Tuesday, September 28, 2010



People who don’t live in Chicago, or even those who live in Chicago but don’t follow politics closely, have to be asking themselves why Rahm Emanuel, the presidential chief of staff who seemingly wields so much power on the national stage, would want to leave his position at the ear of the leader of the free world in order to run for mayor of Chicago. (Let’s assume for the moment that, should Mr. Emanuel leave the White House, he would be doing so voluntarily, which may not be the case should the Democrats have a tough November this year.) Those of us who have bitten by the Chicago politics bug think this is a silly question; we agree with Rahm Emanuel, who, as David Axelrod said, “…believes that being mayor is the greatest job there is.” The incumbent, by the way, completely agrees. Further, I have gone so far as to say, in my more spirited moments, that the job of mayor of Chicago is the only job worth having in politics in Illinois. That, however, is overstating the case. Being the governor is a job worth having. It isn’t nearly as good as being mayor, but it’s a good job, perhaps not for the next four years, but a good job nonetheless. But Mayor of Chicago? That’s where the real power lies. And the job provides plenty of job security; in today’s economic and political environment, how many other jobs can one hang onto for twenty plus years?

On second thought, however, maybe all of us should calm our enthusiasms and look past the job as currently constructed by the incumbent and examine the design of the job as it exists in the abstract.

The city of Chicago operates under a “weak mayor, strong council” constitution; i.e., legally, the real power rests in the city council and the mayor’s office is a relatively weak position charged with executing the decisions of the council. This setup has been turned on its ear over the last 80 or so years, but that’s the larger point I’m trying to make: the job of mayor of Chicago is “the greatest job there is” only because of the two giants named Daley who have held it for much of the last fifty five years. Further, one can very reasonably argue that Richard I reigned in an era when power sprung not so much from his control of the mayor’s office as from his being the Chairman of the Cook County Regular Democratic Organization, a job he assumed two years before becoming mayor. By the time Richard II came along, the job of Party Chairman had paled almost to insignificance; few people know that the current holder of that job is 31st Ward Committeeman and Board of Review member Joe Berrios, and those who are aware that Mr. Berrios is nominal Party boss only know that because his party position is ancillarily mentioned in reports of his current race for Cook County Assessor. Richard II declined to run for party boss when he became mayor, explaining that he wanted to concentrate on government, not politics. But the real reason, one suspects, that he decided not to run for County Chairman is that he saw that the party office was, if not worthless, certainly not worth the political flack holding it would involve. Such political prescience, and a cabal of very smart advisors, demonstrates why Richard M. Daley has been such a powerhouse in the mayor’s office.

Note that the mayor’s office that is seemingly so attractive was not such a lofty perch for the likes of Jane Byrne, Mike Bilandic, and Gene Sawyer. Harold Washington may have been on the verge of turning the mayor’s office into the kind of power base that Richard M. Daley eventually made it. Mr. Washington had resoundingly won reelection and had achieved a peace of sorts with Ed Vrdolyak, Ed Burke, Dick Mell, and the like. So he was nicely positioned to make the mayor’s office the mythic position it has since become. But we will never know because of his untimely death.

The point is that the being mayor of Chicago can be “the greatest job there is.” It can also be a source of misery, ridicule, and public exposure of one’s impotence and incompetence. It depends on the person who holds the job. That, in relatively recent times, two master practitioners of the political craft have made the mayor’s office into what looks like a great job doesn’t mean that such attractiveness is inherent in the position.

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