Thursday, February 24, 2011

Some thoughts on the election

In a couple of months we will have a new mayor, there is no doubt whatever about that. It looks like the days of having a Mayor Daley on the fifth floor of City Hall are gone for good. Richard M. Daley has a son but as far as I know he has not shown much interest in carrying on the family business. Many folks around town find that alone cause for celebration, the end of the Daley dynasty.

Well I for one am not jumping up and down about Mayor Daley stepping down. True his legacy has been mixed, at times he has acted more like a king than an elected official. Daley forged the City Council into a rubber stamp silencing virtually all of his adversaries. His failures, missteps and arrogance are well noted: scandal in the administration, the all or nothing attempt to bring the Olympics to Chicago, the parking meter fiasco, the failed attempt to bully Loop residents into digging up Grant Park for a Children's museum, the midnight raid on Meigs Field.

In the name of reform, the critics say, we need a mayor who is independent in order to free this city from the evil bondage of corruption, machine style politics and patronage. Richard M. Daley some critics say was every bit the old school politician as his old man. It is true that Ritchie ultimately eclipsed his legendary father Richard J. Daley, in longevity in office, and some would say in influence.

Mayor Daley the Elder was a builder, The University of Illinois Chicago Campus, O'Hare International Airport, and the system of expressways that tore up communities were all built during his administration. The face of the Loop also changed under Richard J. Daley, for better or worse. All these projects created tremendous growth and opportunity in the city. The new motto of Chicago became "The City that Works." That period was also one of the most devastating eras for the city in terms of violence, mistrust, and the irrevocable loss of valued icons and institutions.

Mayor Daley the Younger was also a builder. Anyone addressing his legacy certainly has to put Millennium Park at or near the top of the list. Despite its shortcomings, MP has to be considered an unqualified success in terms of attracting people back into the Loop. Some might site MP as an example of City Hall's concern for downtown over the rest of the city. But anyone who has ventured into parks all over the city as I have, can attest to the fact that tremendous energy and resources have been devoted to them as well. The neighborhood parks of Chicago have not been in as good a shape in decades. The current Mayor Daley has been an outspoken advocate of environmental concerns; green building, tree planting, alternative means of commuting, including by bicycle, and of course the aforementioned destruction of Meigs Field in favor of a public park, to name just a few examples.

Chicago today is also better off in another respect, it is not as racially divided as it once was. True we're not all holding hands together harmonizing; "I'd like to teach the world to sing." But the election Tuesday proved that the racial polarization that began under his father's administration and came to a full boil under Harold Washington's, has at least taken a sabbatical.

Some see this as troubling. Sun Times columnist Mary Mitchell began her post-election column this way:

"Carol Moseley Braun’s stunning defeat signals the end of the black political empowerment movement in Chicago."

Now it is certainly true that white politicians in Chicago used, manipulated, and took for granted the African American vote for decades. That came to an end when Harold Washington was elected Chicago's first black mayor in 1983. The number of voters from the black community who turned out in that election was unprecedented. Washington himself was a product of the Democratic Machine, but he went against it when he ran for mayor and was punished during his first term by the City Council. His opposition in the Council consisted of 29 aldermen, all white. The remaining 21 members of the Council were mostly black. What became known as the "Vrdolyak 29" after their de facto leader, Ed Vrdolyak, the alderman of the southeast side's 10th Ward, voted down every piece of legislation put forward by Washington. Clearly little was accomplished in those four years. In the next election, Washington gained a small majority in the Council. The 29 became the 25 and were forced to compromise. For a while, things seemed to calm down a bit.

Harold Washington could have been a great mayor if given the chance. Unfortunately he died shortly into his second administration. In his wake, the Council erupted again in shameless fashion, pushing through the nomination of Eugene Sawyer, a Washington supporter but also a product of the Machine who never really rocked the boat. Sawyer was a good man but not cut out for mayor. Ritchie Daley easily defeated him in the following general election in 1989.

It could be said that Daley picked up where Washington and Sawyer left off in beginning to heal the city of its racial wounds.

