Sunday, February 1, 2015

Rahm's a jerk, but he's our jerk

     This was an assignment. I don't have a Sunday column, and don't usually attend editorial board meetings. But my boss asked me to sit in on the mayoral "debate" at the paper Friday morning and write something. Not that I minded. The 2015 mayoral election is a dreary affair, and taking aim at those involved was as difficult as shooting a duck in a bucket. If this piece seems a tad sharp, it's because of the unpleasantness of contemplating what passes for political discourse in this city.  The Occupy Chicago rhetoric seems to have infected the general view of Rahm Emanuel. Everyone hates him—his personality makes that easy, I'm not fond of him either, but knee jerk contempt overlooks that he's making all these hard choices for a city that was busted long before he got here. People seem under the delusion we have vast resources, that Emanuel's closing mental health clinics because it's his idea of fun. 
      How anyone can pretend to care about the city yet back one of the crew of misfits running against him is beyond me. I'd never met Willie Wilson before; he seemed uncertain where he was or why he was here, and began by saying he had no interest in the Sun-Times endorsement. Bob Fioretti I knew; I drove around his ward with him once—and see his campaign as the standard end-of-career lunge. I was actually fond of him, despite his shutting down a business in his ward, Felony Franks, because he didn't like its name. But that was before watching him mudsling, trying to make something stick to the mayor.  Repellent. Rahm is Rahm. I'd never met Dock Walls, but thought he passionately expressed the views of the big chunk of the city who are African-American and disenfranchised. Jesus Garcia I've been trying to shadow for a column for the past month, but arranging it seems beyond his press secretary's ability. I don't suppose we'll get that set up now. 

