All the candidates who hope to be Chicago's next mayor love to spend time telling us why they're better than the next guy. But lately, they've entered into a new competition--one that seems a little ridiculous at times--who's more "street" than the next guy.
Today's Chicago Tribune chronicles the ways each candidate tries to claim they're the common man or woman. Miguel Del Valle is the son of West Side factory workers. Carol Moseley Braun is a struggling business woman from Chicago's South Side. Gery Chico has a few yarns about getting knocked off his bike by a runaway pig and working after school at a gas station. And Rahm Emmanuel? Well, he clings to the fact that he was born in Albany Park, and one of his uncles is a cop. They're all writing their own little versions of J. Lo's "Jenny from the Block," where the multimillion dollar actress and singer and businesswoman insists she hasn't strayed from her humble roots.
But while Chicago's mayoral hopefuls claim to be the little guy--not some big-shot politician like their rivals--where do they stand when it comes to how city spending affects struggling communities?
The Chicago Reporter's January issue recently revealed that Tax Increment Financing District dollars accrued and spent by the city are doing a lot more for big corporations than they are at driving economic development. In fact, despite the more than $1.2 billion of TIF bucks spent by the city in recent years, 44 out of Chicago's 77 communities have seen absolutely no jobs. Zip. Zilch. Zero.
So where do these ordinary Joe candidates for mayor stand on changing that situation? We asked them just that.
First, we asked for the basics: If you were mayor, how would you use TIFs or other strategies to create local jobs?
Of course, they sent back a lot of scripted answers running the gamut of today's political buzz words--transparency, innovation, green jobs, incentives. But one candidate, Del Valle, hit exactly on what our investigation revealed about how the city spends TIF dollars: Although TIFs are supposed to benefit "blighted" communities, the majority of the money comes from and stays downtown.
"Chicago's use of TIFs needs to be refocused on their original intent--to
encourage development in blighted communities where there would be no
development 'but for' the TIF," Del Valle wrote. "We should phase out TIFs in areas where
the private market is creating development on its own."
But we didn't just ask how they'd use the money. We also asked how they'd ensure that taxpayers get what they paid for. Are they pouring money into companies that are spitting out low-wage jobs in return? In some areas, it seems like it. On Chicago's Near South Side, jobs making less than $15,000 a year grew by 35 percent between 2002 and 2008.
We asked: Should public officials set expectations on the private sector when
it comes to wages and hiring in instances where public money is
The results were a bit wishy-washy. Emanuel said he supported living-wage jobs, but when we asked him if companies should be required to hire a certain amount of city residents if they get a big break from the city, he said no. He doesn't think companies that receive TIF dollars should be required to pay anything other than minimum wage either.
Braun disagreed. "The public has not only the right but a responsibility to see to it that
public goods, such as livable wages and nondiscriminatory hiring, are
achieved in exchange for its participation," she wrote.
And Del Valle went even further. He wants stronger city disclosure requirements so that residents can see what benefit they're getting from public money being spent.
Chico and Emanuel both declined to answer a couple of our questions. Chico agreed that TIF money should come with requirements to hire Chicagoans but didn't say if he thought those jobs should be above minimum wage. Emanuel didn't answer when we asked if the city should set expectations for job retention--long term city jobs for residents--for companies receiving TIF dollars.
He also dodged the biggest one: Should there be an expectation that TIF-funded projects in the Loop translate into jobs for Chicagoans across the city?
All the other candidates in our survey answered yes to that same question. So maybe all this vying for the spot of being the little guy has some merit after all.