What Dems and parents can learn from Chicago

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Former President Bill Clinton addresses leaders from across the hemisphere during the closing session at the Latin America summit in Coral Gables, Fla. on Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014. The event included business leaders like Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, T

Former President Bill Clinton addresses leaders from across the hemisphere during the closing session at the Latin America summit in Coral Gables, Fla. on Thursday, Dec. 11, 2014. The event included business leaders like Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, The Nature Conservancy CEO Mark Tercek and Alfonso Quinonez, of the Organization of American States. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

BY ALANA BAUM

I’m not a fan of politicians being tough to look tough. At best, it’s ineffective, at worst, it’s dangerous — think George W. Bush’s “Bring ‘em on.” But tough as in tackling hard issues is different.

Heading into the 2012 election, I attended a luncheon downtown featuring Bill Clinton. After he spoke of the urgency to help all Americans, I nervously raised my hand: “Why are so few Democrats willing to stick their necks out to fight for policies they believe in? Why is our party so wimpy?” As people nodded, President Clinton agreed: Too many politicians avoid confronting what’s difficult. Success requires“heading into the storms, not avoiding them.”

I thought of that this summer as Democrats delayed crucial immigration reform and ran from an Affordable Healthcare Act and economy that’s actually working for so many Americans; as Republicans crushed Democrats in mid-term elections despite overwhelming support for democratic initiatives, and as our own city faces tough challenges.

That afternoon, I met Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Learning I had children in a public school, he eagerly asked about our longer day and principal. He has that in-your-face fervor that’s mistaken for aggressiveness but, as a native New Yorker, I appreciate his passion. Still, it took meeting him again to fully appreciate his commitment to Chicago and its students.

This next time though, I started off angry. I believe in public education. My mother was a schoolteacher and my sister left law to teach high school. As a local school council member, I know dedicated, inspiring teachers and have watched my own children flourish. I attacked Mayor Emanuel for presumably betraying them. Unsurprisingly, he came back at me hard, echoing President Clinton’s response. As I educated myself more the following months, he won me over.

I’m tired of promises that feel good now, but devastating later. I don’t lie to my kids about the necessity of responsibility and sacrifice to attain success. Why would I tolerate politicians’ lies? That evening, Mayor Emanuel outlined needed pension reform and his plans for Chicago. Detailing alternative funding sources, he discussed infrastructure investments, bringing in tourism, jobs, and the revenue these would generate. What the media attacks as favoring the 1 percent, Emanuel is actually using to pay for our schools. The pension compromises he’s sought engender criticism from unions, but are essential to our future. Past politicians made false promises, found loopholes to delay or underfund pension payments and left a mess.

Mayor Emanuel committed to addressing a troubled school system with one of the shortest days, and a pension crisis that jeopardizes education and retirements. Today, there’s a longer school day and choices in our schools — not just charters, but International Baccalaureate, STEM, Montessori. Corporations are working with high schools, city colleges are improving and graduation rates are still rising.

When you risk challenging what’s failing, you get pummeled, but things start improving.

The path forward requires tough decisions and compromise. Our mayor could do a better job communicating he that “feels” our pain, but I’ll take someone who actually addresses our problems rather than avoids them. I’m done with empty promises and wimps.

Alana Baum is a psychologist and Associate Professor at Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago. She is also a Local School Council member for a Chicago public school.

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