When Richard M. Daley announced in September that he would not be running for another term as mayor of Chicago, I got in line for a circus.
Instead, an election is coming to town.
When the four major candidates sat down with the editorial board of the Chicago Tribune last Friday, they finally started to focus this election on what matters most—the issues. After months of posturing and framing (Who’s representing whom? Who’s from where? Who has whose support?), the candidates have started to give Chicago a real contest for the city’s highest office.
It’s a breath of fresh air for residents of Illinois who, late last year, faced two of the worst election choices in memory in the state’s gubernatorial and senatorial elections. Even with the paring down of the election field that we saw in November and December, Gery Chico, Rahm Emanuel, Carol Moseley Braun, and Miguel del Valle have emerged as four formidable and viable choices for mayor.
But regarding the shift of focus in this campaign from personal reputation to policy ideas, the candidates still have work to do over the next month.
The problem of the early part of the campaign was that it focused far too much on the frontrunners’ reputations instead of the political ability of the candidates. Now, every contested election at this level is crucial because there are so few of them. Not counting those serving partial terms, Chicago has had four mayors over the past 55 years, and two of those mayors held office for over 20 years. Chicago likes its dynasties. Maybe it’s just for the storyline, or maybe it’s for the sense of security that comes with continuity.
The point is that Chicago voters are viewing February 22 as a long-term commitment. The winner might guarantee him- or herself only four years in City Hall, but consider Daley the Younger’s contests: In 1989, he won by a margin of 11.7 percent (that after losing in 1983). In five elections from 1991 to 2007 (replacing the 1991 and 1995 election results with their closer Democratic primaries), Daley’s margin of victory was over 43 percent. Once he got into office, nobody could touch him, and even with the parking meter debacle and the shambles that is the city budget, he’d probably have won again if he had decided to run this year.
So with decades of City Hall’s future potentially on the line this year—depending on whose corruption the public latches on to over the next few years—voters are looking for a candidate with enough on his résumé to prove his ability to lead for a long time to come. Rahm Emanuel was able to spend the first three months of this campaign snoozing on his laurels, and his opponents didn’t just let it happen—they encouraged it by focusing their critiques on his Chicago-ness (or perceived lack thereof). Emanuel was able to focus instead on his past credentials, which seemed to tip the scales in his favor. Some quick hits from Emanuel’s résumé: senior advisor to Bill Clinton, Congressman, Democratic Congressional Campaign Chairman, Chief of Staff for Barack Obama.
No one else comes close.
Where the other candidates can and probably do match up with Emanuel is in the area where it matters most—the issues, specifically regarding solutions to Chicago’s vast and varied budget problems. We’re coming to a crucial point of no return in this campaign. At some point, it’s too late for the candidates to refocus. Fortunately, it appears now that they’re finally moving policy proposals into the spotlight, and that’s a much-needed change from the past month’s trends.
The Chicago Tribune has followed the election appropriately, at least according to what the candidates seem to want to talk about, with almost daily headlines over the past month on the candidates’ dedication to Chicago and Carol Moseley Braun’s tax problems. But how many times have issues gotten front-page coverage in the past month? Two. Two times, and yesterday’s paper was the first time that an actual policy proposal was named on the front page of the city’s newspaper of record.
The candidates—especially Chico, Braun, and del Valle—have to push the issues to the front of the voters’ minds. We shouldn’t just trust the candidates based on their reputations; we should trust them based on their ideas too. And the good news for Chicago voters is that all four candidates are finally finding their rhythm in policy debate.
In an election like this, where Chicago is facing such enormous budgetary problems, superficial campaigning can’t be tolerated, and fortunately, with such a high-quality pool of candidates, it won’t be. While I wouldn’t support all of the candidates, I do think they’re all at least good challengers. Chico, Emanuel, del Valle, and Braun are all bringing serious firepower to the debate on the issues, and hopefully the spotlight will remain on policy.
If it does, this campaign will be good for more than just entertainment.
Jake Grubman is a fourth-year in the College majoring in Law, Letters, and Society.