Originally published in the Chicago Sun-Times on September 6th 2018
Rahm is out, and the pretenders to his throne should enjoy that lovely feeling of exuberance while it lasts.
Because it won’t be long.
Each of the current 13 candidates for mayor now will proclaim that his or her race just got easier, if only to dissuade others from running. And they will accuse every new candidate of being a cowardly Johnny-come-lately who was afraid to take on Emanuel.
But in their heart of hearts, they know their road to the fifth floor of City Hall just got steeper. With Emanuel no longer a convenient punching bag, they can’t just say what they are against. They will have to say what they are for.
And that’s a whole different thing.
What’s their vision for the city? And how do they figure on Chicago getting there?
As the world economy, corporations and tax laws have changed, Chicago has lost more than 70,000 good-paying jobs. Manufacturing plants and other traditional Rust Belt businesses have closed, gone south or moved overseas. The shrinking of Chicago’s economic pie has led to higher taxes and greater unemployment.
Emanuel’s solution was obvious. He was an ardent salesman for the city, recruiting corporations from suburbs, other states and even overseas, with varying degrees of success. But what are the ideas and plans for growth of every would-be mayor now?
Is further growth necessary? If so, where will it come from? How should the city prepare? Do the skills of our city’s labor force match global economic demands? If not, why not and what can be done?
Even before Emanuel announced on Tuesday that he would not run for reelection, it struck me that the collected mélange of other mayoral candidates had little to say. More than that, they have failed so far to address the city as we know it.
Chicago is more than a series of problems. It is more than the number of people shot each year, more than the unemployment rate, more than the measure of all its specific challenges.
Those are parts of the story, but not the whole story. Like all urban areas, Chicago is a complex reality, one that mirrors the mixture of people who live here.
Yes, Chicago has a high unemployment in many neighborhoods, but it’s also the first choice of young college graduates who earn $100,000 or more. Yes, Chicago has lost some 100,000 jobs, but it’s also the first choice of many companies when they decide relocate. Chicago is incubating new businesses — this is their first home — and it is still the rail capital of the nation.
The current crop of mayoral candidates, it seems to me, fail to understand the nature of our city today, especially how much it has changed. And to understand that change, you have to look back to the administration of Mayor Richard M. Daley.
At the time Daley took office in 1989, Chicago truly was the Second City — a large but provincial town stuck between the more urbane cities of New York and Los Angeles. But Daley changed all that, surprising everyone by recognizing that cities, not nations, are the major competitive components of the global economy.
As Daley traveled the globe, he reinvented Chicago. From his mandating that Mandarin classes be offered in the public schools to his bringing Boeing to the Loop to his expansion of O’Hare Airport, while investing more in tourism and new technologies, he led the way in making Chicago a global city and world-wide destination.
We are a city forever transformed.
While others decried that Chicago must have a singular focus for rebuilding its economic base, Daley understood that diversity was our city’s economic — and social — strength, and he built on it. He understood that to solve the problems of today, let alone thrive, Chicago had to look forward, not back.
That Daley counted on continued economic growth to solve our city’s financial problems may have been a mistake, one that his successor and critics have harped on endlessly. But the fundamental premise was sound and accounts for Chicago’s continuing strength.
Rahm is out. And his successor will have to see beyond an obvious check list of our city’s problems.
The winning candidate for mayor will not bore us nor pander to us with an echo of our complaints. The winning candidate will speak to the needs of the many, not the few, and will offer a platform built on an asset-based strategy that inspires us.
Chicago’s next mayor can’t trade in fear, but must offer a vision and plan we can unite around.