The Mayoral run-off election is three weeks away. The phrase “this is the most important election in our lifetime” has become a cliché in nearly every election campaign, but in this case, I believe it may be true.
Our City is facing enormous financial challenges brought in large part by unsustainable pension debt. The City of Chicago’s four pension funds are underfunded by nearly $20 billion, including a$550 million balloon payment owed to the police and fire pension funds this year. Add the $9.5 billion unfunded liability in the Chicago Teachers pension fund, and Chicago’s taxpayers are faced with an unfunded pension debt of nearly $30 billion.
To put our financial challenges in perspective, the City’s entire budget this year is $7.3 billion.
Unless addressed honestly and forthrightly, this unfunded pension debt will crowd out our ability to pay for essential services, such as police and fire protection, not to mention vital services for the most vulnerable in our City, services such as health care, affordable housing and sheltering the homeless.
We can get ourselves out of this mess, but it will require leaders who are not afraid to make tough decisions and tell people hard truths.
I support Rahm Emanuel’s re-election as Mayor because he has proven through his actions that he is such a leader. At the same time, Rahm has demonstrated time and again a real commitment to the kind of political reforms and progressive policies that I and many other have fought a lifetime for.
Rahm’s Record Demonstrates His Strong Commitment to Progressive Policies and Reforms
Before I address the City’s fiscal challenges and Rahm’s response to them, I would like to highlight some of Rahm’s progressive reform credentials because much has been written and said about Rahm caring only about the “upper one percent” and putting the interests of downtown ahead of the neighborhoods. However, a close look at the facts shows the exact opposite to be true.
I bring to this election the perspective of having served in the City Council with two mayors–20 years with Mayor Daley and the last four years with Mayor Emanuel. Though Mayor Daley accomplished some good things for our City and the 49th Ward, he frequently stymied the efforts of community activists, my City Council allies and me to bring true progressive reform to the City of Chicago.
My experience with Rahm has been markedly different.
Rahm supported fair wages, affordable housing and a clean environment over the opposition of the special interests
Rahm has worked closely with community activists and their City Council allies on a range of progressive issues and reforms, listening to our suggestions and transforming our suggestions into meaningful, progressive legislation. Much of this legislation was opposed by the powerful downtown business and real estate development interests, giving lie to the unfair characterization of Rahm as someone who doesn’t listen to average folks and cares only about the wealthy and privileged.
Below are just a few examples:
- Over the strenuous opposition of the Chamber of Commerce and other business interests, Rahm pushed through the enactment of Chicago’s first ever minimum wage. The wage will increase in stages beginning later this year ultimately reaching $13 an hour, which will make it one of the highest minimum wages in the nation, second only to Seattle’s $15-an-hour minimum. In fact, if you take into account Seattle’s higher cost of living, Chicago’s minimum wage is actually equal to Seattle’s.
- Despite strong opposition from developers and the real estate lobby, Rahm is supporting proposed changes to the Affordable Requirements Ordinance, which requires residential developments that receive City financial assistance or involve city-owned land to provide a percentage of units at affordable prices. Under Rahm’s proposed changes more affordable units will be created in the neighborhoods where they are scarce, rather than concentrated in the city’s poorer neighborhoods.
- Again, despite strong objections from real estate interests, Rahm pushed through an ordinance that helps preserve Single Room Occupancy buildings and protects SRO tenants for whom the only other alternative is life on the streets.
- Over strong opposition from the banking industry, Rahm passed the “Keep Chicago Renting Ordinance,” which protects tenants in foreclosed buildings from being evicted without any assistance. The ordinance requires banks and landlords who intend to evict tenants to provide clear notice and offer relocation assistance.
- Rahm also faced down the power company executives at Midwest Generation, which operated two dirty coal-fired power plants in low income neighborhoods on Chicago’s southwest side. He told them they needed to either comply with the clean-up requirements contained in my Clean Power Ordinance or shut their plants down. They chose to shut the plants down, improving both the environment and the respiratory health of the residents who lived near the plants.
The community activists who advocated the initiatives I cite above deserve much credit for bringing these issues to the attention of Rahm and City Council. But unlike his predecessor, Rahm Emanuel actually listened to the activists and worked with them to achieve their goals.
