Chicago’s Mayoral Election

Black and white perspectival view of Chicago's City Hall taken from the southeast.

Tomorrow is Chicago’s mayoral election, with fourteen candidates vying to replace the incumbent Rahm Emanuel.  The large number of candidates and an unusually unsettled political climate make this a particularly exciting and unpredictable contest.  If one candidate among the fourteen pulls way ahead and receives a majority of all votes cast tomorrow, that candidate will be Chicago’s new mayor.  But, given the absence of a clear front-runner, it is more likely that no one will receive a majority, setting the stage for a run-off between the two highest-polling candidates.  (In fact, election-eve polling shows no one candidate getting more than fourteen percent.)

So, the most significant mayoral race in decades is coming down to the wire.  Three or four events have shaped the race and influenced the way voters are assessing the candidates.  The first of these is the Laquan McDonald shooting, which destroyed Mayor Emanuel’s reputation and chance of re-election.  One year into the mayor’s second term, it came out that he had been responsible for suppressing the video of Laquan McDonald’s shooting in favor of covering up the police’s misconduct and buying off the dead teen’s family.  Since then, the shame of a colossal moral failure has dogged Emanuel’s administration.  But the fallout from this event has galvanized the electorate to expect more from the city and its police department, to demand better policing, and to look for leaders who will be on the side of citizens and have the courage to stand up to the police and to entrenched interests that do nothing but tolerate unacceptably high levels of violence in the city.

Mayor Emanuel’s disgrace has left him in too weak a position to ensure that his office will go to a chosen successor, even though he appears to hope the office will go to Bill Daley.  Bill Daley’s election would represent a terrible step backward, however, at a time when the city desperately needs an honest, fresh, independent guide.

The second event shaping the race is the feds’ recent sting.  In January, the FBI raided the offices of Alderman Ed Burke, who symbolizes the hermetic quality of Chicago machine politics, having enjoyed a controlling influence over local affairs while occupying the same seat in the city council for 49 years.  Burke is now, as Chicago Magazine put it, “facing federal charges for allegedly extorting legal business from the owner of a Burger King in his ward.”  Four candidates in the mayor’s race have “come up” through the machine and represent a continuation of politics as usual: Toni Preckwinkle, Susana Mendoza, Gery Chico, and Bill Daley.  The raid on Burke’s offices has been followed with the even more sensational revelation that Alderman Danny Solis wore a wire for the FBI for almost two years.  Solis chose to cooperate with the FBI rather than face charges of criminal misconduct himself.

As the FBI’s work opens up the happy possibility that more corruption will be exposed in Chicago, the prospects of many of the city’s erstwhile leaders are being recast.  Will Chicago voters finally turn against candidates such as Bill Daley, Susana Mendoza, Toni Preckwinkle, and Gery Chico, who are clearly creatures of the Chicago machine?  If voters do turn decisively toward “outsider” candidates, they may at last succeed in draining the swamp and liberating the city from “the Chicago Way.”

Identity politics is a third factor that makes the outcome of the contest hard to predict.  With so many candidates in the mix, including four women and many people of color, the contest will ultimately hinge on attributes other than the candidates’ skin color or sex.  It becomes nonsensical to talk about how “the black vote,” or “the female vote,” or “the white male vote” will go.  Will the upstart Amara Enyia and the solemn Lori Lightfoot split the black vote with Willie Wilson and Toni Preckwinkle?  Or will blacks simply vote for whomever seems likely to do the most for their communities and their pocketbooks, regardless of how they look?  In this day and age, what demographic is viscerally devoted to Bill Daley?  Looking at the contest in terms of superficial attributes seems particularly futile and nonsensical this time around.

It’s a momentous day for Chicago.  Personally, I hope either Lori Lightfoot or Gary McCarthy wins: either would make a fine, iconoclastic mayor.  Chicago needs to reject machine politics and all its creatures.  Peace, public safety, and honest governance: this, above all, is what Chicago needs.

