Nothing personal, everything structural: What Chicago needs from its new mayor

Rahm Emanuel shocked the political world earlier this month in announcing he will serve the rest of his term as a lame duck. Songs of rejoicing erupted from Chicagoans across the political spectrum, who see Emanuel’s exit as an opportunity for their preferred leader to push for their preferred interests on the fifth floor of City Hall.

Chicagoans are right to say city government’s decision-making is broken. And they are right to say the current mayor has not always used his power in the city’s best interests. But they are wrong in thinking their candidate will.

To fix what ails Chicago, Emanuel’s successor must fix what’s wrong with city governance. And that means taming the unbridled power of the very office he or she seeks to hold. Without structural reform, the city’s next mayors will fall prey to the same bad habits of those before them.

In a book for the Southern Illinois University Press to be published in 2019, we compared Chicago’s governance structure against the 15 most populous cities, looking at everything from police, to schools, to financial controls, to corruption oversight, to City Council and more. The findings are conclusive: Chicago’s strongman system of outsized mayoral control is an extreme outlier. The results have been disastrous. And in order to make better decisions in the long term, regardless of who is mayor, Chicago must look to other big cities that have faced the same challenges and pursue structural reforms in their image.

Just take the timing of the 2019 election Emanuel will eschew, for example. Chicago, with its brutal winters, is the only major city in the nation to hold its municipal elections in February of a non-presidential-election year. This leads to consistently abysmal turnout that should draw the ire of anyone concerned with voter disenfranchisement and disengagement. Why? For one, the timing has long insulated the incumbent from national and state-level political winds.

After a candidate wins the mayoralty (with the backing of just around a quarter of registered voters in recent elections), he or she holds all the cards. Chicago’s legislative body is not a serious check on mayoral prerogative. Aldermen are too busy exercising their own strongman control over their wards. To these non-legislators, citywide issues are best left to the big chief, the mayor.

Among the 10 largest cities, Chicago has by far the fewest residents per council member. Does any mayoral candidate have the gumption to say there are too many aldermen? A City Council made up of fewer representatives – without aldermanic privilege over zoning, sidewalk cafes, awnings and the like – but with the resources to research and contend with the mayor’s office on big issues, would yield better decisions.

Another example of poor decision-making is the current mayor’s dealing with the pension problem, which will haunt his successor, and that successor’s successors. The solution du jour is to float $10 billion in pension obligation bonds to boost contributions to the systems in the near future. This is not problem solving; it is moving an unpaid bill from one end of the kitchen table to the other, which is why the Government Finance Officers Association frowns upon it. But who can stop the mayor?

New York, Los Angeles, Houston and Philadelphia all have independent, elected controllers with the power to push back. And three of those four cities have fiscal constraints at the ballot box as well, with voters having the power to approve or deny tax hikes and borrowing. Surely there are enough mayoral candidates in Chicago that one could peek his or her head over the hedge and find that those cities do not face financial challenges as daunting as Chicago’s.

Some changes to the structure of city government will require state action, some will be more difficult than others, and all would be made easier if Chicago followed the lead of other big cities and adopted a city charter via a special commission and citywide referendum. But many may be unlikely without a mayoral candidate who runs on them.

Chicagoans deserve that candidate. The one who recognizes his or her own human limitations, and as such, that the mayor’s actions should be limited by far more than his or her ambition alone.

Ed Bachrach and Austin Berg are the authors of “The New Chicago Way: Lessons from Other Big Cities,” a forthcoming book from the Southern Illinois University Press.

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