Rahm helped end political patronage in City government
Rahm also deserves credit for changing the culture of corruption that has permeated City government throughout Chicago’s history. Rahm ended once and for all political hiring in Chicago City government. But don’t take my word for it. Just ask Michael Shakman (see photo with Mayor on right), who waged a 45-year battle to end political patronage in Chicago.
The Shakman Decree, a federal court order that banned political patronage, was routinely ignored in the administrations of Richard J. Daley, Richard M. Daley, Michael Bilandic, Jane Byrne, Eugene Sawyer and, yes, even Harold Washington. This flagrant disregard of the Shakman decree led the federal court to appoint a monitor to oversee all City hiring decisions, at a cost of to the taxpayer of $22.8 million in monitoring costs, legal fees and compensation for affected employees.
Despite the presence of the federal monitor, the decree continued to be violated until Rahm Emanuel became mayor. Through the implementation of a series of reforms and good practices, Rahm proved to the federal monitor, Michael Shakman and a federal judge that the City’s notorious system for hiring and promoting based on political favoritism was a thing of the past.
Nicole Brennan, the federal court monitor who oversaw City hiring practices under both Daley and Rahm said it best when she recommended to the federal judge that the City be released from federal oversight: “To say that the city has totally revamped its hiring process would be an understatement.”
As a result, for the first time in the City’s history, people are now hired for City jobs based on what they know, not who they know.
Rahm implemented greater transparency and ethics at City Hall
Ending political patronage is huge, but it’s not the only reform measure for which Rahm deserves credit. Since taking office, Rahm has made more information available to the public than ever before. Working with members of the City Council’s Paul Douglas Alliance, Rahm has:
- Launched a comprehensive online TIF databasethat tracks all projects in one and allows Chicagoans to review TIF project data on a map by address, project name, TIF district name, and/or a ward number;
- Overhauled the City’s data portal, data.cityofchicago.org, which now hosts nearly 1,300 data sets and has been viewed nearly than 25 million times. Chicago’s website received an “A+” from the Sunshine Review, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to government transparency;
- Posted online for the first time all winning and losing bids submitted by vendors for competitive low bid contracts;
- Established a lobbyist disclosure database that allows the public to see who is paying which lobbyist, how much they were paid for that specific contract, who they lobbied, and what they lobbied for.
Rahm also created an “Ethics Reform Task Force,” led by Cindy Canaryand Dawn Clark Netsch and implemented the vast majority of their recommendations, including:
- Eliminating honoraria;
- Strengthening the gift ban and rules for financial disclosures;
- Implementing a “revolving door” restriction that forbids City employees from lobbying the City for a period of two years after they leave their City jobs and a “reverse revolving door” restriction, which forbids employees in the private sector from taking jobs in city departments that formerly regulated them;
- Adding whistleblower protections for City employees who report misconduct;
- Penalizing Political Action Committees (PACs) for knowingly accepting improper campaign contributions;
- Increasing penalties for violations of the ethics ordinance; and
- Implementing for the first time in the Chicago City Code an employee code of conduct, which strictly outlines the behavior expected of all City employees and officials.
The fact that Rahm’s administration is the first mayoral administration in modern memory that has not been beset by any major political scandals is further proof that City Hall has experienced a real and meaningful reduction in the culture of corruption and political favoritism.
Rahm provided strong support for parks and the environment
Rahm is also one of the most environmentally-minded mayor in Chicago history, earning him theendorsement of the Sierra Club. Harold Washington was the only other Chicago Mayor who earned the organization’s endorsement. In addition to his work shutting down the two coal-fired power plants, the Sierra Club gave Rahm kudos for:
- Expanding the blue cart recycling program citywide;
- Implementing the Divvy Bike Sharing program and creating 100 new miles of bikeways by the end of the year;
- Doubling the share of wind power in the City’s energy supply;
- Buying power to operate City-owned buildings only from companies that do not use coal as a power generator; and
- Adding 750 acres of parkland to the Chicago Park District.