Image: 1981 Hedrich-Blessing photograph of Chicago’s City Hall, taken from the southeast,
from this source.

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Inside the Wigwam

The Wigwam, GOP convention 1860 Chicago(Courtesy of Library of Congress)
Nominating conventions came into being in the 1830s, after Andrew Jackson and his ilk turned party politics into a more egalitarian affair.  The elite caucuses that had once chosen presidential candidates gave way to more inclusive mass gatherings where delegates styled themselves as representatives of the people.  By the time the Republican Party formed in the 1850s, nominating conventions had become significant political events in the life of the country.  Journalists, artists, and photographers documented the appearance and actions of the delegates and the spirit and style of the gatherings.

This particular artist’s drawing shows the meeting of the Republican Party in Chicago in 1860, when the young anti-slavery party nominated Abraham Lincoln for the presidency.  The Republicans went to the trouble to build a special hall for the convention, a vast domed wooden structure that they called the Wigwam.  (It stood at the corner of Lake and Wacker and was reportedly destroyed by fire in the late 1860s.)   Notably, the illustration shows a mainly female audience crowding the galleries to follow the proceedings.  (Women would not gain the right to vote until 1920.)

Faced with the likelihood that the federal government would sanction the spread of slavery into the West and strengthen its legal underpinnings everywhere in the US, those participating in the Republican convention believed it to be an event ‘on which the most momentous results are depending.’  ‘No body of men of equal number,’ the convention chair proclaimed, ‘was ever clothed with greater responsibility than those now within the hearing of my voice.’

The Republicans, though only a northern regional party, were intent on dislodging the dominant Democratic Party, which they did that November, against all odds.

Image from this source.

 

A Cracking Veneer

heavily tweeked aerial shot of downtown and industrial Chicago
I’ve been away.  To Puerto Rico, ironically, which like Illinois is bankrupt, but which is free of the pretensions of grandeur that make living in Chicago, Illinois such a political and spiritual nightmare.

While I’ve been away,

A woman fleeing a gang of 10 youths in Streeterville ran out onto the Drive, where she was killed by a car.

Sixty-nine people were shot over the holiday weekend, 6 fatally.

The City of Chicago paid $2 million to settle a lawsuit that whistle-blowing cops had brought, heading off a trial that would have centered on the police department’s code of silence.  Mayor Emanuel, who was to have been called to testify, figured this was a good use of citizens’ money.  What use is justice here anymore, anyway?

In the state capital, the legislature once again ended its spring session without passing a budget.  The legislature has now failed of its duty for two years.  According to the website Truth in Accounting, Illinois’s debt burden is $187 billion.  Others place it at $148 billion.  Illinois lawmakers are too cowardly to face the pain entailed in getting the state’s finances back in balance again.  It’s difficult to divine why they are in office.

Chicago is a microcosm of all that troubles the nation now.  The racial divisions, out-of-control violence, and public corruption are corrosive.  Public order is fragile and in jeopardy.  Over all this is a posturing ‘leadership’ that cares mainly for reputation and the superiority of being part of a political elite.

Image © Susan Barsy

Master the CPS Pension Crisis in 5 Easy Steps

Playing Teacher (Prang Co. lithograph), Courtesy Library of Congress.

Should we sympathize with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU)?  On Friday, the teachers walked off the job and took to the streets, ostensibly on a crusade, not principally for their own benefit, but for the sake of increasing education funding more generally.  Union boss Karen Lewis, looking jaunty, proclaimed, ‘We’re dying a death of a 1,000 cuts,’ implying that teachers were among Governor Bruce Rauner’s victims, and that all would be well if only the union could squeeze more money out of the state and its taxpayers.

