Thursday, October 16, 2014

Rahm kicks the can down the road

     While not one of the deep pocketed fat cats who seem to be Rahm Emanuel's primary constituency, I found myself defending him over the past few months, as his popularity slumped over, toppled off its park bench, rolled to the ground and then slid into a culvert. Nobody else seemed to have a good word for him, so sticking up for him pleased my contrarian nature, and seemed the fair thing to do.
     Until Wednesday.
     Up to now, his central sin seemed to be closing 50 schools without the requisite hand-holding and
gripe enduring, the sitting next to a pitcher of water through endless raucous hearings, tilting his head like Nipper the RCA dog, feigning interest, while a long line of honked off community residents crowded around a microphone for the chance to poke their fingers at the air and scream at him for closing their schools.

     That's tradition, but Rahm is not exactly a traditional guy. 
     The bedrock fact is, schools needed to be closed. Chicago's population has dropped 10 percent in recent years. If you paid close attention to CNN's "Chicagoland" series, the halls of Fenger High School, the backdrop where principal Liz Dozier was always wobbling through, shouting, were often deserted. Four hundred kids in a school built for 1600. She had to send her teachers out into the street to round up students so they didn't lose federal funding. How many empty shells is the Chicago Public Schools supposed to keep open?
     The bottom line is, we're broke. I found myself explaining, it's not the Rahm doesn't like mental health clinics. The city has no money. Like most broke people, Chicagoans have a hard time accepting that. Easier to whip out the Mastercard and sleepwalk through one more day of plenty.
     And while I sympathize with the cops and firefighters castigating the mayor for aiming his razor at their pensions—I lost mine; it bites. Now I'll never get that fishing boat—the truth is his predecessor gave away the ranch, and the money is not there. Is it fair? No. But then neither was Hurricane Katrina, and the mess had to be cleaned up anyway. Bad stuff tends not to be fair, that's what makes it bad stuff and not a delightful bit of irony. "Oh look, Donald Trump, killed by a block of malachite that tumbled off his latest tower..."
      Rahm Emanuel is so unpopular, I told myself, because he's making the hard choices, trying to knit together some kind of workable parachute as the city hurtles toward the canyon floor of complete fiscal insolvency. He's leading, or trying to, and maybe people, instead of bitching and scanning the skies for some new savior who'll tell them what they want to hear, wistful though it may be (we'll tax the commodities exchange!) should bite the bullet and get behind him. 
      Then Wednesday came. And Rahm Emanuel stood in front of the City Council and kicked the same by now dented and battered can down the road that Rich Daley kicked for years. 
    Glance at my colleague Fran Spielman's lucid story on Rahm's speech outlining the 2015 budget. 
     In case you are reluctant to veer away from my golden prose, I'll give you the key point, in paragraph three: 
He talked about “continuing to confront the challenges facing our city,” but failed to even mention the biggest one: police and fire pensions with assets to cover just 30 percent and 24 percent of their respective liabilities.
     That will be remedied, no thanks to Rahm, but as demanded by state law, with a $550 million mandatory payment by the city to the pension funds next year that will either further gut city services, or demand income tax increases, two subjects our mayor danced over in his 40 minute talk. 
     I guess his sudden unpopularity unnerved him. The speech was no doubt written before Karen Lewis's brain cancer was revealed (I'm probably going to hell for saying this, but my first, unfiltered thought when I heard the bad news about Lewis, Rahm's only potential challenger of any merit, was, "Wow, how did Rahm manage that?")
     So count me in the camp of — well, I don't hate the guy. I pity him too much for that. He's a politician. He's one of those guys who thinks if he wins enough he won't ever die.  And I also have to deal with him occasionally, so I like to squint my eyes and see him in the best possible light. Though now that I think of it, it's the end of October, and I haven't spoken to the man since ... last December, so I guess I don't really need to deal with him all that much. Maybe none of us do. Rahm Emanuel is the master of the possible, and perhaps he looked at the polls, the print-outs, and the entrails of ducks, and saw that the time isn't right to save the city from utter financial ruin. He'll wait until he safely trounces Bob Fioretti and THEN pull the rip-cord, five seconds before impact. Let's hope the chute opens in time. I do try to give him slack. Remember who taught him how to charm voters: Richard M. Daley.


