On May 20, Lori Lightfoot will take the oath of office as mayor of Chicago and deliver an inaugural address outlining her vision for the city.
Realizing that vision requires smarts, courage, discipline and determination, all qualities Lightfoot has in excess. But there are many landmines ahead. Here are a few ways to avoid them.
Take Care of the Basics
A mayor’s job is to sweat the small stuff every day so you have the political capital to advance the big stuff. No matter how bold your vision, it won’t get done if you don’t first pick up the garbage, fix the potholes and deliver basic city services.
Mayor Michael Bilandic neglected to clear the streets after a big snowfall and Jane Byrne was elected. Mayor Richard M. Daley, on the other hand, noticed tiny tiles in the bathrooms at O’Hare and saw maintenance people spending countless hours scrubbing the grout between them. He ordered the tile replaced and cut maintenance costs.
You can’t reach for the sky unless you first meet the floor of expectations. It’s not sexy, but if you speed up the amount of time it takes to get a building permit or coordinate infrastructure work so newly-paved streets aren’t ripped up, people will notice.
Do the Hard Stuff First
You don’t begin dinner with dessert. Figure out the two or three most difficult decisions and devise a plan to get them done quickly so you can move on to your real agenda.
High on the list must be cutting waste and unnecessary spending. Chicago cannot tax its way out of its problems without hurting working families and senior citizens. We cannot count on the state to rescue the city.
You need a squad of smart people scouring the city budget and operations for savings. Some of these cuts will be painful, but every dollar saved is a dollar that can be reinvested in your priorities.
Don’t Be Consumed by the Crises
The late David Foster-Wallace once said that writing a novel is like carrying a sheet of plywood through a hurricane. The storyline keeps veering off course and it’s the writer’s job to hold his or her ground against the buffeting winds and advance the narrative.
Similarly, a mayor or any chief executive in government, will get elected with one agenda but will quickly find herself pulled away from her priorities by events beyond her control.
In politics, the only certainty is uncertainty so Mayor Lightfoot will need a SWAT team to handle adversity while everyone else stays focused on the work. This is much harder than it sounds. When crises occur, everyone runs to the fire and before long, nothing is getting done.
During the Civil War, President Lincoln passed the Homestead Act, created the Department of Agriculture, and established a system of public land-grant universities, among other things. Let the firemen handle the fire. Everyone else needs to stay focused on the sheet of plywood.
Set a Manageable, Achievable Agenda
As an African American, openly gay woman, Lori Lightfoot is a potent symbol of change. No matter what she does, her election promises a new era for Chicago. But the black, gay, female agenda did not get Lori Lightfoot elected and won’t address Chicago’s broader needs.
She was also elected to end corruption and God knows Chicago must clean up its act. But, for a city burdened by unsustainable legacy costs with whole neighborhoods emptying out and unacceptable levels of crime, reducing corruption won’t do much to enhance the quality of life for people.
It won’t bring jobs to struggling communities on the South and West Sides. It won’t improve the public schools. It won’t make our neighborhoods any safer.
You can’t have a dozen different priorities. A seasoned political hand once told me that a successful leader picks three things to get done and does them. Then she picks three more.
Bring People Together
People invariably choose sides and define themselves against others. Whether it’s labor and management, racial or economic division, police and community relations, or the city and the suburbs, the mayor is the bridge-builder. A leader doesn’t have to win every fight. She just needs to end them and bring people together.
Mayor Lightfoot can remind us over and over again that we share common goals and interests and we can only achieve them through cooperation and collaboration. Despite our challenges, we live in one of the world’s greatest cities with a quality of life that is matched by few others. Today, we have every reason to be hopeful and positive about the future.
Good luck, Mayor Lightfoot. Chicago is lucky to have you.
Peter Cunningham is a communications consultant who has worked for Mayor Richard M. Daley, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and the recent mayoral campaign of Bill Daley.
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