High stakes in the mayoral election | On Politics | Chicago Reader

High stakes in the mayoral election 

Chicago voters finally get another chance to elect a mayor who won't tax the poor to feed the rich.

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click to enlarge SETH PERLMAN, DOUG MCGOLDRICK, SARA JANE RHEE/COURTESY GRASSROOTS COLLABORATIVE, M. SPENCER GREEN
  • Seth Perlman, Doug McGoldrick, Sara Jane Rhee/Courtesy Grassroots Collaborative, M. Spencer Green

With another mayoral election upon us, my urge to offer advice is matched by my sense of futility. I mean, don't take this the wrong way, Chicago, but when it comes to mayoral elections—man, you suck.

For the last 30 or so years, you've been electing and reelecting the same old take-from-the-poor-to-feed-the-rich bullies who promise you one thing and deliver the opposite.

After each scandal, tax hike, asset sale, or sordid TIF deal, you swear up and down that next time will be different. Alas, push comes to shove and you vote for the same old bums again.

Yet hope springs eternal in me—even as I watch Bill Daley, speaking of the same old same old—rise in the polls thanks to millions in contributions from his upscale Republican pals. Like Ken Griffin.

It's sort of like my love for the Bulls. After each devastating season I declare—that's it, I'm through with those bums forever.

And then I wake to a new morning and say to myself something like—you know, that new guy, Otto Porter Jr., looks promising. Oh, all right, I'll give them one more chance.

OK, Chicago, here's your last chance—until the next one, of course.

The question you must ask yourself as you try to decide which of the 14 mayoral candidates you'll vote for is what you want the next mayor to do.

There's no easy consensus, as I discovered after spending the better part of a week conducting my own private survey. I went through my cell phone, calling people from different backgrounds.

Under a promise of confidentiality, I asked what they thought were the most important and compelling issues the next mayor faced. Talk about being all over the board . . .

A young black woman from the south side called for getting rid of the gang database, cutting funding for the new police academy, and eradicating bad cops from the force. She says she's voting for Amara Enyia.

A retired white cop from the north side predicted that crime will rise 'cause of the federal consent decree because cops will feel afraid to really crack down on the bad guys. He's voting for Garry McCarthy.

A bunch of trade union guys say the number one issue is fortifying the pension funds. They're voting for Susana Mendoza.

A lawyer from Lincoln Park said we have to cut pensions to avoid municipal bankruptcy. And by the way, we should spend more, not less, TIF money on north-side development, 'cause that's how you grow the economy. He's voting for Daley.

A west-sider says our number one priority is getting rid of red-light cameras. He's voting for Willie Wilson.

One old white guy on the north side said—lemme tell you about my property tax bill! OK, that may have been me, howling at the moon. 'Cause in the middle of it all, I got the bill for the first installment on this year's tax bill. It's about $4,000 more than it was in 2011, when Mayor Rahm took office.

And then I talked to a south-sider who said he'd heard gunfire on his block last week and that we have to hire more police or reopen mental health clinics—or do whatever it takes to stop the shootings. He's for Toni Preckwinkle.

A guy on the far west side told me we need to reopen some of the bus lines. He says he has a hard time getting a bus when he's coming home late at night from work. He's undecided 'cause he doesn't think any of the candidates give a damn about people like him.

A woman on the north side who's thinking of moving to Evanston told me it's demoralizing to send her kids to a public school system that's apparently too broke to afford special education teachers. She's voting for Lori Lightfoot.

Out of nowhere, I got a call from another Lightfoot voter who said the next great catastrophe will be an invasion of people from both coasts flocking to Chicago as they flee hurricanes, forest fires, mudslides, tsunamis, and other global-warming catastrophes of biblical proportions.

Good God, just when I thought I had considered every disaster our next mayor can face . . . and that's just a survey of some of the people in my cell phone. So, no, I don't minimize the challenges our next mayor faces.

Two thoughts occurred after I completed my survey.

One—there's a generational gap between geezers who pay property taxes and young activists who don't. The latter tend to press for grand issues, like justice and fairness. The former fret over how to pay their bills.

Two—if the past is prelude to the future, our next mayor will do what he or she can to put off dealing with these challenges until another day.

Consider the case of police brutality in black communities.

This issue has been around since the turn of the last century. And yet our last two mayors—Daley and Rahm—looked the other way rather than crack down on rogue cops.

Obviously, they didn't want to upset the police union. Or look soft on crime.

Finally, in 2015, a Cook County judge forced Rahm to release the video of Jason Van Dyke shooting Laquan McDonald. With protesters in the streets, one thing led to another, and last month a federal consent decree was adopted. Well, that only took about 100 years.

In my darkest moments, I suspect that for the last 30 years the city's unofficial policy on the troubled relations between police and black people has been to ignore the issue—paying off the police brutality lawsuits—until gentrification moves black people out of Chicago. And then, voila, problem solved.

It's pretty much the same sort of avoidance with our fiscal policies.

