When Gov. J.B. Pritzker was asked recently about his pick in Chicago’s contentious race for mayor, he kept mum, rightly noting that “you’ve got to have the governor and mayor speaking regardless who becomes mayor.”
Missing from the conversation surrounding the multiple candidates running in Tuesday’s election is the role the mayor plays in shaping the agenda of the Illinois General Assembly, which is essential to solving the serious financial challenges facing our city.
Which candidate can best mobilize the state representatives and senators from Chicago to craft legislation and build coalitions that can secure equitable and reliable financing for education and a capital building program to repair infrastructure? Who can make progress in solving the pension crisis? Which of these candidates is best equipped to work with the new governor in decisions about a Chicago-based casino, marijuana legislation and jobs programs?
As someone who began his career as a reporter covering the turbulent administration of Democratic Gov. Daniel Walker and later as a public affairs strategist, I’ve had a chance to observe how different Chicago mayors and governors succeeded or failed in advancing Chicago’s interests. Richard J. Daley and his son clearly benefited from having served in the legislature and understanding how it worked.
Interestingly, Democratic mayors of Chicago have often achieved more when working with Republican governors, which has freed them from intra-party struggles. There was bad blood between the first Daley and Walker, who obstructed the Mayor’s push for a crosstown expressway. This led to a primary challenge by a Daley-supported candidate who defeated Walker in 1976 but lost the general election to a former U.S. attorney, Republican James Thompson.
Democrats could not elect another governor for the rest of the century, but Thompson and Richard M. Daley worked well together. In 1980, Thompson and Mayor Jane Byrne found common ground to strike a Chicago Public School refinancing deal. A few years later, Thompson and Mayor Harold Washington worked together to muscle the White Sox Stadium through the legislature.
Chicago’s legislative agenda did not fare as well under Thompson’s Republican successor, Jim Edgar (‘’Gov. No”), but flourished under another Republican, George Ryan, who had served as Illinois House minority leader and also as speaker for one term. Ryan was later convicted for misdeeds during his tenure as secretary of state, but as governor he earned praise for supporting legislation that benefited Chicago. Ryan made deals and moved on.
Chicago did not fare well under the next two Democratic governors, the inept and corrupt Rod Blagojevich and maverick Pat Quinn. After legislative paralysis under Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, Chicago’s next mayor must strike a different, more productive relationship with Pritzker for the sake of both the city and the state.
When I asked a veteran statehouse operative recently how much influence the new mayor of Chicago would likely have with legislators, the answer was, “It depends on who gets elected.” In other words, it will depend on how savvy the next mayor will be in wielding power and popular opinion in favor of legislative goals to rescue the city’s finances.
This election is interesting because the candidates with the most relevant political and legislative experience — Toni Preckwinkle (County Board, City Council) Susana Mendoza (legislator, city clerk, state comptroller) Gery Chico, (mayor’s chief of staff) and William Daley (Commerce Secretary, Presidential Chief of Staff) are being criticized for their proximity to compromised power brokers.
Paul Vallas (Chicago School Board, city budget director and senior legislative staff) and former prosecutor and police board chairman Lori Lightfoot present themselves as reformers. Along with former police chief Garry McCarthy and businessman Willie Wilson, Vallas and Lightfoot challenged Mayor Emanuel before he withdrew from the election.
Voters will have to weigh the issue of political skills, independence, and experience needed to solve Chicago’s urgent financial problems against their concern about a political system that demands to be reformed. Our next mayor must be able to work effectively with our new governor and legislative leaders.
After the new mayor takes office in April, there will be less than two months on the legislative calendar to deal with a whole range of urgent legislation now being offered by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Gov. Pritzker.
We should be asking ourselves: Who among these diverse candidates will be ready to hit the ground running? Who can effectively use the power of the mayor’s office immediately to help save both a city and state and move us all toward a sustainable future for all Illinois residents?
Thom Serafin is CEO and founder of Serafin & Associates, Inc.
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