A Third Way for the Second City and Why Chicago Needs a Fusion Candidate

The 2015 Chicago mayoral election has invigorated the debate about Chicago’s future. Both candidates have paid the city the compliment of seeking the position from ostensibly higher levels of government, though Rahm Emanuel’s decision to turn his back on the Oval Office four years ago trumps Chuy Garcia’s recent desire to follow his experience in Cook County government with a municipal post.

Yet despite the excitement caused by any political horse race, the contest has a tired, last century feel to it. Emanuel has been tagged by pundits as the candidate of the Establishment, while Chuy is seen as man of the people, a progressive in the de Blasio-Warren mold. Although neither man exactly fits the caricatures drawn for them, what voters really should be asking is whether these two labels, Establishment and Progressive, need always be viewed as in opposition to one another, and where is the candidate who embodies both.

The past election cycle has seen a number of cities in transition. Three mayors whose names became almost synonymous with the cities they ruled – as in “Bloomberg’s New York”, “Menino’s Boston”, or of course “Daley’s Chicago” – have left the scene, with their successors on unsure footing. In some cases, these mayors ruled for decades, and of course in Daley’s case, like his father sometime before him. Daley’s legacy to the city included a thriving Loop and North Side, but his achievements were tarnished by neglect of the South and West Side and precarious city finances regularly patched over with one-off gimmicks. All three mayors, however, left the impression that to be successful, mayors must be tough, visible, and in the spotlight in order to make their cities work.

While Daley may have had his flaws, he was a known quantity, more inclusive than his father, and can be justly credited with stemming the city’s population decline and maintaining Chicago’s profile around the world. Change is frightening, particularly to those of us clinging tenuously to our status at the bottom of the reviled one percent. We hear, and empathise with, Chuy’s pleas to remember the rest of the city; many of us are horrified that city officials seem to negligently ignore issues which tarnish our city, particularly the challenge of stemming the violence that kills hundreds of Chicago youths each year. But agreeing on the problems does not suggest a consensus on the solution.

Chicago can be a laboratory for a new political model, where social entrepreneurism is combined with Midwestern practicality

The “progressive” response to Chicago’s problems appears to include willful ignorance of the city’s finances, a rejection of practical realities such as the fact that half empty schools require consolidation, and a delusion that budgets can be balanced using the collective spare change in the pockets of the Brioni suits of the wealthy.

Of course, once in office, few progressives turn out to be as radical as feared. Pragmatism is the main prerequisite to success for a big city mayor; while daft ideas like banning carriage horses from Central Park rankle traditionalists, election of progressives has not proven uniformly bad for business. Far better for the rich to become seriously engaged in addressing the issues of inequality of access, than to face creation of a permanent underclass leading to the rise of a US Hugo Chavez.

Chuy is not Chavez, and his candidacy has struck a chord among those who feel they were forgotten under Daley and subsequently Emanuel. But neither Chuy nor Emanuel represent what Chicago truly needs: a fiscally prudent, caring mayor who targets the city’s resources to those most in need while balancing the budget and continuing to attract business to the city.

While the country may not realise it, Chicago presents a vision of the politics of the future. With the electorate trending towards becoming evenly divided between whites, blacks, and Latinos, appeals to narrow ethnic constituencies are insufficient to be elected. At the same time, Chicago’s civil society is strong. Programs such as CureViolence seek creative ways to reduce shootings in a measurable, meaningful fashion, while entities like the Mikva Foundation engage youth in the basics of civics, turning teenagers on to political engagement.

Chicago can be a laboratory for a new political model, where social entrepreneurism is combined with Midwestern practicality. Regrettably, neither Emanuel nor Chuy appears to have mastered this alchemy.

While the US seldom looks north for role models, Chicago would do well to look towards places such as Calgary, where Mayor Naheed Nenshi succeeds in being businesslike without appearing heartless. Cities like Chicago need modern leaders with vision, who seek to unlock their city’s potential by making the underprivileged a priority without becoming captive to unions or particular ethnic blocks. Taxpayers are mobile, and budget constraints are real.

Talented mayors will seek to reprioritise budgets to assure inclusion, while recognising that golden geese yet to be fleeced are an especially rare species. Chicago has yet to see a candidate who plausibly fuses progressive values with establishment discipline. Chicago voters can only hope that whoever wins will prove able to learn this skill on the job.

A.J. Goulding is an energy economist, founder of renewable energy firm Ampersand Energy Partners, and an adjunct associate professor with Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He currently resides, and votes, in the city of Chicago.

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