As hundreds of enthusiastic Democrats packed the UIC Pavilion on Sunday to join President Obama’s get-out-the-vote rally in the upcoming do-or-die midterms, Mayor Rahm never looked so irrelevant.
It’s not just that he wasn’t onstage with Obama, J.B. Pritzker, Susana Mendoza, and other leaders of his Democratic Party to take a stand against Governor Rauner and Trump. Or that no one particularly wanted him onstage. Or that there are still Democrats in Chicago who have a hard time forgiving Rahm for ruling more like Mitt Romney than Barack Obama in his first term.
It’s just that in general it seems he’s already left town since he announced a few weeks ago that he wasn’t running for reelection.
So let me just point out to all those wannabe mayors—Rahm’s not gone yet. He’s left two things that will haunt his successor for years: a fictitious narrative and some very real obligations.
First, let’s deal with the narrative, as Rahm made use of it in his final budget address on October 17. Bragging about a budget that calls for no new property taxes, Rahm did what he does best—patted himself on the back. He reminisced about the dark days of 2010, when he came home from the Obama White House to run for mayor. The city, he said, “had reached a boiling point”—”many believed our best days were behind us.” Some, he warned, even predicted “Chicago would be the next Detroit.”
But, he went on, the naysayers were wrong. “To those who thought demise and decay were preordained,” he proclaimed, “Chicagoans showed resolve and resilience that define the character of this great city.”
Nice try, Rahm. Too bad it’s not true.
OK, Chicagoans do have resolve and resilience. After all, we survived eight years of Rahm.
But nobody was saying the city Mayor Rahm inherited resembled Detroit. On the contrary, most people were praising Mayor Daley—the mayor Rahm succeeded—from saving Chicago from becoming Detroit. As exhibit A, consider this glowing New Yorker profile of Mayor Daley, published in 2010, just a few months before Daley stepped down.
“Daley took office at a moment when Chicago was paralyzed by infighting and mismanagement,” the story begins. “In 1987 William Bennett, the Secretary of Education, said that Chicago had the worst school system in the country—’an education meltdown.’ The center of the city was a desiccating museum of masterpieces by Mies van der Rohe and Louis Sullivan. Infant mortality in remote neighborhoods was comparable to levels in the Third World.”
And, then, in 1989, Daley was elected mayor. “In the years that followed, Detroit, Cleveland, and other former industrial powers continued to wither, but Chicago did not. It has grown in population, income, and diversity; it has added more jobs since 1993 than Los Angeles and Boston combined. Downtown luxury condos and lofts have replaced old warehouses and office blocks. New trees and flower beds line the sidewalks and sprout from the roofs of high-rises. . . . Chicago is a postindustrial capital of innovation from house music to fashion—the Milan of the midwest, as the Washington Post put it last year.”
Wait, wait—there’s more in that profile, which was indicative of many written about Daley at that time.
Alderman Joe Moore likened Daley to “a rock star” as he recalled other mayors at a national conference rushing to “shake his hand, get autographs, just express their admiration.”
Ed Rendell, former governor of Pennsylvania, called Daley “the best mayor in the history of the country.”
And former alderman Bill Singer, pointing to all the buildings sprouting up on the west side, proclaimed, “with wonder in his voice” that “people want to live here.”
As though before Daley that thought was inconceivable.
So if Chicago had already been “saved” from going the way of Detroit (and Cleveland) by “the best mayor in the history of the country,” how can Rahm get away with claiming credit for saving it again only eight years later?
Obviously, he’s banking on Chicagoans—for all their resolve and resilience—having lousy memories. Or maybe he’s hoping they’ll believe whatever propaganda he feeds them. And we all know is that Rahm’s been feeding us propaganda from the moment he walked into office.
The reality is that Chicago was not as bad as Daley’s admirers say it was when Daley took over, and it wasn’t so great when he left. So, yes, Rahm should get some credit for starting to confront the financial obligations that Daley ignored. Just as Daley’s predecessors—Mayors Harold Washington and Eugene Sawyer—should get more credit for steering the city through some rocky times during the 80s. Like we’ll ever see that happen.
Daley had a bad habit of pushing off debt to future generations, or trying to pay our bills with such scams as the parking meter deal. Anything to avoid raising property taxes. So Rahm ultimately had to deal with the backlash of raising taxes and fees—after having wasted his first four years in office trying to avoid property tax hikes.
And that brings me to the next thing Rahm’s successor will inherit—the obligations. For all Rahm’s talk about taking on tough challenges, he left billions of dollars of pension debt for his successor to wrestle with. His last budget is a classic election-year budget. By that, I mean it’s based on rosy projections of income they expect to have on hand to spend.
Mayors love to make rosy budget projections at election time. That way they can run for reelection on a promise that they’re holding the line on taxes even as they brag about paving streets, hiring cops, and offering summer jobs for youngsters.
As Mayor Rahm did in his last budget.
And then once they’re reelected, they can turn right around and announce—oops, our income is less than we projected. Looks like we’ll have to raise taxes after all.
Clearly, Mayor Rahm was still planning to run for reelection when he crafted this budget. At the very least, he didn’t want to make his loyal aldermen have to vote on a tax hike before they run for reelection. So he resorted to a good-news budget that any incumbent would want to use in a reelection campaign.
Now that Rahm’s not running, it will be up to his successor to break the bad news about higher taxes sometime next year. By this time, Rahm will be living the good life of an ex-mayor, giving speeches and writing books—probably about how he saved Chicago from becoming the next Detroit.
So it goes with mayors. You watch—in eight or so years, our next mayor—be it Lori Lightfoot, Toni Preckwinkle, Amara Enyia, Troy LaRaviere, Willie Wilson, whoever—will probably be bragging about having saved Chicago from financial ruin. If so, I only ask that he or she refrain from mentioning Detroit in that oration. Poor Detroit has been used and abused enough.