Chicago 2015: The Prince or the Populist?

Chicago Mayoral candidate Jesus “Chuy” Garcia speaks to supporters at a rally. REUTERS/Jim Young

In early fall 2010 when Richard M Daley announced that he would not stand for a sixth four-year term as mayor of Chicago, most observers of the city’s politics were caught by surprise. One of the prevailing assumptions about Chicago politics is that mayors — especially with the surname Daley — do not willingly give up their office on City Hall’s fifth floor.

Mayor Daley’s decision, nevertheless, might have been foreseen. His wife Maggie was in failing health and she would succumb to cancer in late 2011. Then there was the International Olympic Committee’s unanticipated (at least locally) rejection, in October 2009, of Chicago’s bid to host the 2016 Olympic Games, a decision that Mayor Daley did not take at all well. And perhaps Daley anticipated that a fiscal crisis was likely to swamp his administration if he carried on for another term.

Of equal surprise to most aficionados of Chicago politics was the unfolding of the post-Daley mayoral election in early 2011. With Richard M Daley on the sidelines, smart money presumed that a large field of candidates – each catering to a particular racial/ethnic constituency – would contest the first round of the nonpartisan mayoral contest, and assuming that none of the candidates would win a majority of the votes cast, a run-off election would pit the two top vote-getters from the first round.

Emanuel’s new plum job was not so rosy

There were multiple candidates – former US Senator Carol Moseley Braun, former school board president Gerry Chico, and Daley administration veteran Miguel del Valle to varying degrees sought to mobilize those racial/ethnic blocs. But, in fact, President Barack Obama’s chief-of-staff, Rahm Emanuel, stepping down from the pinnacle of national political power, quickly raised campaign funds in the millions and turned himself into a serviceable-enough retail politician to win the mayoralty outright in the first-round ballot.

Whether or not Rahm Emanuel could foresee that his new plum job would not be so plum after all is an open question.

For much of Richard M Daley’s mayoralty, Chicago was widely presumed to be a city that was, so to speak, on the make. Chicago added residents in the 1990s, the first time that had happened since the 1940s. Daley earned accolades as a public school and public housing reformer. Even what might have been a great civic disaster – the $400 million over-budget Millennium Park project – won the praise of architecture critics and became a wildly popular gathering place for Chicagoans and tourists alike.

But all was not well in Daley’s Chicago. Beginning in the early 2000s the city government had increasingly relied on debt to fund its operations. Indeed, Daley’s administration quietly issued bonds to pay for the day-to-day operations of Millennium Park. More gravely, Daley pushed back against fiscal reality by deferring billions of dollars in promised contributions to city employee pension funds.

City of Big Shoulders hit with big losses in revenue

Then, the crash of 2008 undermined many of Chicago’s revenue streams. This included a drop in the property tax, of course, but also in levies tapping real estate transactions and directed at the local tourist and convention economies.

Into this deeply compromised house of cards walked newly elected Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The current mayor’s policy preferences appear to be a blend of the business-friendly New Democrat playbook authored by his original political mentor, Bill Clinton, and sheer, fiscal crisis-inspired desperation.

Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel attends an opening ceremony for Yelp Inc. offices. REUTERS/Jim Young

Emanuel unctuously courts corporate leaders considering a headquarters relocation to Chicago, and when his overture succeeds, holds a celebratory press conference to highlight the economic development triumph.

He has pushed into high gear the privatization of Chicago’s schools, provoking a strike by the Chicago Teachers Union in the fall of 2012. And the following spring, the Emanuel-controlled school board closed four dozen neighborhood schools, the majority of which were in African-American neighborhoods on the South and West sides.

One of outgoing Mayor Daley’s least popular policy tools was Tax Increment Financing (TIF), a neighborhood development technique often used to leverage public resources for upscale commercial and residential development but rarely bringing private investment to neighborhoods away from Chicago’s near-downtown and north lakefront gentrification zone. With much fanfare, newly elected Mayor Emanuel appointed a task force to study TIF, but in the three years since the task force produced its report and recommendations, implementation of the TIF program is little changed.

Challengers play odd role in one-party city

In one-party Chicago, the emergence of challengers to an incumbent mayor is a curious process. There is never a Republican with either the personal reputation or organizational support to mount a campaign. So, challengers will be Democrats, presumably pushed forward by some disgruntled faction (usually a racial/ethnic constituency).

But in fact, challengers rarely succeed, and even in 2014 – with a mayor whose temperament was not widely admired and whose city was not thriving – it was unclear who might step forward to oppose Rahm Emanuel.

For a time the most formidable prospective challenger was the president of the Chicago Teachers Union, Karen Lewis, but in late summer, Lewis, just diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, announced that she would not make a run for mayor. Picking up Lewis’s mantle was Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a community activist and “independent Democrat” who in the 1980s had been among then-mayor Harold Washington’s city council allies.

To the surprise of many, Garcia and two other principal challengers to Mayor Emanuel won enough votes in the February first-round election to force a run-off on Tuesday.

Garcia’s initial success in tagging ‘Mayor 1%’

Presenting himself as the candidate of the neighborhoods, and as such attempting to re-mobilize the old Harold Washington coalition of African-Americans, Latinos and liberal whites, Garcia refers to Emanuel as “Mayor 1%,” pegging him as a downtown-oriented ally of the city’s elites.

But in the aftermath of the euphoria generated by his first-round performance, Garcia’s run-off election effort has sputtered. Vastly outspent by an Emanuel campaign with the capacity to flood the air waves with defamatory TV and radio ads the Garcia policy team has hesitated to articulate a detailed program for addressing the city government’s fiscal problems.

No doubt the Garcia team is hobbled by the following anxiety: the near-certainty that, post-election, tax increases will have to comprise a large part of the solution to the city’s fiscal woes. This is a poison pill for the candidate candid enough to state this perfectly obvious truth.

However, tax reticence does not seem to have served the Garcia campaign. In the weeks since the first-round ballot, public opinion polling finds Rahm Emanuel pulling away from his populist challenger.

Irrespective of the voters’ choice next week, the 2015 Chicago’s mayor’s race has been deficient in one key respect. Though more competitive than expected, the mayoral race has not produced the quality of debate necessary to begin to define real solutions to such deep-seated problems as the longstanding decline of so many South and West side neighborhoods, the challenge of balancing public safety versus community confidence in the police, or how to sustain a public school system that is both effective and inclusive.