Updated: April 27, 2011 10:56AM
Chicago, the crossroads of the nation, is at a crossroads of its own.
The city can work along the margins to fix its problems, an incremental approach sure to doom the city to second-tier status in a decade or two. Or it can take bold and decisive action, of the kind Chicago is known for, and continue as a thriving player in the new global economy.
We believe there is one candidate in the race for mayor who is best suited to lead this charge into the city’s future.
His name is Rahm Emanuel.
He has the vision, the policies, the management experience, the political sophistication and the sheer force of personality to be a powerfully effective mayor.
He gets big things done.
As a top adviser in the Clinton White House, Emanuel played a leading role in passing the COPS initiative that put an additional 100,000 police officers on the streets of America. As a congressman from Chicago, he helped improve schools and breathe new cultural and economic vitality into Lincoln Square, one of our city’s most vital neighborhoods.
As a leader of the national Democratic Party, he led the party’s successful effort to capture the House majority in 2006. As chief of staff to President Obama, he helped the president score several historic victories, including health care reform.
These are the accomplishments of a high-minded man charging through life. As mayor, we believe he would be just as adept at bringing a new library to South Shore or attracting new investment from China.
An adaptive politician
The knock on Emanuel is that he can be ruthless, even a bully, when he wants his way, and there’s more than a little truth to that. Not from nothing has Andy Samberg on “Saturday Night Live” created an impression of him that is foul-mouthed and threatening.
But that caricature fails to allow for Emanuel’s more agreeable traits and skills, such as his readiness to find common ground, build a coalition and strike a deal. Those skills served him at least as well on Capitol Hill.
At bottom, Emanuel is an adaptive politician, bringing to each job the tools required, and the next mayor of Chicago will need that whole toolbox. The days of patronage armies are over, and the City Council — beholden to Mayor Daley in part because he appointed almost 40 percent of its members — will be looking to assert its independence and flex its muscles.
The right agenda for Chicago
As we see it, only two of the six candidates for mayor, Emanuel and Gery Chico, are fully up to the job. Both have the record of achievement, the toughness and the smarts to lead Chicago through what is sure to be a brutal era of budget cutting and government restructuring, while at the same time protecting and advancing those assets and attributes that make Chicago great.
Emanuel stands apart from Chico, however, in his relative independence from city contractors and unions. Because Emanuel largely made his career in Washington, he simply owes fewer people here.
We also believe Emanuel has singled out for attention exactly the right three issues — schools, safe streets and stable finances — and proposed the best solutions. Far more so than Chico, he even dares to propose unpopular but necessary solutions.
Emanuel has proposed expanding the city’s sales tax to include services, such as athletic club memberships, while slightly reducing the sales tax rate across the board. That has left Emanuel open to the charge of wanting to raise taxes, though it is just as fair to say he wants to spread the pain more fairly.
Emanuel has opened the door to the idea of using tax increment financing money — commonly called TIF money — to pay for more police officers. We have reservations about using TIF money for anything other than its original purpose, which was to redevelop blighted areas, but Emanuel is the only candidate who couples his proposal to hire more cops (everybody is saying that) with a realistic way to pay for them.
He has called for concessions from public employee unions and supported a bill in Springfield that would severely limit the right of teachers to strike — hardly popular positions among some of the city’s strongest voting blocs. As it happens, we also have reservations about that strike bill, but we respect that Emanuel is willing to take a stand.
Meanwhile, Chico has ducked efforts to pin him down on how he would cut the city’s budget, whether he would attempt to extract concessions from employee unions and how he would raise revenues, asking us simply to trust him. He’s been in the thick of it before, he says — as Mayor Daley’s chief of staff, president of the Park District board, president of the School Board and chairman of City Colleges of Chicago — so we should take him at his word when he says he can fix anything.
We’d like to, but we can’t.
A third candidate’s shortcomings
For all of that, Chico does have an exemplary record of impressive jobs and real achievement. He also beats Emanuel, hands down, in the social graces department.
Unfortunately, nothing of the sort can be said about the third leading candidate in this race, Carol Moseley Braun, who has quite a resume but not the achievements to match.
On paper, Braun is a stellar candidate — former federal prosecutor, the only African-American woman ever elected to the United States Senate, former ambassador to New Zealand, presidential candidate in 2004, entrepreneur.
But Braun’s actual accomplishments as a one-term senator were slim, her organic tea and coffee import company has yet to turn a profit, her personal finances are a jumble and she frequently grows testy and dismissive when questioned about any of this. Nothing here suggests a person capable of expertly running a city of 2.8 million people that has a $6 billion budget.
Listen to the beating heart
Our most serious reservation with respect to Emanuel, though we believe he has the makings of an excellent mayor, is that he may lack a feel for the real beating heart of the city. Compared with past mayors and current candidates such as Miguel del Valle and Patricia Van Pelt-Watkins, Emanuel has spent little time walking the neighborhoods, climbing the urine-stained stairs of public housing high-rises, sitting through school board meetings where parents and teachers vent their frustrations or meeting behind closed doors with the sobbing parents of children who have been shot.
He has built his career in places far removed from the city streets — in corporate boardrooms, the halls of Congress and the Oval Office. This is where he has learned about public life. This is where he continues to look for insight and campaign cash.
Should Emanuel be elected mayor, we trust he will venture regularly beyond his comfort zone and meet with community organizations and neighborhood non-profits, merchants on West Madison Street and ministers in Englewood. He knows himself from campaigning in every corner of the city how enlightening — and what a joy — that can be.
With great enthusiasm for the future of Chicago, we endorse Rahm Emanuel for mayor.