Yet, if a report of the Illinois Policy Institute is correct, the financial woes of the Chicago school system and its teachers are largely internal and have been brought on by themselves.  The Chicago Teachers Union has been complicit in the ruin of the pension system established to provide retirement security, allowing money to be diverted from the fund while accepting overly generous increases in working teachers’ salaries.  Meanwhile, the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) leadership has so mismanaged its finances that a pension system that was fully funded in 1999 now represents a $9.5 billion liability, despite the fact that, over the same period, public funding for CPS has increased at 150% of the rate of inflation, when calculated on a per-student basis.

The IPI’s report, published in late 2015, analyzes the funding of teachers’ pay and pensions over several decades.  It explains the arrangements that have created the pension crisis while debunking some leading claims about where the solution lies.

1. Pension pick-ups:  In 1981, when Ruth Love was CPS superintendent, the district and teachers agreed that the district would pay the part of the teachers’ pension contributions.  Instead of pension contributions coming out of teachers’ pay, a part of their share would come out of the schools’ general operating funds.  These pension “pick-ups,” which continue today, amount to a loss of operating revenue of $1.266 billion over the last decade.  Meanwhile, the pick-up has not been counted as part of the CPS’s mandated contribution to the pension fund.

2. Pension holidays: On two occasions, in 1995 and again in 2010, the General Assembly allowed the CPS to forego paying in to the teachers’ pension fund as mandated.  The first of these ‘pension holidays’ lasted from 1995 to 2006.  During this period, the school system diverted all the money that should have gone for pensions (amounting to $1.5 billion) into its general operating funds.  During the second pension holiday, from 2011 to 2013, the CPS diverted another $1.3 billion from the pension fund.

3. Colossally bad management: While the public is constantly being told that the schools’ problems stem from under-funding, the IPI claims that ‘Tax-payer provided revenues for the Chicago Public Schools have more than doubled‘ between 1997 and 2014, rising from $2.6 to $5.3 billion annually.  Meanwhile, the size of the student population has dropped by about 7 percent, from a high of roughly 383,000 students in 2003 to 355,634 students in 2014.  In 2014, the CPS received revenue of $15,011 for each child enrolled.

4. Unwise salary increases: The lifetime compensation of CPS teachers is the highest in the nation, relative to other major urban school systems.  A beginning teacher with a BA earns $51,092 a year.  Salaries increase rapidly during the first decade of service, so that teachers with 10-14 years of service earn an average pay of over $84,000 per year.  The salary structure increases the pension benefits of teachers earlier in their careers, enhancing the payout to younger ‘retirees.’  In 2014, over 72% of teachers in the Chicago schools had less than 14 years’ seniority.  The pension fund’s pool of beneficiaries is increasing, while the number of teachers paying into it is declining, another factor pushing it toward insolvency.

5. Reckless borrowing: It’s hard to escape concluding that the Chicago schools have been terribly mismanaged. Between 1998 and 2014, despite enjoying many years of pension ‘holidays,’ the CPS sank ever more deeply into the red, borrowing instead of confronting its true fiscal constraints.  CPS indebtedness totaled $6.2 billion in 2014.  Its bond offerings have been floated at ever higher rates of interest, even as its bond rating tanks.  Today, nearly eight percent of the CPS budget goes right to debt payments.  Another 68 percent goes to compensation costs, leaving just 24 percent for all the other expenses of running the schools.

Image: “Playing Teacher”
(1890 Prang Company lithograph)
from this source.

The Biggest Worries of 2016

An empty dining room decorated in an opulent European style.

Optimism is to be cherished, but, given the state of the world, it may be a foolish indulgence.  The times call for levelheaded engagement, not the dreamy complacency that optimism breeds.  Faith in our political system, in the American people, or in the capacities of elected leaders: faith like that has yielded small rewards lately.  The glue of trust that valorizes American government is disintegrating.

That the US has fallen into troughs of mediocrity before (think of the Gilded Age culture Mark Twain pilloried) is one of the few thoughts that consoles me.

Our national capacities matter more then ever, given the dire condition of the world, our institutions, and many of our communities.  What can we bring to 2016’s daunting prospect, a prospect defined by several cosmic and worrisome possibilities?

