Say what you will about Mayor Rahm Emanuel. He inherited a mess and made hard decisions, which probably has a lot to with why he’s calling it quits.
When you raise taxes and fees six times in seven years and close dozens of schools, no matter how necessary those closures might be, you are sure to make enemies and fall out of favor with tens of thousands of voters. Emanuel knew that.
Will the next mayor of Chicago do the hard stuff, too?
Emanuel’s record as mayor, full of successes and failures, will be debated for years.
He sometimes did the right thing the right way. He was honest with Chicagoans about having to raise property taxes to put city pension funds on more sound financial footing. He oversaw a renovation of the CTA’s Red Line on the South Side on time and on budget, and launched a much-needed expansion of O’Hare Airport.
He sometimes did the right thing the wrong way, such as closing 50 schools in an autocratic manner that went too far and built distrust in minority communities.
Now and then he got things flat-out wrong, such as when he delayed the release of the police dashcam video of the shooting of Laquan McDonald by Officer Jason Van Dyke. The officer’s murder trial begins Wednesday.
But for now, let’s set all that aside. Emanuel isn’t running for a third term. A slew of people who don’t have remotely his level of government experience — e.g. Clinton White House, Congress, Obama White House — are circulating petitions to replace him.
What matters more is to focus on the enormous challenges that lie ahead for Chicago, and on the importance of electing a new mayor who’s up to the task. Five months before the next mayoral election, on Feb. 26, our city is at a turning point.
Chicago’s next mayor must do more to bring economic development and jobs to every neighborhood. Construction cranes loom over the Loop and the West Loop, among other lucky neighborhoods. But boarded-up houses and apartments crowd whole blocks on the West and South sides.
Chicago’s next mayor must take further unpopular steps, following Emanuel’s lead, to shore up the city’s finances and pension funds. If that can be done without renegotiating labor contracts or raising taxes again, terrific.
But we have yet to see a convincing plan. By 2023, the city’s contributions to all four of its major pension funds will nearly double — from $1.2 billion this year to $2.1 billion.
Chicago’s next mayor must continue the work that has led to significant academic progress in the city’s public schools, but also must have a plan for revitalizing — or closing — schools that are underused or under-performing. When should another charter school be allowed, and when should another neighborhood school be shuttered? We’ve never believed CPS has a strategy.
Chicago’s next mayor must take the lead in rebuilding faith and trust in the Chicago Police Department. That means supporting the federal consent decree being worked out to revamp CPD. It also means supporting the police, whom we ask to do so much.
Above all — and this is related to the above — Chicago’s next mayor must have honest plan to address gun violence. Chicago’s homicide rate, with more than 370 victims so far this year, is a national embarrassment. Every weekend brings another horror story.
Emanuel has been the punching bag for every other candidate for mayor. It only makes sense. He’s the unpopular incumbent and, let’s face it, Chicagoans have never really warmed to him much, even when he started wearing V-neck sweaters.
Perhaps most frustrating for him, he has never been that unifying force or personality that Chicago could sorely use right now. He has never been able to bridge chasms of race, of rich and poor, of the police and the policed, of the powerful and the the powerless.
We’re not sure if that’s a failing of Rahm Emanuel’s, or a failing of our impossibly fractious city.
But Chicago’s next mayor must find a way to be everybody’s mayor.
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