Rahm provided strong support for Rogers Park and other Chicago neighborhoods
Rahm’s commitment to Chicago’s neighborhoods, including our own Rogers Park neighborhood, is evidenced every time you shop at our new Jewel/Osco at Gateway Plaza. Truth be told, Jewel initially took a pass on Gateway. I asked for the Mayor’s intervention and through his powers of persuasion, heconvinced the Jewel executives to take another look at the Gateway site. He’s also wiped out numerous food deserts on the city’s south and west sides by demanding grocery retailers offer fresh produce to residents who used to have to cross town.
Every time you bring your kids to one of Rogers Park’s new playgrounds you are a beneficiary of Rahm’s commitment to Chicago’s neighborhoods. Nearly every playground in Rogers Park has been rebuilt or will be rebuilt by the end of this year. And nearly every playground in the entire City will be rebuilt within the next four years.
Every time you use the Red Line stations atJarvis, Morse or Loyola you are a beneficiary of Rahm’s commitment to Chicago’s neighborhoods. They were the first three stationhouses to be rehabilitated in the North Red Line rehabilitation project. Chicago’s south side benefitted from complete rebuilding of the south branch of the Red Line and the northwest side will soon receive the benefits of the Blue Line rehabilitation project.
Rahm has improved our local schools
Rahm has received much criticism for his handling of the process by which the Board of Education closed nearly 50 schools. I agree that the process by which the schools were closed left much to be desired. A more collaborative and less unilateral approach may have avoided some of the anger and frustration expressed by teachers and parents.
With that said, keeping underutilized, failing schools open in neighborhoods that have experienced dramatic population declines makes no sense, especially in a school system that is facing a $1.1 billion deficit. Scarce dollars should be used to educate kids in better schools, not keep half-empty buildings open.
The controversy over the Mayor’s process for closing the schools also should not obscure the important fact that according to the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research, 93% of the affected students are now in better performing schools. Shouldn’t that be the ultimate measure of success?
High school graduation rates are at an all-time high, including Sullivan High School; every kindergarten-aged child is now in a full-day kindergarten; Chicagono longer has the shortest school day of any major City; and community colleges will soon be free to any CPS graduate with a B average or better.
These are significant accomplishments that should not be overlooked when evaluating Rahm’s strong record on education.
Mayor Emanuel made the Tough Decisions to put our City on Track to Solving its Financial Problems
Rahm’s solid record of achievement on many of the progressive issues and reformsthat I have spent years advocating has earned him my support. His opponent, Chuy Garcia, also has an impressive 30-year record of support for these issues. And if the mayoral election came down simply to a choice of which candidate possessed the most “progressive” ideology, this would be a much closer call.
But this election is not just about ideology. It’s also about which candidate can put their ideology into concrete actions that provide real benefits to real people.
This election is also about which candidate has the willingness and guts to take the tough political stands necessary to guide our City through very perilous financial times. You can propose all the progressive initiatives in the world, but if the City’s entire budget is taken up with paying down debt and paying for pensions, then the proposals aren’t worth the paper they are written on and won’t benefit the people who need them most.
The City’s future fiscal stability hangs in the balance thanks to a crushing $20 billion pension debt and a longstanding structural deficit that preceded Rahm’s election to office. Over the past four years, Rahm has been very direct and forthcoming with the voters about what it will take to put our fiscal house in order and has already taken steps to address the situation.
When Rahm first took office, Chicago’s annual structural deficit–the gap between our spending and revenue–was $635 million and growing. Thanks to various efficiencies implemented by Rahm–such as putting garbage collection, tree trimming and graffiti removal on a grid system, eliminating management positions and getting rid of excess office space–the structural deficit has been reduced to $297 million this year.
Rahm also charted a politically risky but responsible approach to our pension crisis’s by crafting an agreement, signed by 28 of the City’s 33 labor unions, to reform the municipal employees and laborers’ pension funds through a combination of increased City and employee contributions to the pension funds and reforming the cost of living formula for the benefits.
Payroll deductions started in January and now 61,000 employees and retirees can rest assured that they will have a pension they can rely on. And the City’s taxpayers can rest assured that they will not be asked to carry the entire burden of salvaging the pension funds.
Agreements regarding the police and fire pension funds remain to be hammered out. ButRahm’s solutions for the municipal and laborers’ funds provide a roadmap for the other two funds–pension reform where we keep the funds on a sustainable path without asking too much of either taxpayers or pensioners, but asking something from both.