I don't want to burden you with a recitation of all the debt our next mayor will inherit. But among the unfinished business Rahm's leaving for his successor is figuring out how to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in obligations to various pension funds. Plus negotiating a new contract with the police and firefighters. Plus negotiating a new contract for teachers.

If that's not tough enough, as he dashes out the door Mayor Rahm's trying to strong-arm the council into passing $2.4 billion worth of obligations for two mega-TIF deals, the Lincoln Yards and the 78 developments.

Two projects that definitely fall under the category of "if the developers want to build it, they should pay for it themselves."

I don't believe one candidate's put forth a realistic comprehensive approach to raising the money to pay all of these obligations. Doing so requires a pledge to raise taxes and, politically speaking, that's the kiss of death.

In Chicago, we have a tradition of electing and reelecting mayors who swear they won't raise taxes—as if our bills will magically pay themselves. Then they raise taxes, after which they brag about how they didn't raise them. Even though anyone who pays taxes knows they're going up.

Man, the level of mayoral deception is matched only by our own delusion.

As he leaves office, Mayor Rahm's been talking about the need to tell the truth on finances. Thanks for nothing, Rahm. We could have used some of that truth telling when you first ran back in 2011 promising, among other things, to cuts taxes and hire 1,000 more cops.

During his eight years in office, Rahm dismissed proposals to tax the wealthy as unrealistic or counterproductive. Instead he turned to regressive forms of money raising, like the property tax or red-light camera fees or parking tickets or jacking up fees for water use and hauling away garbage. And so forth.

These fees, fines, and taxes are regressive because the same rate is applied to everyone, no matter how rich or poor. As a result, the city's become more dependent on revenue raised from people who can't afford to pay it.

If you don't believe me, read last year's exposé in Pro Publica by Melissa Sanchez and Sandhya Kambhampati. Entitled "How Chicago Ticket Debt Sends Black Motorists Into Bankruptcy," and copublished in Mother Jones, it documents the devastating impact of unpaid parking tickets on hundreds of residents.

"Because of the unpaid tickets, the city garnished [one resident's] state tax refunds," Sanchez and Kambhampati write. "Her car was impounded and she couldn't pay for its release. Her driver's license was suspended. Unable to come up with $1,000 to enter a city payment plan, [she] did what thousands of Chicago drivers do each year: She turned to Chapter 13 bankruptcy and its promise of debt forgiveness."

For people living in relatively well-to-do north-side neighborhoods, a parking ticket may be little more than a nuisance. But for the working poor, it can be the first step on the road to ruin, Pro Publica reported: "In 2007, an estimated 1,000 Chapter 13 bankruptcies included debts to the city, usually for unpaid tickets, with the median amount claimed around $1,500 per case. By last year, the number of cases surpassed 10,000, with the typical debt to the city around $3,900. Though the numbers of tickets issued did not rise during that time, the city increased the costs of fines, expanded its traffic camera program and sought more license suspensions."

So how is our next mayor supposed to pay our bills without resorting to regressive fines, fees, and taxes?

The Grassroots Collaborative—a coalition of left-of-center activists—has several progressive suggestions in its recently published report "A World-Class City."

Slap a city income tax on high-earning residents, raise the real estate transfer tax, reinstate the head tax on large corporations, and stop doling out TIF deals to developers.

Sounds good to me. Of course, I'm not running for mayor. And none of the current candidates has signed on to these proposals.

In fact, Bill Daley's going in the opposite direction. He's promising a moratorium on property taxes while endorsing the Lincoln Yards and the 78 TIF deals. But of course, TIFs ultimately raise property taxes. So he's breaking his tax-moratorium promise even as he makes it.

That's got to be a record—even for a politician from Chicago.

Most of the candidates talk about raising money from legalized marijuana and a casino. But that money's not coming in anytime soon—both proposals require state approval. For that matter, the Grassroots Collaborative's suggestions also require state approval.

You know, this recitation is really starting to depress me. The reality is that there are no easy solutions for the challenges we face.

To keep from losing your mind as you try to decide who to vote for, here's my suggestion. Base your choice less on policy papers and positions and more on your gut-level evaluation of the candidate's values.

I realize this is tricky. It's like you're taking a journey into the soul of a Chicago politician to see if they really believe the stuff they say they believe. Man, this is scarier than Get Out!

You're looking for someone who has the compassion to meet the needs of our most vulnerable citizens. And the courage to withstand the blowback from trying to tax our wealthiest citizens. Plus, he or she has to have the honesty and integrity to avoid unholy alliances like the one Mayor Rahm signed on to with Alderman Ed Burke.

Upon reflection, keeping my faith in the Bulls seems so much easier.

If it's any consolation, we had a guy like this years ago in Mayor Harold Washington. So they do come around, at least every once in a while. One more thing—this round will almost certainly lead to an April 2 runoff. That means we get to go through the agonizing soul-searching all over again. Lucky us.  v

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