Next week, Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel will walk into the vacated offices of the only Chicago mayor to have voluntarily left office in recent history facing one of the city’s largest budget deficits and a news media that will fawn through a short honeymoon before unleashing an avalanche of criticism.
That’s the way it has been in Chicago since the 1950s, when Mayor Richard M. Daley’s father, Richard J. Daley, took office and built the Chicago Machine.
The Chicago news media has changed several times since those early days of Chicago politics, when newspapers often knowingly and unknowingly hired reporters with close ties to Chicago mobsters. The media changed during the years of the first Boss Daley, becoming fiercely critical, but the recent economic hardships have eviscerated editorial staffing, resulting in coverage of Chicago politics that has been cliche-ridden, shallow and lacking any depth.
But one thing will never change at City Hall, though: new mayors will begin their administrations enjoying a honeymoon of sorts, characterized by adulation and journalistic ass-kissing. Reporters almost always start out as “friends” or friendly to new mayors. The media plays the good-guy-bad-guy routine, with the beat reporters trying to maintain friendship in order to get inside scoops and the reporters based at the newspaper offices doing the heavy hitting.
This will change because eventually, the news media won’t want the positive stories Mayor Emanuel will hope will be broadcast and published. In today’s tough economy the space available for broadcast or published news has been cut dramatically, leaving room only for the kind of sordid drama and innuendo-based reporting that sells papers.
Six months is what I give Emanuel before the media turns sour on him and the honeymoon comes to an end. It might not even last that long. The media coverage may sour even sooner, with the impending doom and gloom over the city’s economic landscape growing more and more ominous.
Emanuel’s administration will be plagued by scandal and stories of corruption, driven by the inherent nature of Chicago machine politics. When someone scratches your back, you scratch theirs. Maybe that’s why many people refer to money as scratch.
Emanuel’s first major challenge is the tax rate. It’s too high. But how does he maintain the city’s services without increasing revenues? What ingenious ideas will he propose that have not yet been proposed? Emanuel will be able to use the tough economy to help himself, though. The best way to hire your friends and campaign contributors, and scratch a few backs, is to begin by laying off workers at City Hall. Fire deputies and employees, and then within a year, fill many of the positions with your cronies. That’s the way it works. Emanuel doesn’t have to stump for campaign cash as hard as his predecessors. No one has raised more money for a mayoral election than Emanuel.
Mayor Daley took over the reins of Chicago government in 1989 but in almost 22 years, outlasting his father’s record in office, what did he really achieve in Chicago? Did he build a new airport? Did he build a new library? Did he build new expressways to ease the increasingly heavy rush hour drives in and out of the city? No, he sold the city’s parking meters for fast cash, resulting in outrageous parking and meter rates. In reality, Chicago is still the same place it was when Daley took office. The only thing Daley really did was to help take the focus off the racial turmoil that plagued his father’s administration and every mayor after until him. Under Boss Daley, white flight transformed whole neighborhoods in Chicago. Under Daley’s successor, Jane M. Byrne, race played a major role in what she thought was going to be a successful rebuff of Boss Daley’s son, Richie Daley.
Mayor Harold Washington’s election only stoked the fires of racial hatred, dividing the city residents and the City Council under the “Vrdolyak 29,” the coalition led by former 10th Ward Alderman Ed “Fast Eddie” Vrdolyak. Washington only enjoyed a brief period of calm after winning re-election in 1987, dying soon after, on Thanksgiving. He was succeeded by Eugene Sawyer, the flashy but kind and soft-spoken south side alderman. Sawyer became the patsy of the white majority and paved the way for the election of Boss Daley’s son.
Each had their honeymoon and each promised great things to come; great expectations about bringing reform to a city that has, in reality, never been ready for reform. It still isn’t.
Emanuel will have his hands full of challenges from the schools to transportation to the city’s underfunded pensions and finances. The economically anemic news media may give him a longer pass, but in the end the only thing that counts is what one of my longtime City Hall colleagues Harry Golden Jr. would describe in his gravelly Brooklyn-like accent, saying the public just wants a “good story.”
And a good story is never a good story at all, but a story about corruption, scandal, nepotism, crime, theft and all the things that make for Chicago’s love-hate relationship with politics.