I am a fan of the vigorous new mayor of Chicago, but the last five months have given me a certain sense of déjà vu. Watching Rahm Emanuel in office as Chicago's new mayor has been a bit like having the opportunity to see David Copperfield perform magic. The key to a successful magic act is, of course, illusion. While the spectators get caught up in the showmanship of the act, the magician performs his trick or discreetly makes his seemingly impossible escape. And so it was in Chicago during the summer and fall of 2011. Rahm Emanuel appeared to have boldly started a new era for the city, but he actually was following outgoing Mayor Richard M. Daley's political playbook from 1989.
In 1989, Daley had to deal respectfully with the powerful legacy of a mayoral predecessor, namely Harold Washington, while also establishing himself as a forward-looking problem solver. Washington's legacy was one of the inclusion of all races in city government and the spirit of progressivism. He wanted to enact policies and provide services that would improve people's lives. As a candidate and a new mayor, Daley paid homage to that political philosophy and refrained from any public criticism of Washington.
Even as he showed deference to his predecessor's powerful legacy, Daley also told voters that he was focused on a "spirit of renewal." His campaign program, called the Daley agenda for Chicago's future, had a handful of key issues: race relations, education reform, crime reduction and effective and accountable government.
On his first day in office, the new Mayor Daley signed thirteen executive orders, signaling to voters that he would continue many of the progressive political reforms initiated by Washington. Four of these executive orders were of particular note: a commitment to AIDS education, establishment of a school reform commission, re-affirmation of the existing affirmative action plan for hiring minorities and a continuation of the city's minority contracting program.
Daley also inherited a $120 million budget deficit from his immediate predecessor. He responded to that problem by cutting the budget, instituting a hiring freeze, improving revenue collection and upgrading basic services, such as snow removal and garbage collection. The theme of his first budget in 1990 was "garbage is votes."
In 2011, the talented Emanuel faces the same type of governing challenge that Daley had dealt with in 1989. He needs to publicly respect his predecessor's legacy -- which for Daley was two decades of leadership and stability for Chicago -- while simultaneously demonstrating that a new era of city government would begin under his mayoral leadership. Emanuel skillfully maneuvered during the campaign by proposing new ideas, such as a longer day at public schools, while repeatedly acknowledging Daley's more than two decades of service. At his victory celebration, Emanuel declared that Daley had "earned a special place in our hearts and our history." The next day, on his first day in office, the new mayor quickly signed six Executive Orders focused on ethics, including a two-year prohibition on appointees lobbying City Hall after they leave municipal government. "Chicagoans want to see change in the way their city government does business," said Mayor Emanuel. "... My first official act as mayor sends a clear message that all operations of City government must be guided by a spirit of public service."
So Rahm Emanuel smartly followed Daley's playbook from 1989, but with one important difference. Emanuel focused on Chicago's budget and financial crises as his key issue, rather than race relations. Emanuel did this for both practical and political reasons. The practical issue was that a $635 million budget deficit and massively underfunded pensions was too big a problem for Emanuel to ignore. Emanuel's response was impressive. His first budget contained tough, far-sighted decisions and a clearly communicated vision. It was a textbook example of effective leadership. But Emanuel also had made a political calculation. He knew that -- in an era characterized by the "Occupy Wall Street" and Tea Party movements -- the new mayor of Chicago would need to demonstrate fiscal competency to Chicagoans in order to get reelected.
The rest of Emanuel's 2011 agenda looks just like Daley's list from 1989: education reform, crime reduction, effective and accountable government, improved revenue collection and better basic services. Emanuel's first budget, released last week, included $20 million in savings for moving garbage collection to a grid system. So it appears that even in 2011 Chicago, "garbage is votes" and smart politicians like Emanuel will continue to follow Daley's playbook. Like the magician David Copperfield, Emanuel is a powerful practitioner of his craft. This leaves Chicagoans two choices. Either lean back and enjoy the show, or make sure to pull back the curtain and look under the stage during the performance.