After Rahm

The Chicago mayor’s decision to step down has opened the floodgates for the unenviable job of replacing him.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks about the city’s weekend of gun violence during a news conference at the Chicago Police Department 6th District Station on Aug. 6 in Chicago.
Photo edited by Slate. Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images.

For the first time in memory, Chicago appears destined to have a weak mayor.

Over the past seven years, Mayor Rahm Emanuel may not have led the Windy City with the same unrivaled authority that characterized the tenures of his predecessors. But this is Chicago, where the mayor always has a strong hand, and Emanuel was no exception. His surprise announcement this week that he would not seek a third term leaves a power vacuum. Eleven candidates were already planning to challenge the unpopular incumbent in 2019; now the wide-open field is set to expand.

The announcement came as a surprise. Yes, Emanuel was unpopular. He closed dozens of public schools, presided over the city during a devastating wave of gun violence, and failed to stop Chicago’s persistent out-migration. His administration has been rocked by a series of scandals at the Chicago Police Department, notably the 2014 killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald and what prosecutors say was a coordinated cover-up. The murder trial of Jason Van Dyke, the officer who shot McDonald 16 times, is beginning now. Three officers charged with a cover-up will go on trial in November.

All that said, mayors in Chicago don’t step down. (Since 1947, only one has declined to run for re-election, Richard M. Daley in 2011, and that was after winning six times.) Despite his low approval ratings, Emanuel had some positive results to show, notably in Chicago’s booming downtown, which has led the city to its highest number of jobs in decades. He was considered the favorite in the city’s nonpartisan February election. He’d already raised about six times as much money as his nine challengers who had begun fundraising.

But that’s not the only reason he had an advantage. You can’t run for alderman and mayor at the same time, so the mayoral slate didn’t include any of the city’s elected officials, who would have had to rashly sacrifice their incumbencies. Nor did it include any of his erstwhile comrades from the Obama White House. That may be about to change. New names in the mix according to NBC Chicago’s Mary Ann Ahern: former Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan, former Obama adviser Valerie Jarret, and Bill Daley, son of one Chicago mayor and brother to another, in addition to a raft of city and county officials.

In short, everyone and their mother is going to run for mayor of Chicago. You don’t need to remember or recognize those names. Barring the entry of a candidate whose résumé includes president of the United States, the city’s electoral system will likely produce a runoff between two candidates who received less than 25 percent of the vote. A post-Emanuel flash poll shows none of a handful of candidates getting more than 20 percent of the vote. One or two percentage points in the first-round election may determine the eventual winner. That person will not likely have deep, strong support.

Two things set Chicago apart on a structural level. First, the city has no term limits for either mayor or city council, which has created long-term, personal relationships in city government of a kind that are rarely seen elsewhere. (New York, Los Angeles, and Houston have limits on both mayoral and council terms. Philadelphia has term limits for mayor but not council.) It’s probably not a coincidence that from 1973 to 2012, out of approximately 100 Chicago alderman, 31 were convicted on corruption-related charges—a good batting average at Wrigley.

Second, the Chicago City Council is massive: 50 aldermen represent wards of little over 50,000 people each. The much larger City of Los Angeles, by contrast, has just 15 council members. Despite or perhaps because of this fragmentation, politics in Chicago is characterized by “continuing political coherence” and local deference to City Hall.

Emanuel’s predecessor, Richard M. Daley, used his power to prop up allies in the council and defeat opponents. “Assertive aldermen have been as rare as blue-bag recyclers in Daley’s Chicago,” the Chicago Tribune wrote in 2007, making a comparison to the former mayor’s scandal-plagued recycling program. The short interregnum between Daley fils and his father was an aberration distinguished by the rebellion of white aldermen against Chicago’s first black mayor, Harold Washington. But before Washington, there was Richard J. Daley, whose control over the local Democratic machine was legendary and gave him influence at the national level.

Emanuel got that kind of support too, at least to start. And while his authority in the city council has declined in his second term, as a 2017 report from the University of Illinois–Chicago put it, “movement away from an absolute rubber stamp is small and the city council is only glacially evolving.”

It’s about to evolve a lot faster. The optimistic take on the shift to a weak mayor is that it means less power for the monied interests who dominated the meeting schedule at Emanuel’s City Hall, more power for neighborhood organizations and unions, and an opportunity for coalition building across the city’s major aldermanic caucuses. Fifty years of the status quo yielded one of the nation’s most infamously corrupt local governments, so why not shake things up?

The pessimistic take is that the loss of a strong mayor will render the city incapable of confronting the elephant in the room: debt. Despite Emanuel’s best efforts to cut costs and raise revenue, the city and the school district both have serious fiscal problems. (The Chicago Public Schools credit is so bad that it issued bonds in 2016 with an insane 8.5 percent interest rate.) Other, overlapping entities—such as Cook County and the Chicago Parks District—also aren’t in great shape. (To say nothing of the state of Illinois, whose problems are notorious.) Not all of those interests are under mayoral control, of course. Still, all of them need to raise money from the same group of 2.7 million people. Coordinating between them was a tough balancing act for a strong mayor. It will be even harder for a weak one.