THE BLOG

Chicago Women Show Rahm Emanuel the Light at the End of the Tunnel

07/17/2014 10:25 am ET | Updated Sep 16, 2014

Tuesday, Toni Preckwinkle, one of the two women who -- according to the latest poll -- would beat Rahm Emanuel in a race for mayor of Chicago, announced she wasn't running.

Monday, the other one, Emanuel's enemy Karen Lewis, head of the Chicago Teachers Union, announced she was considering running. As evidence of how seriously she's considering the opportunity, Lewis offered-up a spokesperson to talk about the formation of an exploratory committee and a strategy for building neighborhood support for a candidacy.

Lost in the news reports I've seen so far, including national analyses of the situation, is the fact that the two most viable candidates for defeating the mayor of the nation's third largest city are women. Have we reached the point when this fact is a ho-hum?

No, we haven't. At a time when so many Americans need so much from their government, American women who care are finding it really tough to win executive office. For instance, Chicago has elected only one woman mayor and that was 35 years ago. New York and Los Angeles have never elected one, though a strong woman candidate ran in each last year. One could argue that's the luck of the (political) draw; or that Christine Quinn in New York and Wendy Greuel in Los Angeles made some dumb political mistakes and, therefore, deserved to lose. (On Quinn, here is my analysis.)

But the fact remains that women, girls and women-headed families (the majority in our nation's largest cities) lose greatly when caring women aren't elected. That's because -- along with executive political office -- comes a bully pulpit unlike any legislator's, the opportunity to take executive actions without legislative concurrence (Barack Obama these days, anyone?), and the opportunity to press for important legislation from a uniquely powerful position. And, since it's women politicians who typically promote policies beneficial to women, those men-only executive suites can offer cold comfort.

In Chicago, we have an embarrassment of riches of women with executive experience. Each could be a mayor who puts equality and opportunity for women foremost. Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer could run a good race. Probably, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan could beat Mayor Emanuel anytime she gets tired of state government.

Consider these proof points about these Chicago women who care:

  • In Madigan's and Gainer's cases, each has addressed issues important to the security of Chicago's women-headed families: in the case of Madigan, sex crimes and bankers' misdeeds; in the case of Gainer, abandoned homes and services for juvenile offenders.
  • Toni Preckwinkle is a unique leadership voice for the oppressed and underserved in Chicago and Cook County. At almost any opportunity, she speaks about Chicago's "intersection of race and poverty" and its resulting problems: street violence, prison overcrowding, a dearth of trained workforce participants, and schools that fail to educate.
  • Karen Lewis has spent time making her case for urban education, which differs dramatically from Rahm Emanuel's. One can rebut it, as Mayor Emanuel has, but Lewis's vision is legitimate and, as we now know, compelling to Chicago voters.

Pundits will say my analysis is immaterial since none of these women, except for Karen Lewis, is known to be considering a run against Mayor Emanuel. I disagree. This review buttresses the truth that Chicago can be better than it is today. Chicago can be -- for everyone -- a City that makes it clear -- in every action it takes -- that it welcomes, cherishes and delivers for everyone.

I've never met Karen Lewis, but I did observe her one day. That encounter gave me confidence that compassion and humility are central to her view of city life. In the event, perhaps we'd see these qualities in candidate dialogues with Mayor Emanuel.

This encounter was at the funeral of Addie Wyatt, a heroine to many women of Lewis's, Preckwinkle's and my generation. (Lisa and Bridget know all about her, too.) Addie was one of the first African-American leaders of the modern women's movement, as well as an important leader of the civil rights movement. She is deserving of the greatest props. Lewis gave her those.

The Vernon Park Church of God in Christ sanctuary was overflowing, forcing those of us who arrived late to sit in the church basement and watch the closed circuit TV version of the funeral service. Lewis was one of us in the basement.

Unlike so many other notables who, even if arriving late, would demand a primo seat in the sanctuary -- since, after all, what's the purpose of a VIP-politician's funeral if not to see and be seen -- Lewis descended to the basement; sat on a folding chair in a corner; and watched the proceedings silently and without show.

Today, Addie's South Side neighborhood is one Chicagoans fear to tread. Even her church of sixty years is leaving for safer (suburban) pastures. Whether it's numbers about violence, or jobs, or teacher layoffs, or about costly improvements to downtown while neighborhoods are rife with abandoned buildings, Addie's neighborhood and the rest of outlying Chicago is in desperate need of repair.

So, Chicago girlfriends: While the politicians do their thing, let's do ours. Let's show the guys the light at the end of the tunnel, i.e., the solutions of women who care, wherever those women sit. Let's help caring women politicians realize their dreams, so often also ours. Let's run the most important campaign of all: the one that is for, with and by women. No matter who is mayor.