At a South Side rally for mayoral candidate Jesús “Chuy” García last week, the resounding battle cry was to “take back Chicago.” García led his followers in a rousing speech promising to return the city of Chicago to its residents.Together, García’s supporters comprise one of the most diverse groups of citizens in the United States. The rally certainly represented Chicago’s diversity, where South Side residents, local politicos, public school teachers, families, students, and children from all walks of life gathered to hear García denounce Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s alienating policies.
Four years, fifty school closings, and and 1803 homicides later, the city of Chicago faces an important decision: to support a career politician whose policies alienate all but the most wealthy of Chicago residents or to elect a community leader who has a strong history of working directly with Chicagoans from all socioeconomic backgrounds. The answer is clear. Chicago needs a mayor whose background is as colorful and diverse as the surrounding community, not a “downtown” mayor who caters to the interests of a select few.
Rahm Emanuel is out of touch with the majority of Chicago residents. Unlike Alderman Bob Fioretti or County Commissioner Chuy García, Emanuel has no experience in the lower levels of local government. Emanuel’s first major political job was directing President Bill Clinton’s campaign finance committee, a job which he completed while simultaneously on the payroll at Goldman Sachs. He went on to become a senior adviser for the Clinton administration, a successful investment banker, member of the US House of Representatives, President Obama’s chief of staff, and finally, mayor of Chicago.
Emanuel’s background makes for an impressive resume, but that does not necessarily translate into an ability to run the third-largest city in the United States successfully.
Nothing illustrates this better than Emanuel’s education policy over the last four years. In spring 2013, he decided to close fifty schools, the overwhelming majority of them in low-income, African-American neighborhoods. Traditional public schools that remain on Chicago’s South and West sides have endured massive budget cuts, the disproportionate firings of African-American teachers and a standoff between Emanuel and the Chicago Teacher’s Union.
Meanwhile, private charter schools in both these neighborhoods and those on the North side continued to receive funding. Charter schools provide a way for only the most affluent of students to opt out of the CPS system and disadvantage students who do not have the resources to leave CPS. Although charter schools exist on the South and West Sides of Chicago as well, these schools have considerably more privacy in their decisions than public schools. This means that they can refuse or accept students based on arbitrary considerations, such as family income or background, without much scrutiny, effectively segregating students based on socioeconomic background. Per-pupil funding allocations follow students to charter schools, leaving public schools with less funding and a greater proportion of disadvantaged students, creating an endless feedback loop of budget cuts and declining traditional-school quality.
Emanuel’s recent decision to fund a selective-enrollment high school on Chicago’s North Side epitomized this trend. The school, which will be named the Barack Obama Preparatory High School and requires an allocation of $60 million in taxpayer funds, will only admit students with qualifying test scores from Chicago’s affluent near North Side neighborhood rather than the South Side communities that Obama spent most of his time serving. Considering the overall trend in Emanuel’s education policies, it’s no wonder that the CPS framework is crumbling under budget constraints and decisions that favor certain schools in specific areas of the city.
On their own, the mayor’s education policies would be bad enough, but other policy shortcomings shed further light on Emanuel’s inability to govern the city of Chicago properly. The addition of red-light cameras at certain city intersections is an issue that has been fraught with controversy and claims of unfairness and bribery. Meanwhile, Emanuel’s public safety policies–including decisions to close detective headquarters, eliminate several police districts, disband special gang violence units, and transfer over three hundred homicide investigators to unfamiliar neighborhoods–have done little to curtail Chicago’s violence crisis. If he’s re-elected, city residents should expect more of the same: Emanuel has proposed cutting $190 million from the Chicago Police Department’s budget.
Clearly, Emanuel has been a divisive mayor in a city which clearly needs to come together to improve safety, education, and public well-being. Emanuel’s actions have served only one half of an urban community whose story is increasingly described as a “tale of two cities:” one for the haves and one for the have-nots.
However, the upcoming February 24 election provides Chicago residents with the option to dispose of Emanuel’s divisive policies and elect a mayor whose roots lie in community activism, grassroots organizing, and local political experience. Such a candidate comes in the form of Jesús “Chuy” García, a longtime resident of the Chicago neighborhoods Pilsen and Little Village. García brings to the table a wealth of experience organizing on Chicago’s West and South Sides, from successfully convincing a city official to increase summer job opportunities for adolescents in Little Village to encouraging the creation of a Latino Cultural Center at UIC. Apart from his history of service to the community, García has a strong background in local Chicago politics as well, having served as an alderman in the Chicago City Council, a member of the Illinois Senate, and Cook County commissioner of the Seventh District. García’s allegiance to Chicago, his background in both grassroots activism and local political organization and his commitment to Chicago’s diverse population make him quite the antithesis to Mayor Emanuel.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s woeful policy record strongly indicates that he is not the optimal choice in the upcoming election. Emanuel’s blatant disregard for the issues facing CPS, the CPD and the average Chicago resident alienate him from the community he is supposed to serve. However, Chuy García poses a viable alternative to Emanuel’s reign. As an activist and organizer, García has what it takes to make the upcoming election a competitive race, and Chicago ought to recognize his skills. Chicago needs a mayor who both understands the plight of the average Chicagoan and has the drive to connect all of the city’s groups and neighborhoods. Chicago needs a mayor who will bring out the best in all corners of Chicago–not a mayor who ignores all but the most affluent of Chicago’s residents.