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Rahm’s Reprieve

eye on the news

Rahm’s Reprieve

The Chicago mayor survives his runoff election, but he faces all the same problems. April 8, 2015

As expected, Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel handily won his runoff election against Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. Getting reelected might prove to be the easy part. Now Emanuel must confront a host of formidable problems, including severe crime, a deeply divided population, and America’s worst big-city finances.

Emanuel based his campaign on the argument that only he was capable of dealing with these challenges. Chicago will find out if he’s right. So far, former mayor Richard M. Daley has received much of the local blame for bad decisions that buried the city in debt. But the locus of responsibility is shifting to Emanuel. He might not have been the one who broke it, but now he owns it.

Much of the coverage of Emanuel focuses, perhaps understandably, on his style. It’s reasonable to ask whether someone whose operating principle is polarization can unite a city that has long been divided—especially when his approach appears to be working electorally. An early test of his effort to adopt a gentler style will be whether he can reset relations with the press, which he has alienated consistently.

And yet, the focus on Emanuel, in keeping with Chicago’s “great man” political tradition, obscures the role of other players in the current mess. Chicago’s vaunted business community has fallen in line with Emanuel, rarely if ever challenging him. It was equally supine before Daley, even as he signed bad union deals, foolishly pursued the Olympics, and racked up huge debts. What were the Commercial Club and the rest of the city’s business elite doing while this was going on? Feting Daley, the same way they now sing Emanuel’s praises.

In fact, Chicago’s high-end business community benefitted enormously from Daley’s largesse, which he lavished on the city’s commercial center. When Crain’s Chicago Business started to blow the whistle on the city’s finances back in 2010, the paper fittingly headlined its exposé: MAYOR DALEY RUNS UP BIG DEBTS BUILDING HIS GLOBAL CITY; WHAT ABOUT THE REST OF CHICAGO? The same question hung in the air during this election. Along with Daley and Emanuel, Chicago’s “global city” businesses deserve to take some of the heat for the city’s fiscal extremis and social divisions.

Boosters have long argued that having a strong mayor and united business and civic leadership was an advantage for Chicago because it could get things done when other cities stay mired in endless debate. The Chicago style may be efficient, in a narrow sense, but it also carried the city to the brink of fiscal ruin and left many citizens feeling disenfranchised along the way. Rahm Emanuel may indeed need to change his personal style. More broadly, Chicago needs to change its go-along-to-get-along political and civic culture, in which dissent carries a high price and the establishment marches in lockstep with the mayor.

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