Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Man Who Would Mouth Off About the Man Who Would Be Mayor

So, yesterday I posted about Rahm Emmanuel's complicated bid to become Chicago's mayor. I was making a comment about Chicago politics, how the city has a reputation for running not so much as a democracy but as a machine, operated by people who admittedly love Chicago but are not overly constrained by the nagging details of constitutionality. This reputation goes far, far back and is not isolated by any means to Chicago: multiple Illinois governors have served time for their complicated relationship to the law; meanwhile, multiple federal investigations have come and gone about the deals struck by multiple Chicago mayors. Chicago politics are fair game for commentary, in my opinion, thanks to a number of reasons:

* First and foremost, my proximity to Chicago. I'm not a resident, but I'm a very near neighbor, and as such my well-being is caught up somewhat in Chicago's.
* Second, the increasingly national and international prominence of the city. The sitting U.S. president cut his political teeth in Chicago; his former chief of staff is the leading candidate in this year's mayoral election. That candidate's replacement at the White House is the brother of Chicago's current mayor and a veteran of both local and national politics. Meanwhile, the current mayor has made regular, repeated efforts to assert the city on a global stage, most recently in the failed bid for the 2016 Olympics. If banks and auto makers are too big to fail, certainly a city like Chicago is too big to ignore.

So I don't apologize for posting my thoughts about Rahm for Mayor. I find Chicago politics fascinating, and my local news will not shut up about it, and we inhabit an era when anyone can post anything they want at any time.

Nevertheless, I've been (rightly) challenged (both publicly, in the comments to yesterday's post, and privately, in correspondence with my "anonymous" commentator) in both the tone and the assumptions I made in my post. I claim de-caffeination as my only excuse. Here I offer the caveats and retractions that have occurred to me over the past twenty-four hours; feel free to bust me on anything I've still overlooked.

I overstated things when I suggested (unconsciously) that Chicago does not function as a democracy. It does; there are no formal artificial restrictions on who can run for office and who can vote in elections. There is usually robust competition (if only within the dominant political party) for open seats. Moreover, I don't think that other democratic elections lack the kind of influence/manipulation/whatever that is undoubtedly exercised in Chicago campaigns; there are power differentials from the outset of any competition. Incumbents have advantages of name recognition and established campaign infrastructures, not to mention ease of access to people of power, influence and wealth. Dominant parties gerrymander the political landscape to reinforce their dominance. And so on. I remember an early campaign of Barack Obama's, when he staged a press conference by a grossly neglected patch of Chicago street to complain about the sitting congressman's neglect of his district; the cameras were rolling as Candidate Obama complained, while behind him city crews rolled up and repaired the road. Obama lost that campaign, and the incumbent won.

I overspoke when I insinuated that Rahm's assertion of residency is in open defiance of the reality of the situation. He has made a case that has proven compelling to plenty of people--although I think even those who aren't directly involved in his campaign are at least partly influenced by self-interest. The more candidates the better, and perhaps Rahm is in fact the best candidate. In any case, his disputed residency claims aside, he certainly has demonstrated his investment in Chicago; he's also, certainly, demonstrated his national and even international aspirations.

I overspoke when I characterized efforts at globalizing Chicago "failed"; I think Chicago is, in fact, a world-class city, and has earned that designation in a number of ways. But unlike New York or Los Angeles it is unshakingly, undeniably midwestern. And so its global aspirations are complicated by its decidedly local character. A vote for Rahm tips the city global; a vote for pretty much any other candidate tips it local.

Most important, I overspoke in what was a tacit (and unintended) implication that anyone working in Chicago government is part of a machine, not part of a responsible government. That's most certainly not the case. I am actually a big fan of civil service, and the vast majority (even most of those whose decisions and actions butt up against laws of governance every now and then) are motivated by their love for their city and their conviction that governance and even politics are common goods. There's undeniably a machine in Chicago politics, but there are also lots and lots of good people.

OK, beyond that I stand by my original post, the bottom line of which is this: like most cities, Chicago wants to be global, but it wants to remain local. Like pretty much everyone, it wants to follow the law, but it doesn't want to be constrained by the law. Rahm's bid for mayor is a helpful case study in a city figuring out what it wants, what it can't have, and its path to acquiring the wisdom to know the difference. Anything else I need to recant about?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Glad u didn't back off. There is a machine in Chicago though some people may be good and maybe what they do is "by definition" legal. There are many things done that are unethical. I do believe Rahm has a right to run. He also has made a good case to be on the ballot. But I do think if he gets on the ballot, it will be special treatment that others would not get. Personally, I think he can wait till next election to run.