1. World War Three?

If it breaks out, it will be a war like no other, as was also true of World Wars One and Two.  In fact, it may already be underway.  We may not know it, simply because we are in the same situation as those who lived through other world wars. We watch as an unconventional conflict erupts and spreads in a fashion that the world order is unprepared to protect itself against.  In Syria and with the Islamic State, aggressors are working with playbooks that defy borders and prevailing conceptions of war and nationality.  As in previous wars, the Middle East’s war-within-a war has geographic and strategic traits that have already begun enmeshing a widening set of parties, both psychologically and militarily.

2. The decline of national sovereignty

World order as we know it is based on the concept of the nation-state: that states and powers have boundaries, and that, within those boundaries, all are subject to a nation’s laws.  The international order and our concepts of war are built on the notion that nations are sovereign.  In the many parts of the world, the concept of the nation-state has allowed humans to live peacefully under the rule of law.

These days, the integrity of the nation-state and the inviolable nature of national sovereignty are losing salience.  A host of contributing forces, both economic and geopolitical, was strikingly evident in 2015.  While Greece’s economic crisis exposed the mutual discontents inherent in the great experiment known as the European Union, its member-states are increasingly fractious, as the incidence of terrorism and a massive influx of refugees from war-torn and dysfunctional parts of the world have highlighted their loss of internal control.

Global mobility has increasingly challenged the static bulwark of the nation state, but the world’s leading powers have also rained insults on its integrity. Whether it’s Russia in the Ukraine, or the US in Syria, the superpowers frequently allow their desires to override their respect for the sovereignty of nations that they dislike.  Their increasing resort to overt and covert interventionism mocks the concept of national sovereignty.  Even changes in technology–such as the increasing sophistication of air-to-ground warfare–have made it easier to ignore and violate the clear boundaries that formerly protected nations from one another and impeded a general descent into war.

3. Witchy weather

Climate change, global warming—call it what you will, it’s a major worry.  Unbreathable air; murderous landslides; droughts and forest fires; glaciers melting, oceans rising.  Whether you’re a scientist or a believer in the Biblical end-time, you may agree (while wearing shorts in winter) that ‘Old Mother Nature’ is trying to tell us something.  Resource exhaustion is how a planet’s inhabitants typically do themselves in.  With omens like this, why worry about bombs?

4. The twin bankruptcies of Chicago and Illinois

Chicago and the State of Illinois are bankrupt already.  They just haven’t admitted it yet because of the shame.  The most powerful people in our state, especially the state legislators and Speaker of the Illinois House, Mike Madigan, will be remembered as the people at the helm when the ship went down.

Poor governance alone is to blame for Chicago and Illinois’s difficulties, for, ironically, both are richly endowed entities, with great human capital and masses of valuable resources and assets, including some of the world’s most productive farmland.  Illinois has one of the largest GDPs in the country, but it is saddled with a growing and inescapable debt load consisting chiefly of unmet pension obligations, the legacy of decades of corrupt and self-interested leadership.

The collapse of a major American city and its state AT THE SAME TIME has no precedent in US history.  History will remember and damn the leading politicians who for decades have written bad laws and abused the people’s trust.  Hold on to your hats, all Illinois!  2016’s going to be a bumpy ride.

5. A Donald Trump presidency

Beyond the well-aired controversies that Donald Trump inflames, his ascendancy portends chaos in the political realm.  Not only does Trump’s unwelcome prominence prove that the Republican National Committee has lost control of the party; it also shows the degree to which both parties and their personnel have lost touch with the sentiments of the electorate.  Whether Trump can convert viewers into votes remains to be seen, but if he polls well, we’re going to find out what happens when a candidate upends an entrenched national party.

Image: Carol M. Highsmith, Marble House, Newport, Rhode Island,
from this source.

