All right, Chicago—you did it
We begged and pleaded for you to embrace a little democracy, and on Tuesday you came through. For the first time in decades, more than half of Chicago voters decided that they weren’t quite ready to coronate their mayor for another four years.
Even after Mayor Rahm Emanuel raised $14 million, saturated the city with commercials, and brought President Obama to town for a hug, he received only a little more than 45 percent of the vote—less than the majority he needed to win outright. And so, on April 7, he’ll face Cook County commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia in a winner-takes-all showdown.
If this keeps up, the mayor’s motorcade might have to stop at red lights like the rest of us.
Now we’re in for a race unlike any we’ve seen since the 1980s. The mayor will unleash another barrage of ads and talking points defending his record while progressives bathe Garcia in a national spotlight.
Beneath the hype and the hullabaloo, both candidates need to answer more questions about what they’ve done and what they’re planning to do. Here are a few issues they should start with.
The taxman cometh
The big issue is money—as in where to find the dough we need to pay the bills we’ve been neglecting since the campaign season went into full swing last summer. Emanuel came into office vowing to cut spending, outsource jobs, and reduce the city’s $33 billion in debts and pension liabilities—all without raising property taxes. However, so many Chicagoans found his cuts and policies so loathsome that he had to back off in order to win reelection—and even that transformation couldn’t forestall the runoff. In other words, the mayor punted. He proclaimed that the city budget was balanced, even though he had to borrow $1 billion to pay basic bills. He said he hadn’t raised property taxes, though he raises them every year for the Chicago Public Schools. He bought peace with police and firefighters by borrowing about $28 million to give them a contract. And he put off discussion on where to find the money for $600 million in additional pension payments due starting this year. The question now is which taxes will get raised to meet those obligations when the next mayor presents a budget to the City Council this fall. Unfortunately, fines, fees, and red-light camera tickets just won’t cut it—no matter how much shorter the yellow lights get. Perhaps the time’s really come to do what Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis suggested: legalize marijuana and tax the hell out of it.
The tale of two Chicagos
During their first televised debate, the mayoral candidates were asked what could be done about racial and economic segregation, which—as the Reader has documented—remains one of Chicago’s most pressing problems. The challengers all spoke of the need to create more jobs and quality schools in poor, black areas, but when it came time for specifics, they got vague. Garcia promised to build “diverse communities,” whatever that means. Emanuel added that current housing patterns were the result of a history of misguided policies and inaction—and then started talking about the number of African-Americans from Illinois elected to Congress, which was a great answer to a question that wasn’t asked. Here’s something specific they can do: add some teeth and resources to the city’s Commission on Human Relations, which is responsible for investigating complaints of housing discrimination. Since taking office Emanuel has cut its budget by 41 percent, to just $1.1 million a year. The next mayor could start to change history with a modest commitment to expanding opportunities.
Back to school: another CPS teachers’ contract
Emanuel roared into office vowing to make teachers do more with less on the grounds that their goldbricking was responsible for what ails the Chicago Public Schools—as opposed to segregation or poverty. He succeeded in inspiring the unflagging rancor of teachers, who put Emanuel on their list of favorite things somewhere between a canker sore and a colonoscopy. The result was a mandate for a longer school day as well as a 12-day strike in 2012.
And we’re about to do it all over again. The teachers’ contract expires this fall, and the next mayor will have to figure out where to find the money to give teachers a raise and meet pension obligations. After all, CPS has its own financial problems—last year, the school board pulled off an election-year gimmick in which it “balanced” the budget by adding two months to the fiscal year. That means it’s spending next year’s taxes on this year’s bills. Something tells us that property taxes will go up—again. Garcia owes his runner-up finish to Lewis and her union, which anointed him to run in the first place. The challenge for him would be to say no if he has to during contract talks. In contrast, the challenge for Mayor Emanuel would be to show a little civility and be a mensch in dealing with Lewis. Or at least try to refrain from hurling more F-bombs her way.
The police and safety cop-out
Police superintendent Garry McCarthy has dismissed the idea that police officers could get burned out from putting in too many extra shifts. “I was an overtime guy,” he said. “I did a ton of overtime, and I’m still doing it.” That was two years ago, but the police department continues to spend $100 million a year on overtime so officers can work second and third shifts in high-crime areas. This approach is cheaper than hiring more full-time cops, whose ranks have thinned since Emanuel took office. While most crime totals have fallen as well, shootings climbed in 2014, to an average of seven a day across the city. Veteran police say the overtime approach isn’t sustainable, but with huge pension payments due this year, it’s likely the next mayor will need to shrink the police department even further.
Emanuel has talked about easing up on drug busts to focus on violent crimes, but it remains to be seen if the proposal was more than an attempt to win votes from liberals and potheads. Garcia, meanwhile, has promised to hire 1,000 more police without specifying where the money will come from. At the very least, if Garcia wins, we can expect a new police chief, which is a whole lot less expensive than hiring all those cops.
The $1.7 billion money pot: TIFs
In case you forgot, the TIF program is the one that diverts roughly $450 million in property taxes each year from schools and parks into bank accounts largely controlled by the mayor. The funds are supposed to be spent eradicating blight in low-income neighborhoods, but thanks to loopholes the mayor is free to use them nearly any way he wants. In his effort to look like a reformer, Emanuel put together a TIF advisory team. After it issued a report, the mayor declared he had reformed the program, even though all the flaws still exist.
The big issue in the coming years will be the TIF money sitting in bank accounts. According to annual account statements issued by the city, the reserves now add up to $1.7 billion. Mayor Emanuel says all but $200 million of that money is obligated to projects, though it’s not clear what they are. That raises the first big TIF question: How much money is really available? It’s important to know, because everyone from teachers to firefighters is looking to tap TIF reserves to pay for pensions, contracts, and services. Unless someone can explain why the money is spoken for, Emanuel will have a harder time keeping it off-limits. Look for Garcia to hammer this point hard as he promises to pay for everything out of the TIF honey pot.
Transparency and open government
Give Mayor Emanuel credit: he understands that “transparency” is something voters are in favor of. But much like “reform”—another word he’s used a lot—it has been used so much it’s all but meaningless. As the mayor has declared support for open government, information about his own office has been difficult to come by, starting with logs of who’s lobbying or consulting with him on city policies. More troubling, even basic information about city government is often kept from the public, especially when it doesn’t match the story line the mayor tells through his regular news releases. His press office usually responds to reporters’ questions with talking points, some of them hilariously misleading or irrelevant. Last spring we found that hundreds of workers from black and Hispanic neighborhoods had been cut from the city payroll during Emanuel’s tenure. A mayoral spokeswoman e-mailed a canned statement. “This analysis does not reflect reality,” it said—even though the analysis was from records provided by Emanuel’s administration. With bills coming due, will our mayor finally start being candid about what taxpayers are going to have to sacrifice? If not now, when? For his part, Garcia hasn’t really addressed the issue. But should he win, we pledge to greet him with a FOIA request within the first week or two.
Of course, how the next mayor navigates all of these challenges could also depend on the makeup of the new City Council. With 19 races in runoffs, he’ll have to work with a new crop of aldermen, some of whom have vowed not to be mere rubber stamps.
One can always hope.