     A baby, a bozo, a jerk, a firebrand and a stiff.
     Or, if you prefer, Willie Wilson, Bob Fioretti, Rahm Emanuel, William "Dock" Walls and Jesus "Chuy" Garcia.
     The quintet of men who would be mayor for the next four years stopped by the Sun-Times Friday for a debate, of sorts, 90 minutes to talk about their vision of the city.
     It wasn't pretty.
     Let's go in order, left to right.
     Wilson is a political novice, a millionaire running for mayor because he's missing
whatever gene keeps you or me from doing embarrassing things that we aren't capable of accomplishing half well.
     In my case, I suppose it keeps me from auditioning for "Swan Lake." With Wilson, who built a successful medical supply business but is missing that gene, he's running a campaign half as a mission from God—he closed his remarks with a prayer—half as a how-can-we-lose-when-we're-so-sincere, Charlie Brown run at the football.
     "I'm running for mayor wanting to make some definite changes," he said. "I want to come from the heart."
     Given that his transit of Chicago history will end Feb. 24, it would be cruel to focus too much frank assessment upon him. Wilson points out that his formal education ended after one day of eighth grade, and perhaps after the campaign he can use his example to inspire kids to stay in school.
    Fioretti — well, "clown" is a harsh assessment, especially since he dialed his hair color back, though his smile is still a chilling, facial appliance that walked off from "American Horror Story." He was a competent, block-by-block alderman before his ward was redistricted away. Now he is hammering away below Emanuel's belt, dragging the mayor's son into the campaign for getting mugged, hoping for a miracle. He continued his unfair flailing Friday, tossing everything that comes to mind into the blender, reaching back to the Clinton administration, accusing Rahm of having been "an advocate of cutting welfare benefits," as if that were a bad thing.  I almost blurted out, "That was the most successful social change the federal government initiated in the past 25 years." But I was here to listen, not talk, so I was able to hear Fioretti blame Emanuel for the assault rifle ban expiring, and for in general wrecking the city. 
     "Chicago is moving in the wrong direction," he said.
     The mayor needs no explanation. We all know. He seems to have sincerely believed his high opinion of himself would simply be imparted to the voters by osmosis, and is hurt to discover otherwise (though $30 million of TV ads ought to gin up some affection, or at least the required number of votes). He did not actually say anything jerkish Friday. He was the same as always, reptilian, his voice a little softer, which to me seemed restrained fury, an I-spend-four-years-trying-to-save-this-frickin'-city-and-THIS-is-the-thanks-I-get!? seething resentment.
     Unlike the others, however, he actually has a record.
     "In the last four years, we've presented four balanced budgets without a property, sales or gas tax increase," Emanuel murmured. "Four years in a row we increased our investments in after school, summer jobs and early childhood education."
     Walls was the surprise. In my mind he dwelled in the realm of perennially ambitious street hustlers trying for a legitimate score—I wasn't 100 percent sure he was a different person than Wallace "Gator" Bradley before now. But he came on strongest of the five.
   "There's two Chicagos," Walls said. "There's a world class Chicago and there's an underclass Chicago. The world class Chicago is beautiful, safe tourist-friendly robust, full for resources and unlimited opportunity for Rahm Emanuel and the other 1 Percenters. That's the Chicago the media loves to brag about.. Then there's the underclass Chicago that nobody wants to talk about: decaying neighborhoods, unsafe streets, people dodging potholes and bullets."
     Too true, and well-put, though he jumps to a surprising conclusion.
     "Under Rahm Emanuel, Chicago is the most racially segregated city in America," Walls said. He didn't add: and under Richard M. Daley. And under Harold Washington. And under Jane Byrne. And under Richard J. Daley. And under Martin Kennelly. 
     The question is, what would Walls, who said he was retired from a t-shirt business that grosses $40,000 a year, do about it? 
     Garcia carries himself like a man balancing phone books on his head, like the profile off a coin, a minor bureaucrat in a small country who should be wearing a red sash and applying wax seals to official documents while ceiling fans slowly turn.
     "I have been living in the same bungalow for ... 24 years, 34 years married to the same woman," he began.
     Well Jeez, why didn't you say so? Here's the keys to the city.
     Chicago's problems burst the confines of our 90 minutes; we really only talked about the ballooning pension disaster and the crumbling schools. None of the would-be mayors connected one to another, as if cuts in the schools were being done for the heck of it. All seemed to toss airy notions at the former—Wilson brought up the will-o-the-wisp of a Chicago casino, Fioretti a tax on LaSalle Street trading, Walls would encourage small business like his t-shirt operation. All except the mayor discussed schools as if we had all the money in the world, and Rahm just hates to spend it on poor folk.
     "They want to put children at risk, that is intentional," Walls explained, calling charter schools "a diabolical plot."
     Listening closely for 90 minutes, I didn't hear one promising idea, one exciting proposal, from anybody. When Tom McNamee, the editorial page editor, ended by asking the men to give their vision of Chicago's future 20 years from now, he merely lit the fuse on a blast of bromides. 
    "The future of the city of Chicago rests in redeveloping the neighborhoods and the former industrial belt," Garcia said. "Chicago has the potential to maximize its position and its advantages especially given the great assets that we have in the field of transportation: rail, highways, air, and its port.  Those are tremendous assets that put us to become a hub for tremendous economic activity."
      "Chicago hasn't had an industry to call its own since the stockyards," Walls said. "Our best hope rests in small business. Many of those small businesses are gems waiting to happen...We cannot exist as a service economy. That's like eating at your own flesh."
     You get the idea. Emanuel made sense—"Twenty years from now Chicago is still going to be a very diverse, vibrant economy," he said. "My number one goal is to make sure it's also a city middle class families can afford to live in and raise their children in... Chicago's diversity is its strength." Wilson, of course, added  a surreal note. "We must make sure Midway and O'Hare reflect the neighborhoods they serve." I'm still chewing on that one; it has to be an oblique reference to who gets concessions there, or just gabble. 
     I can't vote in this election, not living in Chicago -- as I'm sure you'll point out, trying to undermine the plain truths outlined here. But watching the spectacle, I kept thinking, "Rahm may be a jerk, but he's our jerk." You might not like what he's doing, but at least he's doing something. Garcia seemed to think that the parents, once consulted, would close the schools themselves. The airy, let's-put-on-a-show speculation of the other four was truly frightening, given that, through some wild longshot, there might be a tiny fraction of a chance one could be mayor: say 1 out of a 1,000. 
    Walls speaks a good piece but has done nothing to make anyone suspect he could do the job. The others have neither the language nor the experience. Voters seem resigned that Rahm Emanuel will win. Looking at his opponents, I can say with confidence: not only will he win, but he should win. God help the city if he doesn't.


  1. I'll just limit this to my extreme disgust with Fioretti.
    He is a lawyer & alderman, who has at least twice sworn an oath to uphold & defend the Constitution of the United States & of Illinois. First when sworn in as a lawyer & then as an alderman. "I do solemnly swear (affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United
    States, and the Constitution of the State of Illinois, and that I will faithfully
    discharge the duties of the office of .... to the best of my ability."
    But he doesn't believe in either of them!
    He violated the 1st Amendment rights of a hot dog joint in his ward because he didn't like the name, Felony Franks, which had that name because the owner wanted to give some ex-cons a chance at an honest living.
    Fioretti's refusal to give the joint a sign permit cost the city $250,000 in outside legal bills & the city lost the case.
    Now Fioretti wants to impose a tax on the stock & commodity traders here, which brings in a lot of revenue to the area.
    But there's a little, teeny problem with that.
    The Illinois Constitution totally bans any tax on the trades & traders.
    So Fioretti obviously hates both constitutions & refuses to follow them!

  2. This was an amusing and informative piece. Amusing because I could not get the vision of Neil in a tutu out of my mind.

  3. Very funny, as is any mayoral campaign in this city. Nothing changed while Richard M. was in office, nothing. We need a mayor who has the courage and resilience needed to change the entrenched ideology of managing this city.

  4. I gotta say, I laughed pretty hard at that, though parts of it were a tad, shall we say, politically incorrect. (Ironic in that it seemed totally correct, politically, to me...)

    One nitpick, however -- surprise! "'Rahm may be a jerk, but he's our jerk.' You might not like what he's doing, but at least he's doing something. Garcia seemed to think that the parents, once consulted, would close the schools themselves. The airy, let's-put-on-a-show speculation of the other four was truly frightening..." Shouldn't the last two sentences be in the opposite order, or adjusted somehow? You mention two guys and then "the other four."

  5. I suspect more than courage and resilience are needed. The last successful "reform" candidate for the office was Martin Kennelly, a rich businessman with no political experience. He couldn't get anything done because, although nominally a Democrat himself, he didn't know how to bend the city council to his will, and was dumped after one term. As our new Governor may be about to find out, governing requires a somewhat different skill set than running a corporation.

    On the matter of Mr. Emanuel's personality, having worked for a succession of jerks and non-jerks over the years, I have learned to discount such impressions. My best, and most effective, boss arrived on the scene with a reputation as a tyrant and martinet so well established that many did what they could to be reassigned in order to escape him. He could indeed be cruelly dismissive of people who didn't have their stuff together, but once he gained confidence in you he was loyal and supportive. To me he ended up being both a mentor and friend. The mayor seems to have cultivated a reputation as ruthless and abrasive, but part of that may be beyond his control. If you read the comments appended to articles about him in the other Chicago newspaper you can catch more than a whiff of good old Midwestern anti-Semitism.

    Tom Evans

  6. All agree that Rahm is the only candidate with any semblance of competence in running the City of Chicago and I will probably vote for him if he'd only quit sending me flyers denigrating the other hapless souls vying for the job.

  7. As a fan of short sleeved shirts I support Willie Wilson. His campaign signage specifically states that he will not infringe on the rights of citizens to "bare arms".

  8. When I worked as a community newspaper writer and editor, candidate endorsement interviews were a consistent source of amusement. My favorite had to be the woman who talked about how Hitler confiscated all the guns before World War I. (That's One.)

  9. Neil,
    You're Rahm endorsement reminds me of what I recall as the Nixon slogan, he may be a jerk (or maybe it was a term more descriptive), but he's our jerk. The idea then seemed to be that we'd need someone to compete against the Russian equivalents of the time. Seeing how the nice guys have fared (Carter, Obama, etc.,), it may make some sense.

    1. Nixon was our last social liberal to be president.
      He created the EPA & wanted national healthcare.
      Unfortunately, he was also a paranoid lunatic.

  10. I would think you’d be more circumspect (or at least cleverer) when you start describing as “a bozo” someone who has so recently battled a rare form of cancer and won. Your characterization of Alderman Fioretti’s smile as being “a chilling, facial appliance that walked off from ‘American Horror Story,’ ” lends no particular luster to your even less credible rant concerning his criticism of Mayor 1%.

    Fioretti is certainly not “hammering away below Emanuel’s belt” nor was he “dragging the mayor’s son into the campaign for getting mugged”, when he rightly points out that how does the mayor expect to control it in the far less advantaged areas of the city, if can’t he control street crime in his own upscale neighborhood with all the taxpayer-provided high tech surveillance equipment and police details that surround his residence?

    And you are less than factual when you opine that the mayor is the only one with a record. Bob Fioretti has a strong progressive record with introductions of more than 2,000 pieces of legislation to prove it.

    As I have mentioned to you before, you have demonstrated a suburbanite’s bias and lack of knowledge for what goes on inside the city limits. One’s purview is tightly limited when one does not venture much beyond an area of the city bounded by the Metra station, the Sun-Times building, the Civic Opera House, and Lake Shore Drive.

    I have told you before that I consider you to be a good writer, even a great one. This ad hominem attack is unworthy of your talents. You should stick to topics with which you are more familiar.

    How about some thoughtful insights on the Mission Hills development?

    1. So you prefer a man who violates his oath of office & deliberately refuses to follow the US Constitution?
      He's as progressive as the Southern politicians were in 1861 when they seceded!

    2. Your reply has more arguments ad hominem than the column that you object to. Fioretti may have had cancer, but he is nevertheless a bozo. Of course he is just one among 49 other bozos.

    3. There's a sad tendency to want to infantalize people who have had a hardship. Fioretti wasn't disfigured by cancer -- he looked clownish before. Nor is that my central criticism of him but an aside. As to this idiot's other comments, well, they don't deserve reply.


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