Why Chicago needs a mayoral runoff | Feature | Chicago Reader

Why Chicago needs a mayoral runoff 

Whether you love Rahm or can't stand the guy, the city will be better off if he has to deal with a little more democracy.

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"Leading requires telling people the truth," Rahm Emanuel declared at one point during the final mayoral debate, held last week.

The mayor was arguing that his willingness to make "tough" decisions on government finances, education, and public safety is bringing Chicago into a promising new era that he'll continue with another term.

But the comment also highlighted another point that he wasn't trying to make: Emanuel's own tenure and reelection campaign have been marked by half-truths and concealments. Instead of shrugging them off as the kind of thing that politicians always do, voters have the opportunity to demand something else on February 24. We can send Rahm into a runoff.

For anyone still deciding how to vote, this means going with one of his opponents. Remember, if no candidate gets more than 50 percent in Chicago elections, the top two finishers advance to a runoff, giving voters another chance to scrutinize them. You know—debate and democracy and those sorts of things, which we're not used to around here.

Even if you think Emanuel is our best bet—and maybe he is—he'll be a better mayor, and Chicago will be a healthier city, if he's forced to consider following his own advice.

Here's why: the more the mayor has to work to hold on to his job, the harder it will be for him to rule by talking points and executive fiat. A runoff might remind him that he's an elected official, not a monarch. I say might because even if the mayor is pushed to the brink of losing his seat, there's no guarantee anything would change. But at least we could make it clear that we don't believe in coronations.

We don't, right?

Just making sure. It's hard for a lot of Chicagoans to contemplate something as revolutionary as voting against a mayor, even if they can't stand him. The mayor and his supporters send continual warnings that the city will fall into decline if we don't stick with the strong guy we have now—"Big city. Big challenges. Big job," as a recent Emanuel mailing puts it. In the past, with rare exceptions, most voters have decided not to take any chances.

That's what happened during the 22-year reign of former mayor Richard M. Daley. He coasted to reelection time and time again, backed with millions of dollars from wealthy business leaders and endorsements from the media. Daley became very comfortable on his throne. By the time he stepped down in 2011, city taxpayers were more than $60 billion in debt and the parking meter system was controlled by investors as far away as Abu Dhabi.

Emanuel was among those who lined up firmly behind Daley. Now he says he's bringing Chicago back from those dark days. "We have made steady progress," he said at his reelection kickoff. "Our future depends on moving forward together."

The mayor's energy and enthusiasm are impressive. Yet despite his claims, he hasn't shown interest in an honest discussion of what he's done and what needs to happen next. Instead he's relied on talking points that emphasize his triumphs, even the ones that never happened.

That's where the runoff could help.

For example, Emanuel says he's moved hundreds of police officers from desk jobs to the streets, fulfilling a promise to invest in community policing. But most cops are shifted around so often they don't get to know the community. While the police department spends $100 million a year on overtime, the number of officers on the force has dropped by about 300 since Emanuel took office.

Crime totals have fallen in Chicago, as they have nationwide, but an average of seven people are still shot in the city every day. If Emanuel is dragged into a runoff, he might have to explain whether he has a sustainable public safety plan.

The mayor has also touted his leadership in raising Chicago's minimum wage to $13 an hour by 2019. But that only happened after his approval ratings plunged and activists and aldermen pushed him for months. If anything it's an argument for a runoff, because it shows that under pressure from voters Emanuel often listens.

Notably missing from the mayor's reelection pitch is his decision to shutter 50 schools, most in black neighborhoods. Perhaps, as he once argued, there were important reasons for the closures, but his explanations shifted along the way, and frustrated parents were left wondering what the truth was. As it stands, they'll have to keep wondering—unless a close race forces the mayor to explain his motivations and what's next for the public schools.

So far Emanuel has been able to stick to his version of events because he has nearly unlimited funds for ads and PR. Since he launched his first mayoral bid, he's collected close to $30 million in campaign contributions, more than half from outside Chicago. Many of the most generous benefactors also happen to get contracts, pension or legal work, or other assistance from the city.

When asked whether this constitutes pay-to-play politics, Emanuel has shown great agility in ducking and dodging. In a one-on-one matchup, he might not be able to switch the subject so easily.

Voters have four options for sending the mayor a message. William "Dock" Walls is bright and polished, but has a thin resume beyond previous long-shot campaigns for mayor. While Willie Wilson has an incredible story—he was born to sharecroppers in Louisiana before becoming a millionaire businessman—he knows little about public policy.

Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, a county commissioner, has been a progressive political leader for three decades, and Alderman Robert Fioretti has emerged as a leading opposition voice in the City Council. Each understands politics and government. Each is also on a bigger stage for the first time and needs to provide more specific plans for leading the city through its challenges.

Emanuel has hammered that last point. "To be mayor of Chicago, you need to be able to articulate for Chicago a vision for its future," he said last week.

Right on. But beyond his practiced lines, what is the mayor's vision? How will he pay for pension obligations and neighborhood investments? After four years, he hasn't answered. He just vows to "keep Chicago moving forward"—which was also a campaign slogan of Daley's.

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