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Editorial: Once again, Rahm is right for Chicago

Six weeks ago, we endorsed Rahm Emanuel for a second term as mayor. We said it was an easy call.

Today, we reaffirm that endorsement. It is still an easy call. He has been a bold and effective mayor, willing to do what is unpopular but necessary to get Chicago back on track.


At the same time, it has worked out well for Chicago that Emanuel did not win re-election outright on Feb. 24, failing to get a majority of the vote against four other candidates. The current tightly framed runoff between Emanuel and Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia has been marked by a focus on substance — policy, vision and style — that was largely missing during Round One.

Best of all, the most pressing challenge facing Chicago, its dire financial condition, has gotten a real workout in the news coverage of this runoff race, as well as in televised debates, position statements and newspaper opinion pieces.

We can cite no polls, but our sense is that Chicagoans may be slightly more reconciled today than they were six weeks ago to the hard truth that public employee pensions will have to be diminished, and property taxes will have to be increased to resolve the financial crisis. For anybody watching and listening closely during this runoff election, that is the only truly fact-based conclusion, even if it’s not something that goes over well at a union meeting or block party.

Emanuel has said as much, though squirming all the while and throwing in plenty of “ifs” and “buts” and leaning on other solutions, such as a casino, that won’t pay the bills today. And Garcia, looking at times like an empty bucket, has offered no convincing alternative. 

Garcia is an honorable man whose greatest strength in this election has been his ability to tap into a deep anger over the national problem of income inequality — the piling up of wealth at the top, the growing despair at the bottom, the downward slide in the middle. Garcia has done his best to pin the blame on Emanuel, ignoring what is beyond the mayor’s control and what he has done to make Chicago a better city for all.

More disappointing yet, Garcia has offered no realistic plan of his own for moving Chicago forward. He has not explained how he would solve the city’s financial problems, or pay for those 1,000 extra cops he says he would hire, or improve the schools. He has ridden a wave of discontent, and that’s about all.

If this runoff race also has taken Emanuel down a peg in terms of his overly domineering approach to governing, all the better. It had to be humbling for the mayor to have worked so hard these last four years only to be rejected by more than half the voters on Feb. 24. If he did not understand before the degree of antipathy felt toward him, perhaps he does now. His campaign advisers certainly got the message, dressing him up in a friendly V-neck sweater for that self-effacing TV commercial.

Emanuel was never going to be Chicago’s most beloved mayor. The minute the tens of thousands of unionized city workers and teachers and retirees — and their families — caught on to Emanuel’s determination to mess with their pensions, his charmingly brusque ways came to be seen as crudely bullying ways. If a cute kitten touched their pensions, they’d hate the kitten, too.

But the mayor’s frequent forays into raw power politics, an approach to governance he learned in Washington, didn’t play so well on the smaller and more intimate stage of Chicago. It became easy, if fundamentally unfair, to label Emanuel “Mayor One Percent,” out of touch with working people. He didn’t listen enough. He didn’t bend enough. He tried to sell too much.

Tell us about it. We’re still trying to understand the mayor’s reluctance to seriously entertain the best suggestions of his critics when he decided to close 50 schools. The Sherman tank approach was too much. We are equally flummoxed by his administration’s bull-headed insistence that red-light cameras dramatically reduce accidents — while fining drivers at $100 a pop — without showing a shred of real evidence to back that up.

All such criticisms, however, pale in importance to what really matters: Rahm Emanuel has worked tirelessly and effectively to improve the quality of life for all Chicagoans, not just the fortunate few.

He dared to take on the underfunded pension crisis. He oversaw the renovation of the CTA’s Red Line on the South Side, on time and on budget. He extended the city’s school day and school year, which had been among the shortest in the nation. He rolled back the city’s employee head tax, making Chicago a better town for business.

He has balanced the city’s budget every year without relying on the worst accounting tricks of the past. He restructured city services, making them more efficient, such as moving garbage collection to a grid-based system instead of ward-based.

He rebuilt or refurbished 175 neighborhood playgrounds, and is on track to renovate 300 in all. He landed a $320 million digital manufacturing institute, to be built on Goose Island, and has aggressively courted new businesses.

Chicago was built by men and women unafraid to do the hardest jobs. That’s why we’re called “the city that works.” Now Chicago has a mayor, Emanuel, who may have the hardest job of all — getting this town back on its feet — and he’s going at it the only way he seems to know how, full force. We’ll take that in a leader any day.

We said it before and we’ll say it again: Rahm Emanuel is the right mayor for Chicago in difficult times. He has earned our endorsement and your vote.

Early voting begins Monday.