Stakes are high as city waits for mayor to show her hand

Lori Lightfoot’s “State of the City” speech could be something new: a speech by a Chicago mayor that means something.

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The “City of Chicago Budget Town Hall Survey” includes this graph which might have been captioned: “Hmmm, look at all that money spent on the cops...”

City of Chicago graphic

I’ve been around Chicago: inside the scoreboard at Wrigley Field and through the skybridge between the towers of the Wrigley Building. Up a communications mast atop the Hancock — now dubbed “875 N. Michigan Avenue” — and down into the 39 miles of freight tunnels under the Loop.

So I believe I know a bit about the city. But I can’t recall a mayor ever giving a speech of any significance, at least not to match the potential impact of Lori Lightfoot’s “State of the City” address set for later this week.

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Oh, Rahm Emanuel once took out his top hat and cane and tried to tap dance around responsibility for covering up the murder of Laquan McDonald. Richard J. Daley gravely intoned his litany of lies during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. And don’t forget Harold Washington’s delighted cry of, “You want Harold? You got him!”

Memorable? Certainly. But important? In the way that Lightfoot’s speech will reveal her strategy for dragging Chicago out of the deep debt hole her predecessors dug? Never.

She’s calling her talk the “State of the City,” though I instantly dubbed it her “Sorry Kids, Christmas is Canceled” speech. Because we don’t need a lecture to know the news is bad. You want it plain and simple? OK, close your eyes, take three deep cleansing breaths and brace yourself. Here it comes, the unvarnished truth in seven words:

Chicago spends more than it takes in.

And has, for years. Lightfoot has several options to try to fix this, all of them bad. She could raise taxes. Raising taxes encourages people to shun the city, whose population has been flat for 30 years. Rahm doubled real estate taxes. Didn’t help much.

She can cut expenses, aka, employees. Lightfoot announced a citywide hiring freeze last week. Meaning that the worker who should be filling the pothole you just hit hasn’t been hired yet and won’t be anytime soon.

What Lightfoot won’t do, please God, is what her predecessors did: borrow money (again Rahm) or sell stuff (Rich Daley). Borrowing just kicks the can down the road, where the problem will be even worse. Borrowing is like a drug addict treating his addiction by taking drugs. Selling assets also swaps future revenue for a quick fix now.

Lightfoot is not immune to begging, rattling Chicago’s cup at Springfield. Good luck with that. Hating Chicago is the self-hypnosis downstaters use to feel less lousy about where they live.

What’s the mayor going to do? The “City of Chicago Budget Town Hall Survey” gives a hint. It isn’t quite those fake surveys actually delivering spin: “How outraged are you by Sen. Pecksniff’s ethical lapses a) somewhat; b) very; c) utterly ...”

But it might tip her hand. Especially one graph, showing police compared to other expenses. She has already lost the cops with her open mike swipe at a leader of the Fraternal Order of Police. (When called upon to apologize, Lightfoot’s reply that she was sorry she said it “out loud” is one of those gorgeous remarks that you keep in your pocket like an antique coin, to pull out and admire occasionally.)

Maybe I’m duped by the buildup. “State of the City” indeed. Maybe she, like her predecessors, will gaze into the depths of the problem, blink, and disgorge the same half-measures and inadequate Band-aids presented previously as reform. I notice she has launched a re-election committee; Lightfoot might want to decide whether she intends to really fix the problem and be a one-termer, or avoid painful tax hikes and service cuts — the only two real options — and keep her job. Can she do both? That would be historic.

The speech is Thursday at 6 p.m. No idea how she’ll do — I interviewed her for an hour before the election and came away ... uncertain. She’s the third Chicago mayor I’ve had a conversation with. She isn’t Richard M. Daley, sputtering and sweating. Nor Rahm Emanuel, who projected a kind of creepy faux friendliness, as if he read about human beings once in a textbook and was trying out their moves. Lightfoot has a quiet, hooded-eye calm, as she spoke to a spot on the table between us. No need to guess; in three days we’ll all find out both her plan and her style when delivering hard truths to a city in trouble.

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