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Chicago After Daley Tue Dec 10 2013

When The City That Works Stops Working

1979blizzard.jpgThe believed reason as to why Jane Byrne won the 1979 mayoral primary is almost the stuff of Chicago legend. Not too long before the primary, a large blizzard occurred in Chicago and the city did a terrible job of responding to the blizzard, largely in the form of not plowing the streets. The next month, Byrne won the primary with 51 percent of the vote, defeating then-Mayor Michael Bilandic and then won the mayoral election in April 1979 with 82 percent of the vote, becoming the city's first and only female mayor.

Why Byrne won is actually rooted in reasons much deeper than Bilandic's administration doing a horrible job responding to the blizzard. Bilandic was the first post-Richard J. Daley mayor and as a result, the Chicago government was in shambles.

Byrne positioned herself as a candidate outside of the machine, although she was actually very much from the machine. Byrne became the commissioner of Consumer Sales, Weights and Measures under Daley and, according to the book Fighting Jane by Bill and Lori Granger, he called her "Janie." But Byrne was able to position herself as being outside of the machine and since Bilandic fired her from her position, it was a little bit easier for her to position herself as an outsider.

The reality is at the end of the 1970s the Democratic machine was largely in shambles because of Daley's death. The blizzard probably helped her win because it showed the city how ineffective of a leader Bilandic was. In essence, the city that works stopped working under Mayor Bilandic.

The fact that Chicago has stopped working while Rahm Emanuel has been mayor could hurt him in the 2015 election.

The first example of Chicago not working would be the Chicago Teachers Union strike. There are plenty of people in Chicago who will and have placed the blame on Emanuel and Jean-Claude Brizard, who left the position of Chicago Public Schools CEO right after that strike, for the strike occurring. Quite a few people look at what happened with that strike and feel it is entirely Emanuel's fault the strike happened, resulting in cancelled classes for CPS students.

However there are also people who will argue the strike was the fault of the CTU instead of the CPS. Even when you think no one argues a certain point, it's always safe to assume there's at least one person arguing the point opposite to yours.

There were also the school closures, which wasn't so much an example of Chicago not working as something that cannot be spun positively no matter how hard you try.

And then there's Ventra. There certainly are plenty of people to blame for Ventra, but the colossal mess still occurred while Emanuel was mayor. People might blame Forrest Claypool, the head of the Chicago Transit Authority, for the Ventra problems, but Claypool is an Emanuel appointee.

Ventra problems are also inescapable for most Chicagoans and have snarled the commutes of many. At the end of the day, plenty of Chicagoans will argue the school closings or murders didn't affect them. Those issues affected the Chicagoans who live in areas too many people forget about.

As a result of the problems the city has faced, a good challenger to Emanuel in 2015 could defeat him if they use the problems against him. This was something brought up by the Reader's Ben Joravsky in the immediate aftermath of the school closures. As he pointed out, Byrne was the ultimate underdog, someone completely dismissed by City Hall, but she ended up triumphant.

The problem is there has to be a good candidate against Emanuel. There were people who ran against former Mayor Richard M. Daley, but he served as mayor of the city for 22 years and everyone knows he did quite a few infamous acts as mayor.

The key difference is although Emanuel has had some poor timing with ski trips, he's ultimately very media savvy, something Bilandic was not after the blizzard. This is a man who was the subject of a rather positive cover story in TIME right after the CPS closed a record number of schools. When asked about Ventra, he responded that Cubic would not receive a penny until Ventra worked properly. As Joravsky mentioned, the mayor gave a comeback people viewed as clever when asked about the routes students had to take to get to class.

When the public confronted Bilandic with outrage over the poor response to the blizzard, he compared himself to Jesus about to be crucified, according to Fighting Jane. Emanuel isn't prone to sticking his foot in his mouth like previous mayors, which is why it would be very difficult to defeat him.

It's also worth remembering Byrne was only mayor for one term. Her career as mayor was essentially made up of well-intentioned ideas that didn't work well. This is a mayor who decided to draw attention to problems at Cabrini-Green by moving into Cabrini-Green. As you can imagine, it didn't do much in the long run. It's entirely possible Byrne was lucky when Bilandic tripped over himself in the wake of the blizzard, or it might have been the unexamined possibility of her getting quite a bit of help from her husband, journalist Jay McMullen.

At the end of the day, there is quite a bit that could hurt Emanuel's image. He is, however, an established politician who is very good at fundraising and maneuvering through the media, particularly on a national level. It would take an unbelievably good candidate to make things that seem like blips really damage him.

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Eric / December 10, 2013 1:55 PM

This is such a non-story. While the Reader and many of your audience hate Rahm, many others either are indifferent or actively like having him as Mayor.

I'm pretty indifferent, and support him only insomuch as I think that his national experience helps draw money and investment to Chicago which we sorely need.

