires him to be politically connected to the nth degree, to know his allies and enemies, to understand their motivation, and be able to predict when an alderman wants to send a message to a rival and use that knowledge to his advantage.
In this arena, Rangel is an undisputed master; he has made it part of UNO's mission to teach young Latino professionals like Tabares how to attain political power. The way to start, he says, is to form alliances with those in power. (That's how a Mexican-American comes to back an Irishman over a Mexican-American.)
"From the very beginning of my first interaction with UNO, the organization was very clear-minded about self-interest and power," Rangel said. "Becoming comfortable with those two concepts is hard to do, because we're brought up not to feel comfortable with those two things."
He later defined the concept: "Your self-interest is answering the questions, Where do you want to go? And how do you attain the power in the public arena to get there?" As for Rangel's own self-interest, he said he has no plans to run for political office again, but added, "Never say never. Things change." (In 1995, Rangel lost to Ald. Ricardo Munoz in the race for 22nd Ward alderman.)
A fine line
UNO, which was founded in 1984, is a nonprofit, which means it's supposed to stay out of political campaigns. Rangel, who has led the group since 1996, says he endorses candidates as "Juan Rangel," not as UNO's CEO.
That line has blurred as Rangel's political acumen and "lifetime of close ties," as the Chicago News Cooperative put it, have become more evident.
In 2009, UNO won a $98 million state grant for school construction, which the Tribune reported was the largest taxpayer subsidy to a single charter network in Illinois. In 2010 and 2011, Rangel was co-chairman of Rahm Emanuel's campaign for mayor, and in 2011, he won a city zoning change for a new elementary school over a waffling freshman alderman.
On the advice of UNO co-founder Ald. Daniel Solis, Emanuel reached out to Rangel while Emanuel was chief of staff at the White House. In the mayoral primary, Rangel endorsed Emanuel over two Latino candidates.
"The difference in all that was, Rahm Emanuel called me," Rangel said. "He said he was considering doing this, and when he's in town next he would love to walk the streets of my community with me." The two had not met.
Edward Burke was "somewhat taken aback" by Rangel's endorsement of Emanuel, but said, "I think Juan takes a big-picture approach. He's not simply a Latino leader. I think he is an urban leader for the 21st century."
The numbers explain why the politicking is necessary: Of the $104.5 million in revenue UNO collected in 2011, a little more than $100 million came from the government. But Rangel has made a few enemies with his endorsements. Exhibiting a confidence rare among executives, he offered to supply a list of detractors to interview for this story. The offer was declined because they are not difficult to find.
"We're certainly not happy with his aggressive positioning to people with tremendous power in order to further the expansion of privatized charter schools that overwork and underpay their staff and prohibit union representation," said Jackson Potter, staff coordinator for the Chicago Teachers Union. "They use slick advertising schemes to attract parents and lend a false sense of quality to many of their programs. ... It doesn't help that the mayor appointed Rangel to the Public Building Commission," which builds libraries, fire stations, schools and other public buildings, "despite the conflict of interest that represents."
Growing up in Little Village
It's hard to believe, but Rangel was once shy. Born in Brownsville, Texas, the sixth of seven children of illegal immigrants, he moved to Chicago at age 4. He loved to draw, which suited his introverted personality.
His childhood revolved around a mile radius of bungalows, taverns, churches and shops in the Little Village neighborhood. His father worked the second shift at a steel-drum factory 11/2 blocks south of his home. His father's tavern was a block north. His church was a block north of the tavern.
He credits his parents' decision to send him to St. Rita of Cascia High School as the turning point in his life. They did not do so for any of his siblings, and Rangel is the only one of them to graduate from college.
"I did very well in grammar school, so well that my parents thought it best to send me to a Catholic high school," he told the freshman class at UNO's Veterans Memorial Campus in Archer Heights two weeks ago. "I am forever grateful they allowed me to do that."
In college, Rangel majored in architecture at the University of Illinois at Chicago before transferring to the American Academy of Art to study illustration. After launching a career as an illustrator, he heard about UNO through his church, got involved and successfully ran for the local school council. He preferred the community work to drawing; so he quit and began working full time for UNO. (He still sketches in a small, leather-bound journal and on napkins.)
When Mayor Richard M. Daley appointed Solis alderman of the 25th Ward, Solis had to find a replacement to lead UNO. Rangel, as has been reported, was not Solis' first choice.
"Another one was a woman. ... The other guy, I don't even remember his name," Solis said. "He was young, the same age as Juan at the time and a little bit more dynamic. In the long run, Juan turned out to be the best choice. I always knew he was very bright. But I also think he's very strategic."
Rangel spends much of his time behind a podium, speaking before the City Club; the media; students and parents at orientations and graduations; and politicians at groundbreaking ceremonies. He has grown comfortable with public life.
"I still consider myself an introvert, but my job requires me to hobnob," he said. "Last night I went to a White Sox game with some aldermen. I had a great time. I enjoyed it. That's part of what I do, but I'm just as happy at Barnes & Noble." Every Sunday night, Rangel hangs out at the Webster Avenue Barnes & Noble, browsing the shelves and cracking open a few books.
