But Summers, who had previously been a senior vice-president at Grosvenor Capital Management as well as a former chief of staff to Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle, faces tremendous challenges in his new office, among them helping the city government address an ever present budget crisis and maximizing returns on the city’s numerous pension funds in an increasing volatile economy.
Windy City Times spoke with Summers, a Chicago native, about his new position, which he said he’ll use to draw from a history of financial stewardship and political activism.
Windy City Times: What led to your decision to take on the treasurer’s position? In your testimony before the City Council In November, you said that you were “uniquely qualified” for the position. How so?
Kurt Summers: This is truly my dream job. My entire life, I have been focused on two things: giving back to my community, and building my interest and passion for finance. This is a combination of those two things. I have been fortunate enough to have learned at two of the greatest institutions in the world; I studied finance at Washington University in St. Louis and Harvard Business School. I learned about the business at places like McKinsey and Grosvenor, so I couldn’t have had a better training ground. Also, I’m from Chicago, born and raised on the South Side. I’ve always been, one way or another, working on efforts in connecting to give back to the community.
WCT: In an interview you gave with Progress Illinois, you described yourself as a “Harvard-trained, Goldman Sachs-trained activist who wants to give back to the community.” How do you reconcile finance and community activism?
Kurt Summers: Activism is really about leveraging whatever assets you have for greater agenda, a greater good. Too often the piece that’s missing is the financial capital behind them. I don’t think it’s a reconciliation at all—I think it’s adding a piece to the puzzle that traditionally isn’t there.
I view this office as having three functions for the people of Chicago. I’m their banker. I’m their investor. I’m an advocate for businesses in Chicago, especially small businesses and entrepreneurs in Chicago, and for our broader local agenda. When I think about how you can be an effective activist and advocate, having capital behind you is significant.
WCT: You mentioned a “broader local agenda.” What do you see that as being the next four years?
Kurt Summers: The city has had very significant fiscal challenges in the last four years and [will have more] in the next four years—the most significant challenges we’ve had probably since the Great Depression, when we had private bankers bail out the city to help make payroll. … First and foremost is financial stewardship, making sure our fiscal house is in order. The next step is continuing to grow Chicago throughout Chicago, and not just in the central business district—grow and support neighborhoods and companies as we continue to be and develop as a world-class city.
We started this [initiative entitled] “77 Communities in 77 Days.” In order for me to be a great investor and advocate for what Chicago has to offer, I have to be there myself and know firsthand, community by community, what the opportunities are and what the needs are. That is what’s going to make us competitive and make us thrive as a city going forward—looking at opportunities where we can grow and develop our small businesses, neighborhoods and our talents.
WCT: How can city hall do more specifically to stimulate investment in the city’s neighborhoods?
Kurt Summers: In this office, we manage seven billion dollars. I sit on the boards of five global pension plans—municipal, labor, police, fire and teachers—that collectively manage over 25 billion dollars. All told, all the local plans, and all the sister agencies, in sort of pooling that capital, manage over $50 billion. Not a dime of that money has an explicit mandate to pursue a specific investment the city of Chicago.
WCT: One of Mayor Emanuel’s opponents, Amara Enyia—who has now dropped out of the race—was a proponent of having a public bank. Do you think that’s something viable for the city?
Kurt Summers: I’ve come to learn that at one point the city did have a public bank. The city had its own ABA routing number. I think that there are a couple municipal and state institutions around the country that have developed public banks with some level of success. It’s something that’s worth evaluating. There’s a whole set of regulations around that, red tape and bureaucracy. I don’t know that we need to create a whole new set of red tape and bureaucracy, but I do think that the intention there is right.
We, at any given time, have between half a billion and over a billion dollars in taxpayer money sitting in a host of commercial banks. It’s a worthwhile question to ask, how are those banks investing, providing capital, and access to capital and loans to Chicago and our communities in Chicago? We have a platform where we’re able to ask that question and maintain accountability to our partners. That’s something you’ll see from this office going forward. It starts with transparency around what lending and giving practices are by all of our partners throughout Chicago.
WCT: have you had any experience engaging the LGBT community?
Kurt Summers: I have absolutely done that before I was in the office. I have been a supporter of Equality Illinois—I was when I worked for Toni Preckwinkle and enjoyed a great relationship there and I still do. I’ve been to the Center on Halsted and begun a dialogue with them and others throughout the the LGBT community around issues of particular significance.
A couple that have been raised include the scattered housing policies addressing homelessness and displaced populations, especially amongst young people in the community. We need to do more there to provide real housing solutions to this group of people. Secondly, I’ve come to learn about the senior housing issue. In the LGBT community you have seniors who came out in the 80’s and now they’re retiring and in retiring communities where it’s not socially acceptable for them to be who they are. In many cases they’ve felt compelled to go back in the closet because there isn’t enough senior housing available that are open to all. There’s this social pressure that pushes back on who the are. That’s a travesty. Whatever I can do to invest in senior housing that’s targeted to the LGBT community or that has the premise of an open and accepting community, I want to support that. Finally, there are a number of services as it relates to financial education and planning for retirement that can be crafted to the LGBT community.
As a minority, an African-American, I have as deep an appreciation, for human rights, civil rights and social justice issues as anyone. I know all too well about the need for advocacy on this issues from our leaders, and now that I’m in this position I have a greater ability to do so. … Yes, I’m the treasurer, but I’m also one of only three people elected citywide to represent the people of Chicago. As a representative of all the people of Chicago, you have to represent them on all the issues, challenges and concerns that they have that affect their lives.
WCT: Anything you’d like to add?
Kurt Summers: My being a strong financial steward on behalf of the people of Chicago will lead to better financial outcomes for the city, which allows us to invest in more services, education, public safety and medical services that we provide. In making that connection for people, the better job I do, the more resources we have to support them is critical. I’m in full support of the LGBT community and the issues of civil and human rights that we all face. I don’t view then as specific to a community—I view them as truly human rights. All of us have to share in this planet together and fight together for what’s right.