Why not challenge the constitutionality of Illinois’s pension-protection clause?

pensions-photo
Illinois citizens are expected to sit tight as the cost of meeting state and local pension obligations brings their government ever nearer to bankruptcy.  Everyday, we hear of a new head-ache: how our property-taxes are likely to begin sky-rocketing, or how short-term borrowing to pay pensions will soon destroy Chicago’s bond rating, and how people are leaving the state to avoid being stuck with the costs when the looming disaster of all-out bankruptcy finally arrives.  Yet no matter how painful to the citizenry, our government must rake together the money for public-pension obligations that are burgeoning.

All because a section of the Illinois constitution stipulates that, no matter what, one class of Illinois citizens can count on protections that no others can: the benefits of belonging to a state pension system must not be diminished or impaired.  In the service of this constitutional provision, the state may be driven into bankruptcy and the rest of the population held forever accountable for promises that by-gone politicians irresponsibly made.  The needs of ordinary citizens are being choked off so that those of lawmakers and public workers may be fulfilled.

The power of the legislature to pass laws conferring benefits on themselves and other public workers is difficult to limit.  The pension ‘system’ in Illinois is an irrational bricolage of myriad laws passed over the decades.  The Chicago Tribune has described it as a “convoluted mess of provisions riddled with giveaways, funding flaws, excessive borrowing, and pension holidays.”  The pension code is organic in the sense that’s easy to add to, but any benefit, once added, is virtually impossible to take away.

Consequently, the state’s pension system is an unholy mix of the good, the bad, and the ugly.  It pays pensions to convicted felons like Jon Burge and to brazen scoundrels who had the luck to head up our towns and public universities.  It pays millions of dollars in benefits to cagey officials who correctly perceived the advantages of ‘double-dipping.’  The fact that citizens are powerless to curb the excesses of the pension system feeds hostility to it, to the detriment of many decent and deserving public employees.

Why not take a page from the four Virginians who have mounted a potentially game-changing challenge to the Affordable Care Act by questioning the meaning of just one of its phrases?  Should the public welfare of Illinois be sacrificed to secure the well-being of one special class in perpetuity?  In fact, the pension provision defines a special class of citizens in terms of their distinctive relationship to the state and then confers unassailable privileges on them.  How can this be constitutional?

 Membership in any pension or retirement system of the
State, any unit of local government or school district, or
any agency or instrumentality thereof, shall be an
enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which
shall not be diminished or impaired.

As matters stand, the pension provision has become the yardstick against which any pension-reform legislation must be fearfully measured.  Sensible legislation has been struck down while legality of this patently odious and inegalitarian provision has gone challenged.  Illinois citizens should stand up and challenge the constitutionality of the pension provision itself.  A requirement that leads to such unfair and destructive outcomes is an affront to the larger purpose of government.  Does it really trump every other principle of constitutional law?

Given the urgency of Illinois’s fiscal condition, this question should be engaging the state’s best legal minds.

RELATED
Susan Barsy, “The Pension Stand-Off in Illinois”

An early aerial view of the University of Chicago

Aerial panoramic view of the Quads taken from west of Ellis Avenue.
George R Lawrence was a pioneer whose specialty was panoramic aerial photography.  A native of northern Illinois, he invented the means to take high-quality “bird’s eye” views using a camera hoisted aloft with balloons or kites.  His most famous photographs are of a ruined San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, but he also photographed Chicago, its waterfront and factories, and various towns nearby. Continue reading

Rahm’s Chicago: A Nice Place to Visit

Chicago: The Drive at night, © 2014 Susan Barsy
Heading south on the Drive after being away, I feel a surge of pride—such a beautiful city!  I pull out my camera and begin taking pictures of the familiar buildings—the Hancock, the Drake, the Palmolive with its beacon on—the Gold Coast all dressed up for the night.  The beauty of Chicago, the myriad things that are right about it, evoke pleasure and pride.  The face of Chicago is deceptive, having only grown more beautiful with time. Continue reading