Rahm Emanuel, James Meeks

Rahm Emanuel got the mayor’s race rolling on Saturday, formally declaring his candidacy to supporters at Coonley elementary school on the north side, in a speech in which he also released the results of his listening tour.

You may recall that Emanuel, until recently President Obama’s chief of staff, prepped for his mayoral run by visiting grocery stores, el stops, and bowling alleys, where he let average Chicagoans tell him what the city needed. I’d worried that he’d get only prosaic suggestions in these locales—a lower price on summer sausage, washrooms in the el stations, more half-size bowling shoes. But, no, he’d discovered what Chicagoans really wanted, and it was a complete surprise: More jobs, better schools, less crime.

State Senator James Meeks declared his candidacy on Sunday, and in his speech he likewise pointed to jobs, schools, and crime as the city’s key issues. I’m not sure how Reverend Meeks managed to suss that out without the benefit of a listening tour.

Sunny skies are ahead for Chicago, Emanuel and Meeks both insisted, in speeches that were magical, in the fairy tale sense. They each see a shining city on a hill, different only in who will be atop that hill.

Emanuel told his supporters at Coonley he would: improve the city’s schools, make the streets safer, pave the way for more and better jobs, and put the city’s finances in order. He’d change the culture of city government so it was no longer “an insider’s game, serving primarily the lobbyists and well-connected.” He’d reform tax increment financing, phase out the head tax on employers, and not even think of raising taxes. He promised everything but better garbage collection—and then he promised that. Perhaps worried that he might be displeasing those who think city government cannot be all things to all people, he added, “We have to accept that city government cannot be all things to all people.”

Details of his enchanting makeover will follow—he announced that he’d be making other announcements. He promised a major speech in December on schools, a major speech in January on crime, and a major speech in February on jobs and the budget. They will be major speeches, of course, because of who will be giving them.

His listening tour would continue once he was elected, he said. He pointed to a program he established as a congressman—Congress on Your Corner—in which he hung out regularly at grocery stores “so I could hear the ideas and concerns of the people I served, at their convenience.” He said that once he was mayor, he’d turn Congress on Your Corner into City Hall on Your Corner, holding frequent town meetings in every part of the city. And he’d return to the el stops and grocery stores. He seems really into grocery stores. If he wins, he might be known not as the man on five but the man in aisle five.

He even pledged to start an online city suggestion box “so residents can continue to send me ideas—especially for saving money.”

That one tickled me for personal reasons. Many years ago, when I ran for vice-president of my eighth grade class at Kinzie, a public school west of Midway Airport, I promised to put a suggestion box in the school library. I thought it was kind of a juvenile idea even as I proposed it, but it swept me to victory. I did put the box in the library. None of the suggestions were any good.

“The changes we seek are profound,” Emanuel told his supporters at Coonley. “But there’s nothing wrong in Chicago that can’t be solved by what’s right in Chicago.”

The following evening, in a University of Illinois assembly hall, Meeks told several hundred supporters he planned to create a city “where dreams are fulfilled.” He would: balance the budget, protect businesses large and small so that more jobs are created, and, by making schools his top priority, get kids in even the poorest neighborhoods to realize “they can be anything that they put their minds to.”

He’d come up with “new and innovative ways of dealing with this thing called crime” while he also reached out to criminal offenders. “We must go to the streets and build a bridge,” he said. “A bridge from the streets to GED classes. A bridge from the streets to vocational training. A bridge from the streets back to high school. And a bridge from the streets to a job.” I was wondering how he’d balance the budget with all that new construction.

“A city that really works must have a leader who can’t take it anymore,” Meeks said. “A leader who can’t take seeing the Chicago Public Schools blaming the unions. And the unions blaming parents. And parents blaming teachers. And whites blaming African-Americans. And African-Americans blaming Hispanics. And the citizens blaming the police. And Democrats blaming Republicans.” I waited for him to add, “And ministers blaming gays,” but he didn’t.

“We need a leader with compassion,” Meeks went on. “We need a leader who’s a unifier. We need a leader who will work with blacks and whites and Hispanics.” His supporters were on their feet, cheering. “We need a leader who will work from Rogers Park to Roseland, who will work from Hyde Park to Austin, bringing people together. . . . We need a leader who will bring people out of this division and this turmoil to a place called unity and peace. . . . I know how to be a unifier.”

His address was as larded with cliches as Emanuel’s, but his cliches were lyrical. Look for Emanuel to try to match the Reverend’s style in his future speeches: “I’ll be the mayor for all Chicago, from Dominick’s to Jewel, from Whole Foods to Trader Joe’s . . .”

As Chicagoans embark on their listening tour of candidates, I offer this advice: Don’t listen to what the candidates say they’ll do. Listen to how they’ll do it. If they ever really get around to saying that.

Meeks concluded his address by vowing to run a positive campaign. “I hold in my hand an ink pen,” he said, lifting a pen dramatically for all to see. “I am ready to sign a pledge tonight that says no more negative campaigning. . . . Any street person can talk about another person. It takes people of integrity, it takes people of strength, it takes people of moral character to speak to the issues.”

The morning of Meeks’s speech, lawyer Burt Odelson, an election law expert, said on Fox Chicago Sunday that he was preparing to file objections to Emanuel’s candidacy with the Board of Elections. Candidates must have lived in Chicago the year before the election. Emanuel retained ownership of his house on the north side while he was in Washington, but he rented it out. Meeks claims he isn’t behind this challenge, but Odelsen happens to be advising Meeks on his campaign.

So while the unifier was signing his pledge with his ink pen, it looks like he was also trying to build Emanuel a bridge back out of town.