UNO's transformation from grass-roots group to political player occurred gradually, but there have been a few turning points. The first is Rangel's decision to operate charter schools.
"I got a phone call from (then-Chicago Public Schools CEO) Paul Vallas in about 1997, and he was just giving me a heads-up out of respect that he was getting a lot of pressure to give ACORN a charter school," Rangel said. "That was that -- until I found out what kind of school it was. ... I found out that it would focus on Latino culture, the arts, the language."
Rangel was furious. "Not because I don't believe in those things, but because it was falling back to a caricature of the Hispanic community. I said, 'Why does it have to be that kind of school?' People are going to say, 'They can sing and dance, but they're not going to be scientists.'
"I said (to Vallas), 'You know, why don't you give us a charter? Because if we had a charter, it wouldn't be like that. It would focus on science and math and reading.' And (Vallas) said, 'OK. Apply.' "
UNO opened its first charter school in 1998.
The second key event was the creation of the Metropolitan Leadership Institute, known as MLI. Facilitated by Phil Mullins, a high school friend of Solis and UNO's chief operating officer, its graduates have positions of influence throughout Chicago. They include former Chicago Transit Authority President Richard Rodriguez, 1st Ward Ald. Proco "Joe" Moreno and Manuel Flores, director of the banking division of the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. Edward Burke and Daley regularly speak to MLI classes.
The third factor is Rangel's emphasis on design. As an artist, he understands the power of appearances.
At a July news conference for charter-school funding, UNO's faculty couldn't be missed; all wore matching blue blazers. When UNO bused parents to Springfield to lobby for the $98 million state grant, the troops wore identical yellow T-shirts and tried to get legislators to wear buttons that said, "End school overcrowding"
When UNO designs schools, Rangel oversees every aspect. He wants buildings that are futuristic, bold and "aspirational." And when UNO opens a school, it does so with fireworks, balloons, a light show and thumping music.
"When the first valedictorian for this school got up and gave her speech, she talked about how she hesitated in coming to this school," Rangel said in a conference room at the spaceshiplike UNO Soccer Academy, during an interview for a promotional piece for an architecture firm. "She wasn't sure she was going to be able to make friends, and then she came to the grand opening event with the lights and the fireworks and all that. And she said, 'I knew then that this was going to be anything but ordinary.' "
In the middle of her speech, Rangel recalled turning to his academic affairs chief and saying, "That's going to be our tag line. 'UNO: Anything but ordinary.' "
Rangel's rhetoric about bootstrapping one's way to power makes him sound like a Republican. In September, he told the Wall Street Journal: "Democrats are so intent on making Latinos the next victimized minority seeking entitlement programs and all that, that the Republicans are starting to believe it. And they're wrong on both ends. This is a great community that's poised to do great things -- but you've got to challenge it. Don't pander to it."
The philosophical underpinnings of his strategy can be found in the first two books assigned to MLI students: Saul Alinsky's "Rules for Radicals" and Chris Matthews' "Hardball."
The latter is a how-to manual for a freshman U.S. representative. Through anecdotes about Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan and former U.S. House Speaker Tip O'Neill, Matthews instructs political insiders on how to amass power.
Alinsky's book is a manual for outsiders. He tells "the have-nots" to form alliances; to join those in power rather than march against them; and to work for incremental change rather than "revelations."
"To many the synonym for self-interest is selfishness," Alinsky wrote. "This common definition is contrary, of course, to our every day experiences. ... The myth of altruism as a motivating factor in our behavior could arise and survive only in a society bundled in the sterile gauze of New England puritanism and Protestant morality and tied together with ribbons of Madison Avenue public relations. It is one of the classic American fairy tales."
When UNO's self-interest helps improve the education of thousands of Latino children, Rangel appears as the hero in one of those fairy tales. When he applies his methods to other issues, a harder edge emerges.
As we walked into his brick bungalow, which sits nearly adjacent to a Midwest Generation coal-fired electric generating plant, I asked Rangel whether he approved of the deal Emanuel brokered to shutter that plant and another one in Pilsen.
Rangel demurred, saying he sympathized with the 180 workers who would lose their jobs. He also remarked that he believed the plant's pollution caused more harm to people living elsewhere -- he motioned toward the lake -- than to residents of Little Village. (Those plants pumped 4.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the air in 2010 vs. 132,000 metric tons from the city's next biggest source, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.)
Midwest Generation was a financial supporter of UNO, but now that what's done is done and the plants will close next month, Rangel's self-interest has changed.
"What do you do with such a humongous building?" he said. "You tear it down and you put an UNO school in there."
- - -
Juan Rangel, CEO, United Neighborhood Organization
Family: Single, no children; one of seven siblings.
Hobbies: Drawing, reading
Collects: Tequila, political pins, art. He's a bit of a pack rat.
On his house: "My brother makes fun of me and says my house looks like a Mexican restaurant." His kitchen is painted orange.
Aspirations: "I would love to get a master's degree. ... I would love to have kids," he told a group of freshmen.
Life-changing experience: Traveling to China with UNO students.
Upcoming trip: To the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. He's a delegate.
firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter @chiconfidentialCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times