For a comprehensive summary of the Mayor’s fiscal reform plan, click on the attachment below:
Chuy Garcia Fails to Honestly Confront the Fiscal Challenges Facing Our City
Rahm’s run-off opponent, Chuy Garcia, is my friend and a very nice man with a longstanding commitment to progressive reform. Unfortunately, the fiscal platform he presented last Friday is long on platitudes and promises and very short on specifics.
In the words of Crain’s Chicago Business columnist Greg Hinz, Chuy’s fiscal plan “left huge questions hanging about whether he has the background and the expertise to take on the challenges facing city government right now.”
Chuy promises he will not touch existing employee pension benefits. But as the Chicago Sun-Times noted, if some reforms to pension benefits are not part of the solution, “there are but a few choices for Chicago: massive tax increases, massive service cuts or, most likely, both.”
Chuy’s refusal to consider even very modest reforms to pension benefits would leave the City’s property taxpayers with the entire burden of closing the pension funds’ $20 billion funding gap. This means City taxpayers will have to shell out an additional $1.2 billion in just the next year alone (see chart at right), and much more in the future. The only other alternative is equally untenable-allowing the pension funds to go bankrupt, leaving current City employees and retirees no retirement security whatsoever.
Most labor unions support Rahm’s re-election, but a few labor unions strongly oppose his pension reforms. Those unions also constitute Chuy’s strongest base of political and financial support. If he were elected Mayor, Chuy would find it extremely difficult, if not politically impossible, to turn his back on those unions and support reform that reduced the growth of benefits. This would leave Chuy with no choice but to put the burden for rising pension costs entirely on the taxpayers at a cost of thousands of dollars per taxpayer.
If Chuy’s promise to keep pension benefits at an unsustainable level was his only unfunded promise, it would be irresponsible enough, but Chuy’s also made some other huge promises for which he has identified no funding source.
Though Chicago already has more police officers per capita than any of the nation’s top five largest cities, Chuy promises to hire 1,000 more police officers. It’s a politically popular promise to be sure. But according to the Chicago Justice Project, hiring 1,000 police officers would cost the City over $100 million a year. Where would Chuy come up with $100 million to pay for those new officers? He doesn’t say.
Chuy also promises to abolish all City red light cameras. It’s another politically popular promise, but true to form, he offers no plan for how he would make up for the $70 million in lost revenue.
Finally, Chuy pledges he would not refinance any City debt, but fails to explain how he would make up the $150 million in lost revenue if the City didn’t refinance.
Chuy isn’t the first candidate for office to over promise, but the total annual cost of fulfilling the promises he has made is staggering–over $1.5 billion a year.
When asked how he would cover the costs of the pension payments soon to become due and all his other promises, Chuy said he would “organize a working committee . . . to examine the full range of existing and potential revenue options that are available to the city.”
In times past, a mayor or a candidate for mayor could avoid making hard choices by simply forming a committee to study the problem and put off painful solutions to another day. But those days are over. The day of Chicago’s financial reckoning has come. The voters deserve to know in advance of the election how Chuy will address our fiscal challenges.
This Election is not about Who is the Nicest Guy; It’s about Whom You Can Trust to Run Our City
To say the least, Rahm is not one of those warm and fuzzy politicians. He can be caustic, abrupt and too abrasive at times. But we’re not voting to elect the high school prom king or the man we would most like to share a beer with. We are voting to elect the person who will lead our City during its most challenging financial time since the Great Depression.
Rahm Emanuel has demonstrated, in both word and deed, the fortitude, toughness and political courage necessary to make the hard choices to right our City’s ship, while at the same time moving our City in a more progressive direction.
This is why I urge you to join me in voting for Rahm Emanuel.
Thanks so much for taking the time to read my thoughts on this important election.
P.S. If you agree with me on the importance of re-electing Rahm Emanuel as our mayor, we can use your help in his re-election campaign. In the next three weeks, we will be going door-to-door and working phone banks to urge our neighbors to vote to re-elect the Mayor. We have opened an office at 1435 W. Jarvis. If you can help, please reply to this email or call the 49th Ward coordinator, Nico Probst, at 574-850-5033.