  1. I live in the city. I DO hate him. And every single person I know who lives in the city hates him. And the city has LOTS of money for graft and corruption--millions upon millions that are totally wasted. Look at the half billion wasted on Millenium Park.

    1. Millennium Park was private money. And given that it has become the face of the city, I'd say calling it a "waste" is a stretch. Of course every single person you know is a self-selected group.

  2. Rahm decides the hard choices. Support for the Fire Festival is a hard choice he made.

    1. OK, so Fox News has made me slow on the uptake, but this was facetious, right?

  3. I don't know if this will be done now, but the city apparently has enough money to build a new arena which will allow Depaul to play in the city. This after the UC would allow them to play there for nothing.

    As for pensions here is an article I read about pensions in the Netherlands.

    1. Read the whole article. In Holland, the unions actually cooperate and allow needed changes to benefits and contributions--which from employees are way higher than here. Here, the unions sue the taxpayers and won't give up an inch.

    2. The Illinois Constitution provides as follows:

      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.
      (Source: Illinois Constitution.)

      The unions sue when the government enacts unconstitutional laws.

  4. He does have some choices, though. He, after all, has decided to not try to destroy the T.I.F. program- the destruction of which would need to be done legislatively- they made it hard to undo. There's usually about 1/2 billion dollars flowing into the T.I.F. funds.

    They're not all the shameless give-aways that the Depaul stadium is, but those projects should go through the general fund, rather than however those dollars are dispersed.

  5. For me the pension situation is like an optical illusion: at first glance, it appears that we, the taxpayers, through our duly elected representatives, made a promise to certain employees and that promise not only should be sacrosanct, but is via the State constitution; a second look and that all transforms to greedy payrollers grabbing a lifetime sinecure from corrupt politicians and sending the bill to innocent us.

    Also, one might note that the word "reform" does not necessarily mean "improve."


  6. Police and firemen AND thousands of municipal workers are going to get screwed because the city didn't make the payments mandated by law. Most workers will not receive any social security as they don't pay into SS. Use the TIF funds to pay down the shortfall.

  7. You might want to put your disappointment on hold Neil. I did after reading today's Sun-Times editorial, which concedes that deferring a decision on pension payments is reasonable while there is still a chance that the Supreme Court might may yet forclose any opportunity to negotiate a deal with the unions.

  8. I had this fantasy when Daley announced that he wouldn't be running again that he saw what a dire situation the city was in and had some kind of draconian plan for dealing with the situation that he knew would be so unpopular that he'd have to implement it with no intention of getting reelected. And that he would thus somehow save the city and ride off into the sunset -- unpopular, but to eventually be vindicated. Uh, that didn't seem to be the case. Did I mention that it was a fantasy?

    As for Rahm, I have pretty much agreed with your tepid support of him thus far, Neil. Hey, I have a "contrarian nature," too! I really don't know how he's supposed to fix this mess, but he's hardly the first politician to look at a terrible situation and decide not to deal with it before an election. Immigration, anyone?

    Gotta say, though, among the many types of dogs I could conceive of Rahm emulating, Nipper has never been one of them...

  9. Poor Rahm - his critics claimed he was going to get kids murdered and hurt their education by closing the half-filled schools and moving them to better performing schools. When the reverse happened (less student violence, better performance) what did the media do? Challenge those critics and ask them why anyone should believe them anymore? Nah, instead they BEGGED two of them to run for mayor. Now Rahm tries to run out the clock on the pension crisis until maybe his good friend becomes Governor (does anyone really believe this kabuki about him wanting Pat Quinn over Rauner?) or the state supreme court or somebody else coming to their senses before this cluster hits, he gets trashed for that too, even though it's hard to see why that's not at least a defensible strategy. And Rahm did take some political heat already on the pensions by pushing Quinn for the ability to raise property taxes and indicating that's coming. I'm critical of Rahm on a number of issues but overall Chicago has been lucky to have him.

  10. Your analysis is a fair one, Neil, and I appreciate it. Being mayor right now --and for the foreseeable future --is going to be about making painful reforms and telling people "no". It's going to be about recalibrating expectations and unwinding imprudent promises. If he's unusually successful, only HALF the people will hate him for it. It's not Rahm's fault at all, it's just where we are in the cycle. That said, I don't think he should play "kick the can" again. He should take up golf.


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