The CPS strike? I lay that at the feet of the teachers' union. Except for a few impolitic words by Rahm, nearly all the stonewalling and bad faith appeared to come from the teachers' union, not the Mayor's office.

Ventra? It is a cutting-edge system, and that will be proven as the kinks get worked out. I have THREE Ventra cards, all work, all registered easily, all have always worked both on buses and at train stations. Calling Ventra a "colossal mess" is exaggeration just to sell papers. Not quite yellow journalism, but not much better.

matt / December 10, 2013 2:09 PM

Are you kidding?! Ventra is complete garbage; I've even had CTA employees wave me through train station turnstiles for free, they were so frustrated with the malfunctioning system. And still no one has bothered to even begin explaining just what was so horribly wrong with the previous fare system that it needed to be ripped out & replaced wholesale, to the tune of many millions. Like the parking meter deal, it's another privatization move that's completely failed users & does nothing but move mountains of cash away from the system & into investors' pockets.

Chris / December 10, 2013 3:28 PM

Ventra is a bonafide disaster. The cases of it NOT working far outweigh the cases where it has. I work for an organization that issues transit money to every employee, and we've been plagued with issues. It's also been a disaster in the other cities globally where it's been implemented, to the point where some have stopped trying to make it work and switched to alternatives.

Stephanie Goldberg / December 10, 2013 8:30 PM

Neither event approaches the state of paralysis that engulfed the city during the winter of 1979.

Monica Reida / December 10, 2013 9:21 PM

Stephanie, I've gathered from what I've read that the city being completely crippled by the blizzard of 1979. I believe there was also a significant amount of deaths stemming from the blizzard, but I couldn't find the number anywhere. Although Ventra has complicated the commutes of thousands of Chicagoans due to failing card readers, it hasn't crippled the city since CTA workers just wave commuters through.

Alex Hernandez / December 11, 2013 12:42 AM

"Ventra problems are also inescapable for most Chicagoans and have snarled the commutes of many. At the end of the day, plenty of Chicagoans will argue the school closings or murders didn't affect them. Those issues affected the Chicagoans who live in areas too many people forget about."

Really enjoyed your article. However I found this specific graph off putting as it made the writer sound slightly entitled.

In my experience the city's poor public education system and high rate of violence/crime aren't as easily brushed off by the average Chicagoan because they happen in "areas too many people forget about."

Monica Reida / December 11, 2013 1:08 AM

I apologize if it made me sound entitled. My neighborhood saw two schools close this year and there was a shooting on a "Safe Passage" route in my neighborhood. The issues of education and crime are things I care deeply about when it comes to my personal politics.

I regrettably know quite a few people who applauded the school closures. They don't have children. When it comes to crime that happens in a lot of the city, they take the stance of "Well, this is what you get when you live in those parts." They don't really panic unless it's crime in Lakeview, Lincoln Park, Gold Coast or Streeterville.

Sadly people like that exist and I know they vote in elections. However you saying those issues aren't easily brushed off by the average Chicagoan does make me feel better.

Alex Hernandez / December 11, 2013 1:35 AM

No worries and again, great article.

I really enjoyed the historical context you brought to Rahm's reelection prospects.

Robert Johnson / December 13, 2013 12:09 PM

People don't understand the real issues. Emanuel is the regional field marshal in the movement by the upper classes and the one-percenters to skew society completely in their favor, the middle class and the overall balance of society as a whole be damned. From corporate subsidies with public money (Miller Coors, United Airlines) to outright gifts (DePaul) aimed only at establishing tangible icons of his administration and the reinforcement of his perceived power, to the blatant disregard of even the basic quality of life of whole strata of society (inadequate law enforcement, school closings, Englewood rail yard expansion), Emanuel and almost all of the court jesters in the city council have shown they are all too willing to fiddle while they create and then exacerbate the downfall of our city. Emanuel and school officials lied at every turn in closing the schools. They lied with the speed cameras. They lied with Wrigley Field, perpetuating the ruse that all they sought was responsible development while in the end, the Ricketts will get everything they want. He cowardly invokes the specter of "the children" at every opportunity and then lies about a "Children's Fund" that doesn't, and never will, exist. His bike lanes have snarled traffic, causing more auto pollution as a result. He toys with basic freedoms and rights by issuing traffic tickets through the truly underhanded use of cameras. Emanuel's is an oppressive, punitive regime, with traits definitive of any dictatorship. It's about power in the name of his membership in a group of people, Obama included, whose obvious goal is to transfer power and wealth to themselves and their patrons. The price they demand to do this dirty work is relatively paltry, but the price that we as a society pay is enormous, probably something we'll never recover from. Emanuel and his thousands of minions operate with a cavalier audacity only because this power was given to them. Tiny Dancer MUST be knocked off his horse in the next election.

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