The Political Context
Micah Maidenberg on the Political Context that “Visions for Chicago” is taking place in:
Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley’s decision to retire after 21 years in office came as a surprise to many observers of the city’s political scene. There was a sense that after several high-profile set-backs in his last term the longtime mayor would put in for four more years to try and bolster a legacy, if nothing else. And Daley was likely to win another term in office. This was a mayor, after all, that so dominated the city’s political scene that 71 percent of Chicagoans voted to reelect him in 2007, even following a string of City Hall scandals exposed by muckraking journalists and federal prosecutors. Instead, Daley bowed out, announcing his call at a brief press conference held toward the end of the summer of 2010.
The chips fell quickly from there. Longtime aldermen who had tethered their political fortunes to the mayor and voted simply and happily accordingly to his priorities, decided they too were finished with City Hall. Would-be mayors and council members quickly came out of the woodwork, talking up their candidacies. By December, 351 people had filed to run for aldermen. The contenders, for both mayor and council, eventually whittled down.
The six groups that finally ran for mayor included the current city clerk, the former head of the Chicago Board of Education, an ex-U.S. Senator, a businessman, a neighborhood activist, and Rahm Emanuel, the former congressman, presidential adviser, and Democratic Party bigwig.
Emanuel dominated the contest among those who voted, winning 55 percent in a contest that saw just 42 percent of registered voters cast a ballot. He ran a disciplined campaign. His public appearances were parceled out expeditiously; he attended none of the mayoral forums put together by the city’s grassroots non-profits, immigrant centers, public housing residents,park advocates, public school teachers, and neighborhood organizations. Emanuel called in favors from ex-presidents. He raised nearly $11 million by the end of January 2011, a month before the election day, money spent on advertising, campaign workers, a policy shop. Corporate Chicago and other powerful interests lined up behind him. Among voters, Emanuel was burnished by his close association with a president still popular in his hometown.
On the City Council side, there was at least one genuine upset, as a Northwest Side ward elected the city’s first Indian-American alderman over a long-standing Democratic candidate. A council member credited for regularly critiquing the outgoing Daley’s policies easily won reelection. The hip hop artist Che “Rhymefest” Smith forced Willie Cochran, a first-time council member, into a run-off, one of 14 council slots that went to a second round of voting. Even before the vote, a lot of aldermen said they saw the possibility for a more independent council that actually does what legislatures are meant to do (craft bills and provide oversight of the executive branch). A lot of aldermen are also clearly positioned to support Emanuel’s agenda.
All of which is to say that some of the assumptions that have undergirded Chicago politics for more than two decades—and perhaps longer than that—are jarred, at least, from their usual moorings. There will be no Daley occupying the mayoral suite in Chicago’s City Hall nor in the bay of council chambers once a month. For most of the last 56 years, since the current mayor’s father took office, that has been the case.
What that means in practice is not immediately clear as 2011 unfolds. Emanuel and the yet-completed City Council inherit a city buffeted by the recession and its festering aftermath (and any of the presumed breaks from the Daley-dominated past must be tempered by the relationships Emanuel has forged with the outgoing mayor and some members of Daley’s circle). Foreclosures have skyrocketed since 2007. Crime has dropped in aggregate, but remains high on the city’s South and West sides. Chicago lost 200,000 residents, most of them African-American, over the last 10 years, and too many students drop out of high school with no degree and little chance to find work in the slow-growth economy. Mass transit, affordable housing, and community development systems have their own hard roads ahead. The city’s budget ran a deficit of more than $650 million last year and its pension system is facing a funding crisis.
The mayoral contenders and aldermanic candidates have had months to talk about the ways they’d like to unravel this thicket of issues. And it is against this difficult backdrop that the “Visions for Chicago” project also must contend.
Like the elected officials who will assume local office in May, the visions collected for this project communicate via yard sign. Unlike the yard signs that covered so much of Chicago over these past months, these yard signs aren’t merely offered to build name recognition or allow a neighbor to demonstrate fealty to a candidate. Some of the visions collected by artist and curator Daniel Tucker deal with specific issues the next mayor and council may tackle; others are fanciful and abstract; others are a touch utopian, asking for things simultaneously so simple and so difficult to achieve. “A bird in every yard / a Kindle for every mind / Peace in every heart,” says the vision offered by the Thomas family of Roseland.
The language of such dreams won’t be on the committee agendas, briefing books, and financial prospectuses that Chicago officialdom will use to chart their course starting this May. But the “Visions of Chicago” projects suggest that absence from the corridors of power doesn’t mean such dreams don’t exist. At a moment of change, that’s not insignificant.