Mayor Daley's prowess as a builder was not limited to bricks and mortar, he was a builder of coalitions. Both Daleys knew how to gain support of ethnic voting blocks. Daley the Elder knew that large concentrations of one particular group could be beneficial, as long as you threw a few crumbs their way right before election time. Eventually, people wised up and this tactic no longer worked, especially for his successors. During and following the first Daley administration, Chicago was plagued by racial enmity. Richard M. Daley in contrast to his father understood that in his era, in order to be mayor, he would need to distribute the wealth throughout the entire city. To that end, Daley since the beginning of his administration, surrounded himself with members of ethnic minorities (other than his own) in top level city positions. City Hall for all its faults has been responsive to the needs of the entire city in ways that it never was.

I see this as a tremendous good coming out of the Daley administration. The candidate who was selected as "the black consensus candidate" in this election, former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun, clearly was not qualified for the job. African American voters saw through her and voted against her in overwhelming numbers, proving once and for all that this particular community can think for itself. It no longer can be led by sheep to the polls, either by the machine or by race alone.

Oh yes, there was a candidate who won the election, Rahm Emanuel. To say that he received a mandate from the voters would be a gross understatement. In an election consisting of six candidates, he received 56 percent of the vote, a staggering landslide. True, there was a disappointing turnout for the election, but in my book anyway, the voices of people who choose not to vote are irrelevant. Emanuel had the most money to spend, and had the greatest name recognition with the possible exception of Moseley Braun. Given that, Emanuel did not win all the wards. In the traditional old machine predominantly white wards he came in second to Gary Chico who was supported by alderman Ed (the other Ed in the era of "Council Wars") Burke, and the heads of some of the big unions in town. Where Emanuel came up big, very big, was in the black wards. I haven't done the numbers but I think it's safe to say that Emanuel could not have won without the black vote. You can do your own analysis by checking out the results ward by ward here. Mary Mitchell in her followup column here explains why Emanuel did so well in this part of the city.

Rahm Emanuel has a few other connections.

There are those who do not believe that political "insiders" make good public officials. In debates you seldom hear one candidate these days claiming to be more of an insider than the opponent. While Emanuel had stints in the corporate world, I'm not sure if it could be possible for him to be more of an insider. He was a top adviser to President Clinton. As a congressman without much seniority, he managed to become the fourth highest ranking member of the House of Representatives. His previous job of course was Chief of Staff to President Obama. Frankly I don't see having a mayor with such credentials, especially one having the ear of the sitting president, as being such a bad thing.

Other critics say that Emanuel is brash, ruthless, and obnoxiously ambitious. And he is rich to boot. Well I am none of those things. I wouldn't vote for myself for mayor either. Frankly voting for mayor is not like voting for your spouse, your best friend, or your parish priest. It's not even like voting for president. A mayor is more like a CEO, someone who is responsible for a multi billion dollar entity. A mayor has to know how to get things done, big things and little things. He or she has to know how to delegate, when to point the finger and when to take the heat.

And a mayor has to have a vision for his city. Both Mayors Daley had a vision for Chicago. Richard J. Daley never used the word Chicago without prefacing it with the words, "The Great City of." Richard M. Daley liked to use the term "world class city." As much as I hate that term it illustrated the fact that he believed his city was right up there with the likes of New York, Rio, Paris, London, Madrid, and Tokyo. His faith was so great that he staked his reputation on the bid for the Olympics. As I said before in this space, I fully supported the bid, and never have I seen the loss of the Olympics as a loss for the city, not in the slightest.

I feel that Rahm Emanuel has a similar belief in this city. Unlike two of his opponents, Miguel del Valle and Gary Chico, both of whom may been good mayors, Emanuel's vision for the city not only includes life at the street and community level, but also the big picture. We are living in extremely difficult economic times. The city and the state are almost bankrupt. This is but one of the issues that the new mayor has to face. He also has to look beyond the current fiscal morass to the future, to what this city will be for our children and our grandchildren. In Mary Mitchell's article noted above, she quotes Emanuel as saying:

“I saw too many kids on those [el] platforms with not a thing in their eyes. That is the only thing about this job that gives me pause about my abilities...

“It is not the budget. I’ll work through that. But can you in some way touch these kids in a way that they feel they have got a shot at something? I always knew what I was running for, [but] when I saw those kids, I knew I made the right decision to run for mayor.’’

I've heard him throw out the words "world class city" as well and in the debates he alone among the other candidates said this: "Chicago is a great city."

That's why I voted for him.

No comments: