According to local legend, Richard J. Daley, the Mayor of Chicago from 1955 to 1976, was once told that a group of experts had concluded that American cities had become ungovernable. Daley allegedly replied, “What the hell do the experts know?” The conventional narrative about Chicago today is that the Windy City and its restless mayor, Rahm Emanuel, have been on the ropes, pummeled by a rising murder rate, financial challenges, frustrated teachers, and defensive cops in denial over continuing revelations of brutality and abuse. But the experts writing Emanuel’s political obituary may yet prove wrong. On Monday, October 10, just minutes before a midnight deadline, the Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Teachers Union reached agreement on a four-year teacher contract, narrowly averting a strike that would have paralyzed the city and escalated frustration among parents, teachers and taxpayers. The next morning, Mayor Emanuel announced a 2017 budget that, in his words, brings the city out from under, “The black cloud of insolvency threatening the retirements of city employees and the financial future of Chicago.” Following record property tax increases, the budget is largely free of one-time revenue sources and other budgetary gimmicks that have contributed to structural deficits each year. The budget secures pensions for teachers, police officers, firefighters and other city employees, makes a down payment on hiring 970 additional police officers over the next two years, and includes a host of neighborhood investments spread across the city’s 50 wards. Earlier this month, the Chicago City Council passed a package of reforms aimed at bringing more accountability and transparency to the police department. The reform package came several months after the adoption of a broad set of recommendations to improve training and oversight in the department. By the way, the Chicago Cubs have the best record in baseball and they are tied with the Dodgers in the National League playoffs after beating the San Francisco Giants in the Division Series. It’s an open question whether the African-American community will be assuaged by Emanuel’s police reforms. Success depends much more on whether rank and file patrol officers change the way they do their jobs than on anything the mayor says or does. It also remains to be seen whether Mayor Emanuel and his new police chief, Eddie Johnson, can reduce the gang violence that has Chicago on track to its highest murder rate in 20 years. In raw numbers, Chicago leads the nation in murders, but crime now appears to be on the rise again in other cities after more than a decade of decline. Chicago may have just been ahead of the curve. Nevertheless, Chicago is in a much stronger position today than it was last November when a judge forced the release of a video showing a Chicago police officer shooting an unarmed Black youth 16 times. While police-community relations are hurting, neighborhood leaders recognize that police can’t effectively curb gang violence without the help of the community. The “code of silence” in the police department that the mayor called out in a speech last December is equally prevalent in the community, where trust in law enforcement remains at a deficit. On other fronts, the school district recently announced nation-leading gains in student test scores and a rising high school graduation rate. Whole Foods opened a new grocery story in one of the most troubled neighborhoods of the city. Wilson Sporting Goods is moving its corporate office and 400 jobs to Chicago and McDonald’s is relocating 2000 corporate office jobs from the suburbs to the city. Emanuel’s former boss and friend Barack Obama is planning to spend $800 million building a library on the South Side after leaving the White House. Another longtime friend, Hillary Clinton, looks increasingly likely to take Obama’s place. It never hurts to have friends in high places. The
jury is still out on Chicago under Mayor Emanuel, who emerges from a dark and difficult period with some real progress to show and, with two-and-a-half years left in his current term, plenty of time to notch a few more wins. Now, if only those Cubs can bring home the World Series.
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with