Kurt Summers reflects on time as City Treasurer, looks to the future

Then-Treasurer Kurt Summers in his City Hall office before the end of his term. (Photo by Aaron Gettinger)

Staff writer

CITY HALL — Hyde Park’s Kurt Summers stepped out of the city treasurer’s job on May 20, proud of the work he did as Chicago’s investor, banker and advocate and proud of the team he built that focused on policy, accounting, investments, public and intergovernmental affairs and community outreach.

Former Mayor Rahm Emanuel appointed Summers to the role in 2014; he was re-elected unopposed the next year, but he decided not to seek another term in 2019.

“I think we have probably the most talented investment office of any city in the nation and convinced a lot of the best and brightest people out there to come here and sacrifice earnings, time and sleep,” he said at a May 14 interview with the Herald. “I hope that’s precedent-setting not only here, but for my colleagues across the country.”

Over his professional life in the public and private sectors — a Bronzeville native, he was educated at Whitney Young, Washington University in St. Louis and Harvard Business School before working consulting at McKinsey & Company, as a senior vice president at Grosvenor Capital Management and as chief of staff to both Chicago’s 2016 Olympic bid and for County Board President Toni Preckwinkle — “the common denominator for success is human capital.”

As treasurer, his office held the city’s cash and paid its bills. He invested a massive portfolio from bonds, TIFs, and aviation and utility revenues for capital and operating purposes and claimed the best investment performance in the office’s history — “earnings that are going back into communities, through vehicles we set up.”

Summers said his advocacy for Chicago around the world and across the country “has been an important part of our journey,” from investment in Black-owned community banks, the first-ever $100 million community investment fund and millions more into senior and affordable housing and infrastructure projects.

“We put the entire power of our $8.5 billion portfolio, independent of the returns, into environmental, social and justice investing, so that now we are basically investor–activists, and we’re holding companies accountable” to gender and racial equality and pay-gap, environmental and labor issues, he said. He instituted first-in-the-nation quarterly municipal earnings calls and called the conversations “robust and healthful,” especially because of the Windy City’s reputation for murky financial transparency.

Nevertheless, the treasurer does not control Chicago’s budget, revenue department or debt. In his opinion those entities should work in concert. The comptroller of New York City can audit municipal departments. The San Francisco treasurer is also the revenue collector. Washington’s mayor appoints the city’s chief financial officer whose term lasts longer the mayor’s, meant to provide a degree of independence.

For efficiency’s sake, Summers urges a consolidation of all balance sheet debt liability and asset activities into one place. “If you had that all along, that would be substantially more beneficial,” he said: As the Chicago treasurer has to invest based in large part on the city’s big fiscal obligations, “If the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, then everyone’s guessing — and that’s clearly not efficient,” he said. Revenues and expenditures should not be divorced from balance sheet activity.

“I think that the benefit of having a separately elected financial office for the people in Chicago is significant,” he said, calling the job “a separate fiscal watchdog and fiduciary independent of what the mayor’s office does.”

“You are obligating the city for decades when you issue debt. You’re making investment decisions for the city for a long time. Having those things together outside of the purview of the mayor’s office [isn’t] a radical idea.” Combining the functions so as to be “accountable to the people independent of the politics of the chief executive” would be useful.

But Summers will not oversee such reforms. Out of office, he is on sabbatical with no plans besides traveling, writing, speaking and self-care. “There’s a chapter that I want to write as a public citizen,” but “there’s nothing I’m going to do with the rest of my life that won’t be in service to other people,” he said. “There will ways for me in the future to be as impactful — if not more impactful — without the constraints of holding elected office.”

In a city as segregated as Chicago, racial lines are geographic lines. “Every element of financial stability, prosperity and progress, we lag the nation in every category along racial lines,” Summers said. “We can’t help but address this [reality] of a tale of two cities … and everyone — Hyde Parkers especially — can see that.”

He urged Hyde Parkers to address the issues head-on: “There needs to be a disproportionate investment in the areas that are on the wrong side of that coin and have gotten the raw deal from this city since its inception. I think that we should be the leaders who support and drive that change.”

As one might expect from an exit interview, Summers gave freewheeling takes on local and municipal politics. Ald. Sophia King (4th) and her husband, Alan, are old friends. Rep. Kam Buckner (D-26th) used to direct at World Sport Chicago, which grew out of the city’s Olympics bid. He remembers when Rep. Curtis Tarver II (D-25th) was working for the city and when Sen. Robert Peters (D-13th) was volunteering for Preckwinkle. He mentioned Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton’s (D) first elected office as a Kenwood Academy local school counselor and being Atty. Gen. Kwame Raoul’s (D) fraternity brother and former neighbor. He called County Commissioner Bill Lowry (D-3rd) “one of the best friends I have on this planet.”

“These are all people you’ve known for a long time,” Summers said. “I feel great about not just the representation of the area but also who’s come from the area and what they are now doing. It’s a testament to that area, that you have leading progressive elected officials that come out of there.”

Summers was, however, conspicuously laconic about Preckwinkle, noting that he did not endorse during the mayoral election and declining to say whom he voted for. In December, he attacked Emanuel on Twitter for his supposed blame of Black Chicagoans’ values for the violence in the community. Summers criticized Emanuel’s closing of 50 neighborhood schools, mental health clinics and the Laquan McDonald cover-up. Asked for follow-up comment during the interview, he said he had nothing more to add.

He is very hopeful about Mayor Lori Lightfoot and hopes she has the right team for the job. “People talk about how she won 50 wards or she won 74% — she won 99% of the precincts in this city!” he said. “I believe that she has a great vision for the future of this city, and I think that that mandate … it wasn’t just a mandate for her.”

Regarding the aldermanic elections, Summers saw a message: “Either we’re going to make a change, because the status quo doesn’t work, hasn’t worked, won’t work, and we will replace you and put someone good in, or we’re going to give you the race of your life, and you better listen to us and address our issues directly.”

Summers does not agree with the lesson Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) told the Herald she learned from her close reelection, that she “did not toot [her] own horn as much as [she] should have.” “Any incumbent that had that situation needs to take from it that his or her constituents are asking for different behavior going forward,” he said. “One of two things need to change: either you need to communicate what you’ve done better, which is her take, or you need to do better things that speak to that base. Or both, but it’s not one alone.”

He said the newly elected officials will change the way Chicago sees itself. “For this city, there’re going to be growing pains associated with that, and I’m looking forward to seeing how we handle that, incorporate those new voices and whether or not the electorate that spoke loudly on April 2 and Feb. 26 is ready to speak loudly and support them,” he said. “It’s one thing to win; it’s another thing to govern.”

Summers will stay in Hyde Park to watch what happens. “My wife and I, when we moved here after business school … I knew I wanted to live in Hyde Park,” he said. “It’s just a phenomenal community. People cut their teeth in a place where they’re held accountable in Hyde Park. Big projects don’t happen there without a whole lot of public engagement. Policy issues that take place and votes that you make — you’re accountable for your votes when you come home.”