The Top Challenges Facing Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel

The pomp and circumstance of the inauguration will give way to these tough governing tasks ahead


When Rahm Emanuel is inaugurated as Chicago's mayor Monday, he will confront the toughest job in America: chief executive of a major city. His challenges are stark, though the biggest is missed by most.

If the president raises your taxes, you don't leave the country. If a governor does same, you likely don't split the state. But if a mayor exacts the pain, folks will mull running to the suburbs, partly explaining why the latest census figures show a population loss of 200,000 for Chicago, still the third-largest city in America.

The instant accountability partly explains the difficulty of being mayor -- whether the issue is citizens infuriated at rising costs, cops being shot, armies of kids dropping out of school or potholes not being fixed and snow not plowed. Add a sharply-declining revenue base, awful poverty and segregation and mediocre schools and you can understand why it's easier being, say, a journalist opining about a big city mayor.

Emanuel's troubles are clear:

Money. The city, like others, is in trouble after a robust pre-recession run of big spending, heavy borrowing and rising tax revenues. Some academics argue that it's now one of the five or six most economically influential cities -- in a universe with New York, London, Tokyo, Singapore and Paris. But Mayor Richard M. Daley, who steps aside for Emanuel after a remarkable 22-year run, leaves behind a budget deficit of about $600 million and billions of dollars in underfunded pension liabilities.

Schools. A laboratory for experimentation since Daley took them over in the mid-1990s, they are woefully inconsistent and, a separate taxing body, have their own $720 million deficit. He created elite high schools which outperform suburbia's finest. But, overall, the high school dropout rate is about 50 percent. The contract with unionized teachers, negotiated by Daley and Arne Duncan, the former schools chief and current U.S. Secretary of Education, leaves them well-paid (for teachers) while working the shortest work day and year of any of the 50 largest school districts in the country. The state legislature just gave Emanuel power to extend the day but that doesn't guarantee a turnaround.

Crime. The city has been operating with as many as 2,000 police positions vacant in a city with a high homicide rate. The recently-departed police superintendent, a former FBI agent, was reviled by many subordinates. Emanuel must regain their confidence but also those of citizens who believe that too many neighborhoods are shooting galleries.

Transit. Where have we heard this: declining service, rising fares and falling ridership? The Chicago Transit Authority is bedeviled by significant debt and too many outmoded stretches of track. The money to improve things isn't around and, given the nexus between decent transit and business vitality, this is a challenge curiously under-appreciated by many.

But Emanuel's greatest burden is understood by even fewer. As Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer, an Emanuel supporter and brainy, pragmatic liberal puts it: "The biggest challenge is to redefine the role of the City. There are some things that only government can do, for everything else, there is likely a better, cheaper, more community focused partner that can do it."

Government's obligation should be to provide a strong safety net; a theme President Obama has already signaled will be central to his own reelection campaign. But can his former chief of staff articulate a believable message about what government should no longer be in the business of doing -- and then get people to agree that it's all part of a natural evolution, "in the same way that landlines have evolved into cell service," as Gainer puts it? It's an especially tricky message for a Democrat to deliver.

Emanuel is a pretty big thinker and, for sure, a big personality. But there's no money for him to do big things. Instead of just explaining why we have to do more with less, he'll have to tell voters that there are lots of things we shouldn't be doing because others can do them better. Decades of mission creep must end.

Why should the city -- to take just one example -- be incompetently digging up and repaving parts of my own street three times in 12 months? (Don't get me started.) Is there no one who can do it once -- and cheaper? Another example: Instead of being in the business of running health clinics, the city could delegate many of their responsibilities to community-based and private operations.

The list goes on and on. We don't need so much of the traditional infrastructure of government anymore. But Emanuel will face many pressures to err to the side of incremental change when it comes to getting the size of city government under control. For example, there's a bloated fire department; heretofore a political third rail since, well, those folks do occasionally go into burning buildings and risk their lives.

If he can convince constituents that the basic paradigm must change, the upside is great, even historic: smartly reinventing urban government.

A great unanswered question as his term begins: Does he have the nerve?

Image credit: Frank Polich (Reuters)

Drop-down image credit: Reuters