Today, we endorse Rahm Emanuel for a second term as mayor. It is an easy call.
Mayor Emanuel has been bold, even courageous, and accomplished quite a lot, remarkably so. We can’t think of another rookie mayor anywhere who has done so much in four years. The other four candidates for mayor, on the other hand, are a disappointing bunch, mostly given to knocking Emanuel while offering no real solutions of their own, just pie in the sky.
But we can’t say Emanuel and the city haven’t struggled. He has had to climb a steep learning curve.
Five years ago, Rahm Emanuel was already a big shot when he returned home from Washington, where bullies bully other bullies, to Chicago, where the bully game can leave you without a friend on the playground.
As White House chief of staff, Emanuel had once called a group of liberal Democrats “retarded” — reinforced with a rather rude word — and carried the day. As mayor of Chicago, he threw the same salty language at Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis and snarled that children got “the shaft” when the teachers got a raise, and what did he get?
A teachers strike.
The mayor has been terrific at taking on the big problems Chicago faces, but has had to learn how political power works in this town. It flows from the top down, as in Washington, wielded by elected officials, CEOs, labor leaders, lobbyists and the wealthy elite. But it flows as well from the bottom up, far more so than on Capitol Hill. Teachers here are family and friends. We admire the work the best of them do. Diss them at your peril.
If we take a moment to consider why Emanuel drew four challengers to begin with — this mayor, so goes the mantra, doesn’t listen — we get to the heart of what he must continue to work on in the next four years. He must learn to heed the best arguments of his critics, which he did not always do when handling the closing of 50 schools. He must govern more with the carrot than the stick. He must follow through more on what he starts. The man has a way of checking off accomplishments like on a grocery list, never looking back.
Above all, we urge Mayor Emanuel to do more to bring city amenities, services, money and jobs to every neighborhood. The measure of any mayor’s success is how well he or she improves the quality of life for all Chicagoans, not just the fortunate few.
That said, consider all that Mayor Rahm Emanuel has accomplished in a very short time:
- He took on the city’s most pressing problem, massively underfunded pensions that threaten to sink the city and go belly up. He courageously negotiated reforms for the city’s municipal workers and laborers, saving the city many millions of dollars, and he committed to paying more toward those retirement systems.
- He oversaw the renovation of the CTA’s Red Line on the South Side, on time and on budget, with a minimum of inconvenience to riders.
- He extended the city’s school day and the school year, which had been among the shortest in the nation.
- He closed down dozens of underused and under-performing schools. We took exception to the autocratic way in which he went about it — and we remain convinced some schools should not have been closed — but this was an enormously unpopular job that just had to be done.
- He rolled back the city’s employee head tax, making Chicago a more attractive town for business. He increased fees for sewer and water services — again an unpopular move — to fund needed infrastructure upgrades.
- He balanced the city’s budget every year without the usual accounting tricks. He restructured city services, making them more efficient, such as moving garbage collection to a grid-based system instead of ward-based.
- He has rebuilt or refurbished 175 neighborhood playgrounds, and is on track to renovate 300 in all.
- He has helped boost tourism through the new quasi-public agency he helped create, Choose Chicago, from 40 million visitors in 2011 to an estimated 50.2 million visitors in 2014.
- He landed a $320 million digital manufacturing institute, to be built on Goose Island, with the city beating out several other regions of the country for the big federal contract. He has aggressively courted businesses, high-tech manufacturing being central to his economic vision for the city. If our city wants to avoid even greater tax increases down the road, growing business, which generates new revenue, is the best way to go.
We could go on. And, actually, if you were to bump into Emanuel at a coffee shop, he probably would go on. He keeps a long mental list of his administration’s achievements, sometimes even implying credit for advances made — such as rising high school graduation rates — as a result of programs put in place before he took office. But the man has reason to boast. Your coffee would grow cold.
Should Emanuel be re-elected, he will face his biggest challenges yet. First and foremost, he must slay the dragon of pension debt. The city’s four main pension systems are underfunded by a stunning $20 billion. Workers and retirees will have to pay in more and get back less. There is no other way. Homeowners, best we can tell, will have to pay higher taxes. Absolutely nobody will be happy.
And then this summer, here come the teachers again. Their contract expires, and they could be talking strike.
Will Emanuel, if he still is mayor, rise to the occasion? We have little doubt. He will have to be tough — and he is tough. He will have to drive a hard bargain, and he knows that perfectly well.
He will have to do his best to convince all Chicago, at public forums throughout the city, why hard measures cannot be avoided. If other solutions being bandied about, such as a La Salle Street tax on traders, are no solutions at all — as we believe — he will have to air the arguments and make the case.
And he will have to reach out, listen, show more respect for the whole messy civic process.
But of this we have no doubt: Rahm Emanuel is the right mayor for Chicago in difficult times. He has more than earned our endorsement and your vote.