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Thursday, Jan. 6, 2005 04:44 am

Mother always said

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My mother used a vast repertoire of pithy proverbs in her attempts to raise me right. I shudder when I hear myself repeating them to my kids, but only because it shows I'm getting old. The aphorisms themselves are, as Mother would say, good as gold.

"Let sleeping dogs and babies lie," was one of her favorites. So I swear I never would have resurrected the subject of Letitia Dewith-Anderson if someone else -- namely Mayor Tim Davlin -- hadn't brought up Brian McFadden.

McFadden, you recall, was Mayor Karen Hasara's chief of staff. To most of us in the media, the main difference between McFadden and Hasara was that he was more accessible. His word was just as official, his opinion just as informed, and his knowledge of city government just as comprehensive as hers.

And that's exactly what it seemed Dewith-Anderson would become when Davlin announced that she would be his chief of staff. Not only did Dewith-Anderson play a crucial role in his campaign, she also appeared to have the education (law degree), the background (state legislative staffer), and the energetic intelligence to be second-in-command to the mayor. The fact that she's also female and black sent a hopeful signal to anybody who wasn't lucky enough to be born a white male.

Alas, the honeymoon was short-lived. One hundred days into his administration, Davlin demoted Dewith-Anderson to "assistant to the mayor" and limited her duties to overseeing boards and commissions. After much public outcry, he renamed her "executive assistant," but Dewith-Anderson was exiled to the outer fringe. She had no secretary, no authority, no access to the mayor. A few months later, she resigned.

And poof! her brief tenure evaporated like a dream. In an article announcing her resignation, the State Journal-Register quoted Davlin saying Dewith-Anderson just wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. "She wasn't fired. This is 100 percent her doing. It has nothing to do with me," he said. The editorial page chimed in that Dewith-Anderson never really was very important to begin with. And ever since, whenever her name can't be avoided, the SJ-R reports that Dewith-Anderson resigned but that she "declined to say why" -- despite interviews she gave to Illinois Times and WUIS radio explaining her decision.

But like I said, this was one slumbering mutt I would never have roused if Davlin hadn't stirred the cur.

Weeks ago, in his budget proposal, the mayor requested $80,000 for an executive assistant. In mid-December, during a press conference that started with the health department and meandered into military base closures, he pointed out how his lobbying trip to Washington, D.C., right in the midst of budget hearings should prove to aldermen that he needs an executive assistant.

"If this isn't the perfect example of having an opportunity of having someone in there speaking for me in that capacity, you know, I would say they're basically saying . . . either that Brian McFadden certainly wasn't in a needed position . . . or that they have enough confidence in this administration that I could replace both Karen Hasara and Brian McFadden and they have the confidence in me to be able to do that," Davlin said.

Since he invoked McFadden, I just had to ask: Was he looking for an executive assistant? Or a chief of staff?

The mayor pinched out a smile. "I think that the position in the budget books is executive assistant," he said.

But McFadden was nobody's assistant. McFadden was chief of staff.

"That was the capacity that he had served," Davlin said, "the same person, the same capacity, as what he has because there hasn't been a chief of staff."

Huh?!? No matter how many times I listen to my tape, I don't understand what he said. Both Davlin and his communications director have ignored my request for clarification.

Which leaves me with no choice but to believe what I felt in my gut when Davlin demoted Dewith-Anderson: It wasn't about his "management style"; it was simply about her. Only the mayor couldn't admit it without a) risking the wrath of all his non-white-guy constituents and b) looking dumb.

Anybody who knows Dewith-Anderson knows that you'd have to get up pretty early (as Mother would say) to keep pace with her work ethic, her brains, and her heart. Soon after she left city government, she became a lobbyist for Humana Inc., a job she enjoys enough to work full-time while caring for her husband, Bill Anderson, as he fights a usually-fatal form of cancer.

"I love where I am now," she says. "People accept me for who I am -- an African-American woman with knowledge of politics, state and local government, and concern for our society."

As usual, you have to read between the lines to figure out what her comment says about Davlin. But Dewith-Anderson's mom used the same proverbs mine did, including, "If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."

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