This election is over and none too soon.
Politics put bold governing on hold for too long in Chicago, even as the city moved ever closer to rolling off a financial cliff.
Rahm Emanuel has won reelection as mayor — finally — and we believe that’s for the best. He earned it. In his first four years on the job, Emanuel showed a willingness to take tough but crucial action, such as restructuring pensions and closing underused schools, and we have no doubt he will push forward again now. But for much of the last half year, the mayor was in campaign mode, doing little that might cost him votes.
Time is not on Chicago’s side. The financial crisis is too great, and major events loom this spring and summer that could, should they go the wrong way or if handled poorly, make the problem worse.
An Illinois Supreme Court decision, expected anytime now, will make it clearer whether pension reform that reduces worker benefits without union consent is even possible. Contract negotiations will begin this summer with the Chicago Teachers Union — the very same folks who did their level best to defeat Emanuel in Tuesday’s election. And the city has yet to figure out how it will make a required $550 million payment next year into the police and firefighter pension funds.
For all the talk about Emanuel’s abrasive personality, which we can attest to, much of the criticism directed at the mayor has come from city workers and teachers who understandably don’t want their pension benefits reduced, and from homeowners who don’t want their property taxes increased. So give the man his due. Emanuel has consistently telegraphed — dating back to when he first ran for mayor — that these unpopular measures were on the table.
One message to be taken from Emanuel’s victory Tuesday is that Chicagoans, possibly including a good number of unionized public workers, appreciate the magnitude of the financial crisis facing Chicago. We see a vote of confidence for Emanuel’s likely approach going forward — shared pain by way of cost-cutting and somewhat higher taxes. And we see a grudging acknowledgment that the only thing worse than a mayor who pushes tough medicine would be a mayor too afraid to write a proper prescription.
That’s what Chicago had in Mayor Richard M. Daley, who put the city in hock and frightfully underfunded its pension systems. God forbid he would touch pension benefits or raise property taxes. And, frankly, that’s what we saw in Emanuel’s opponent, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who never struck us as somebody who would say no when necessary, certainly not to the teachers union. Going back decades, come to think of it, a lot of Chicago mayors never said no.
Garcia’s greatest contribution was to remind Emanuel — and his super-wealthy financial backers — that nobody much cares if the city’s finances are solvent and the business climate is good and fortunes are being made if all that good stuff doesn’t make life better in every neighborhood for every Chicagoan.
Garcia tapped into a national resentment, supported by measurable facts, that the rich are getting richer while the rest of us are falling behind. Trump Tower is a pretty building, but what does it matter if poorly paid fast-food workers on the West Side still have to work behind bulletproof glass?
Elections are a mixed bag. They discourage incumbents from making tough decisions in the final months of a campaign. But they also force a healthy focus on the issues that matter most, being in this case our city’s financial mess.
And they remind everybody of who should be the true masters in a democracy — not the wealthy few, but the middle-class, working class and struggling many.
“I hear you,” Emanuel said in his victory speech. “I hear you on the importance of neighborhood high schools and better choices. I hear you on the importance of raising the minimum wage. So that no family that works ever has to raise a child in poverty. … Everybody gets a chance to participate in building this great city.”
If Chicago works, it must work for us all.
We can’t think of a better mandate for Mayor Emanuel as he charges into his second term.