Important things are happening in Chicago. With the fastest-growing urban core in the nation, Chicago is at the crux a major cultural transformation. Wealth and influence that shifted to the suburbs in the years after World War II has pivoted back downtown. Out of that transition, nascent political alliances are emerging. If those new alignments can survive a conservative backlash inside both parties, they might eventually offer relief from our national partisan gridlock and signal an urban renaissance.
A nominally Republican Illinois Governor and a nominally Democratic Chicago Mayor are joined in an awkward alliance to replace what remains of the old political machine. Resistance to this change is so strong that Mayor Emanuel faces the first runoff election in the city’s history after failing to win 50% of the vote in the first round.
Frustrated by the muddle of Chicago politics, pundits are mischaracterizing this election as an effort by the Democratic left to reassert itself. It is easy to get confused. A mayor with major financial backing is fighting against unions. Unions always represent the interests of struggling poor people. Hence, the distorted narrative.
Nothing remotely like this is happening on the ground. Let’s be clear, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is facing a challenge from the Democratic right. More to the point, Emanuel is facing a reactionary challenge from the Democratic Party of the 1950’s.
Emanuel is in trouble because he has openly challenged the last well-organized bastion of the machine that has run the city for nearly a century. His decision to close public schools that the city no longer needed and could not afford violated the code. His decision to push back against corrupt pension deals that are bankrupting the city and the state was a cardinal sin.
Political influence in Chicago has always been based on the ability of the mayor and the Democratic Party to dole out public jobs to loyal operatives. Since the Shakman decrees in the late ‘70’s it has been harder to operate this machine in the open.
It is now illegal to expressly tie public employment to party loyalty. Public employee unions have grown more powerful in Chicago as a sort of proxy between the machine and its politically tied employees.
Emanuel, in typical Emanuel style, identified Chicago’s thorniest problem from the outset and immediately determined to untangle it. Chicago’s future growth and prosperity is stunted by a school system that does not meet its students’ needs and a collection of pension obligations it will never meet.
Chicago’s public schools do not suffer from a funding problem. CPS spends just as much per student as some of the most elite suburban districts. Chicago suffers under a school system which has, over the course of half a century, developed into an extension of the machine. Its mission of educating young people is subject to its primary mission – to reward loyalists with good paying jobs.
Enrollment has, not surprisingly, been in steady decline for decades. Enrollment in Chicago schools has dropped by a third since 1970. Meanwhile the number of schools continued to grow, rising almost 20% over the same period. This increase emerges from the disconnect between the schools’ public service mission and their political mission. If the machine cannot produce new public jobs then it cannot feed itself.
Meanwhile the long-term costs inflicted by decades of machine politics are showing up in the city’s pension obligations. Next year’s nearly $7bn budget includes just under $700m in pension costs. Under present obligations that rises to at least $2.4bn in 2017. In other words, more than a third of the city’s revenues will be siphoned away with no compensating services or revenues.
Emanuel, with help from the incoming Republican Governor is trying to engineer pension reforms that would share the burden while keeping Chicago solvent. A combination of tax hikes and benefits cuts could create a workable balance, but public employee unions are fighting for a fantasy alternative based entirely on new taxes. The revenue simply does not exist. If they get their way they will kill the city’s growth and drive Chicago into bankruptcy.
Contrary to the popular narrative, Chicago’s public employee unions are not “unions” in the traditional sense. These are not coal miners fighting for safe conditions and reasonable wages. Public employee unions, for the most part, aggregate the political power of educated white collar workers. They are fed by largely minority and poor communities who are trapped depending on them for services. In other words, these are bizarro-unions in which a white, largely well-educated and already politically connected workforce can suppress the power of the communities that they serve.
In suburban Naperville or New Trier, the power of public employee unions is countered by relatively small political units with relatively affluent, well-connected constituents. Their harm is limited.
Meanwhile in Chicago, the massive weight of an enormous school system is set against minority and immigrant communities with relatively little organization, influence or money. The outcome is schools that consistently fail to meet students’ needs while siphoning resources away from those communities and toward the unions. Cloaking this political dynamic in traditional “union” rhetoric helps further confuse the matter, complicating efforts by those communities to gain access to the services they need and deserve.
Emanuel’s efforts to make the schools function for the benefit of students have directly challenged the power of the unions. By closing down schools that had largely emptied, he disrupted a jobs and patronage engine that had turned CPS into a piggybank for local political interests.
Efforts to introduce accountability both in financial and educational terms have earned him powerful opposition. This election is likely to determine whether city public services can be made to serve citizens or whether Chicago’s public schools will continue their long decline in enrollment. Along the way it may tell us whether a new politics of pragmatism, forged on alliances across party lines, can bring new dynamism to our cities.