Chicago’s new city treasurer, Kurt Summers Jr., speaks to the Tribune Editorial Board on Thursday. (E. Jason Wambsgans, Chicago Tribune)

Chicago’s new city treasurer, Kurt Summers Jr., speaks to the Tribune Editorial Board on Thursday. Photo E. Jason Wambsgan / Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO TRIBUNE / Hal Dardick

Emanuel’s pick for treasurer has clear path in first election.
Chicago’s new treasurer, Kurt Summers Jr., tells a rags-to-riches story.

When Mayor Rahm Emanuel picked Kurt Summers Jr. as city treasurer, he catapulted the little-known, 35-year-old, Harvard-educated investment banker into a prominent city post that could set him on a trajectory to one day run for higher office.

It was hardly happenstance. Despite some childhood challenges, Summers was raised by an extended family that kept him focused. His grandfather was close to Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor. And Summers has worked in high-level government jobs for influential Chicago politicians and key posts at investment firms.

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Given all that, the new parlor game at City Hall is to ask what Summers will be when he reaches political maturity, should he acquit himself well in his latest job. For his part, Summers says he’s focused on the work at hand but isn’t ruling anything out.

“If I’m an asset (as treasurer), this is me being put to my highest and best use, and I think if there’s another opportunity to continue to do that in the future, and it’s still my highest and best use, I’m going to do that,” Summers told the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board on Thursday when asked about his potential political future.

It was a characteristically careful answer from Summers, who’s on target to be elected to his first full term Feb. 24 after potential challengers were scared off by Emanuel’s late October appointment of Summers, which gave challengers little time to get on the ballot.

Summers’ admirers are not nearly as guarded. When the mayor appointed Summers to replace Stephanie Neely, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush and other longtime political leaders were all praise.

“I have a great deal of respect for Kurt,” said Ald. Roderick Sawyer, 6th, whose late father, Eugene, finished out Washington’s term after he died from a heart attack. “He’s a very intelligent and conscientious young man. I think he’ll go as far has he wants in public life.”

The choice of Summers, who is African-American, allowed Emanuel to maintain the racial and ethnic balance on the citywide ticket that former Mayor Richard M. Daley established near the end of his tenure. In addition, Emanuel’s support among African-American voters has been slipping, and he can campaign for re-election with Summers’ support.

Summers called his ascension to treasurer “the culmination of my life experience,” and immediately embarked on a 77-day listening tour in each of the city’s 77 communities. That same day, he released a plan for his approach to the office.

Summers grew up mostly in the Bronzeville neighborhood on the South Side. He said it was known then as Low End, because many low-income families lived there, or alternatively as G-Town, taking the “G” from the first letter of a prominent street gang.

That’s part of the up-by-the-bootstraps narrative told by Summers, who was sent to live with his two great aunts after his parents were divorced when he was 5. That was in the same two-flat as Sam Patch — his grandfather on his mother’s side and a friend and political confidant to Washington. Summers’ younger sister, meanwhile, went to live with their father and grandmother.

A few years later, the future city treasurer was reunited with his mom, who remarried and moved to Florida, then Nashville and finally back to Chicago, Summers said. He attended Chicago Public Schools, qualifying for the gifted program, skipping a grade and graduating from Young High School.

At one point, there were food stamps in the home, Summers said. “We had about everything turned off that could be turned off, so lights, water, gas, electricity, phone,” Summers said of his time living with his mom. “I kind of knew, and know, what it means to struggle.”

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But Summers also concedes distinct advantages, like the strictness of his great aunts when it came to studying, the tutelage of Patch and his innate talent for math and investments. He graduated from Washington University in St. Louis, where he was selected as commencement speaker. After working as a business analyst for a couple of years, he received his master’s in business administration from Harvard Business School.

After working in finance, he was chief of staff for Chicago’s 2016 Summer Olympics bid. After that effort failed, he worked for Patrick Ryan, Daley’s leader on the Olympic effort.

Summers then became Preckwinkle’s first chief of staff before leaving in 2012 to work for Grosvenor Capital Management, a firm owned by Michael Sacks, a close adviser to Emanuel.

Summers, who now lives in Hyde Park with wife Helen, said the decision to accept the appointment as treasurer is “a substantial financial sacrifice.” His salary before taking the job, he said, was “many multiples” of the $133,545 paid annually to the treasurer.

Now he manages $7 billion in assets and sits on the board of five pension funds. Summers says he wants to see more city money invested in city businesses and come up with a plan to lower investment fees for 10 city pension funds. “Wall Street,” he said in one recent speech, “has been taking advantage of Chicago.”

The chance to make those improvements makes the cut in pay OK, he said.

“I think it’s a sacrifice that’s more than well worth it,” Summers said. “I think I’m getting the good end of this trade, because of the ability to give back. This is literally a dream job for me.”

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