Chicago mayor’s race: What the candidates promise

Less than a week from Election Day, top candidates in the Chicago mayor’s race talk spending freezes and consider bringing a casino to the city.

By MARK GUARINO | Staff Writer Christian Science Monitor

posted February 17, 2011 at 11:50 am EST

Chicago – Maybe it’s the cold wind off Lake Michigan, but the pace of change in Chicago’s City Hall has always been glacial. For 43 of the past 56 years, a Daley has ruled Chicago, meaning many residents don’t know anything different.

But the current election cycle is a game changer. Mayor Richard M. Daley is retiring after 22 years, and not a single Daley is running for mayor. The race to replace the current mayor is split among four leading candidates: former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, former US Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, former Daley Chief of Staff Gery Chico, and Chicago City Clerk Miguel del Valle.

Voters will go to the polls Feb. 22, and if no candidate wins a majority of the vote, a runoff will take place in April.

“[The new administration] is going to be very different,” says John Mark Hansen, a political scientist at the University of Chicago. “Daley was able to draw upon a lifetime of contacts and alliances, in some cases dating back to his father’s days. None of the candidates have that, and nobody could.”

For the eventual winner, the biggest task will almost certainly be putting the city on better financial footing. Chicago is groaning under a $654.8 million budget deficit and nearly $600 million in pension obligations, but the public is wary of having their taxes raised or services cut to make up the differences. The next mayor nonetheless will have to reprioritize how the city spends money.

The four leading candidates – all Democrats – agree on a number of broad points related to the financial woes. They’ve called for freezes in spending and hiring, and each sees potential revenue from a casino within Chicago. The candidates also want to create a better climate for local businesses, which could help the economic growth of the city. And they want to take Mr. Daley’s top-down model for city agencies and undertake a restructuring to allow for better services and oversight.

“The only way that the city is going to stabilize its finances is to make structural changes in operations,” says Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a nonpartisan tax-policy think tank in Chicago.

All four mayoral candidates are denouncing a deal that Daley struck with Morgan Stanley in 2008 to privatize Chicago’s 36,000 parking meters. The city sold them for $1.15 billion, but three years later, much of that money is gone – and now it’s locked into a contact that won’t expire for 72 years.

A report issued by Chicago’s Office of the Inspector General said the city could have gotten almost $1 billion more for the meters.

Following are some of the ideas that each candidate has presented for addressing Chicago’s finances.

Rahm Emanuel, ex-Obama chief of staff

As part of what he calls his “reinvention” of city hall, Mr. Emanuel proposes cutting spending by $75 million in 2011. In hopes of saving more money, he also wants to modernize services such as garbage collection.

He says his administration would operate following a “charter” model in which agency commissioners are rewarded for saving money. “I don’t want them to govern by just following the rule book. I want them to rethink and rewrite the rule book,” he said in early February at a campaign stop.

Former US Sen. Carol Moseley Braun

Ms. Braun has called the parking-meter deal “a scam, plain and simple,” and says she would seek to revoke the contract if possible. Her campaign has largely focused on neighborhood issues, including the regulatory processes that small businesses must go through to open their doors. She wants to create the Department of Small Business Growth, which would be a one-stop shop for all permits, licenses, and fees.

But her first plan of action, she says, would be the development of a $2 billion fund to invest in and nurture high-growth technology companies in Chicago and the broader Midwest.

Gery Chico, former Daley chief of staff

As far as restructuring, Mr. Chico has proposed merging the city treasurer’s and city clerk’s offices into other departments. He also wants to reduce staffing at the headquarters of the Chicago Public Schools by a third.

To boost revenue, he has called for increasing how much the city charges suburbs for their water supply.

Chico also wants to address Chicago’s 15 percent drop in the police force since 2008 – the result of previous belt-tightening. With proper restructuring of the police department, funds will be available to hire 2,000 more officers within four years, he says. (Emanuel has made a similar proposal involving 1,000 police officers.)

Miguel del Valle, Chicago city clerk

Mr. del Valle also wants to void the parking-meter deal and, in a phone interview earlier this month, said he “would advocate going slowly in terms of considering any proposal of privatization.” He urges public hearings on any future privatization proposals.

“I don’t want a strong mayor, weak council,” he added. “I need a strong council along with the mayor assuming responsibility for the tough decisions.”

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