Reading the tea leaves suggests Mayor Richard M. Daley will run for reelection this fall, asking for a seventh term from Chicago voters. He hasn't announced his intentions yet, but the mayor is unlikely to decline taking another shot to sit in the big chair on the fifth floor of City Hall. His reason, I believe, is simple: getting out now means leaving the city's top job and leaving Chicago in the lurch.
Getting out now means finishing his tenure scarred by the Olympic collapse. Getting out now means leaving while some of Daley's biggest projects-the transformation of public housing perhaps most prominently-remains incomplete.
Despite his demurrals and recent above-the-fray attitude toward the grit of electoral politics, politics courses through the mayor's bloodstream. He won't leave, at least not yet. The more interesting question then becomes: will Daley face any credible challenger in the Democratic Party primary slated for Feb. 2011? That election will determine, ultimately, who gets elected next April. The issues for a challenger are most certainly there.
Any successful mayoral challenge starts with public safety. As the investigative magazine The Chicago Reporter noted earlier this summer, Chicago's violent crime rate is double that of New York City and Los Angeles, metropolises comparable in size and complexity to our own city. Taken together, the 11th and 15th police districts on the West Side had the highest per capita murder rate in the country in 2009, an analysis published by the magazine showed.
Daley has also left himself vulnerable with the meter privatization, an issue that's come to symbolize his administration's secretive style of decision making and ramrod approach to the City Council-it meekly passed the deal without asking any hard questions. The meter privatization remains an issue that could allow a Daley challenger to mobilize the most public anger. The deal was, arguably, the most unpopular decision during Daley's tenure. New meter installation was bungled, rates skyrocketed and the city has already spent off what was to be a rainy day fund.
A Daley opponent will criticize the meter deal and start a debate about privatization more generally. While the deal to lease Midway Airport has fallen through for now, many fear that the city plans to sell off Chicago's water system, placing the most basic resources in private hands. And Chicagoans don't want to pay higher water rates like they now pay higher parking fees.
City services have lagged during the economic recession, too. Thousands of recycling bins stay stashed in a South Side warehouse because the city can't complete a recycling program. Roads like Lake Shore Drive buckle in the heat while too many side streets resemble a broken lunar landscape. The hole in the city's budget next year will be gaping - that's a promise - so there will likely be services slashed even before the February election. With CTA cutbacks and Chicago School teachers being fired, seething frustration with city services could be harnessed by a skilled campaigner.
This fall, meanwhile, voters will get their property tax bills. While a higher tax bill is not exclusively the Daley administration's fault, the sticker shock of high property taxes coupled with faulty privatization, unsatisfactory services and astronomical budget deficits provide the basic planks of an anti-Daley campaign platform.
Ethics remains an issue too. The Daley administration has been riddled with corruption. The stream of aldermen and city employees marching off to prison, and a Blagojevich conviction later this year will bring the spotlight back to government corruption once again.
Daley's administration has tolerated patronage hiring and doled out contracts and subsidies to connected insiders. The occasional apologies issued by the mayor aren't enough. A Daley opponent will demand a full explanation for the Hired Truck outrage, for ex-Daley aide Robert Sorich's clout list, and for other scandals.
A serious mayoral campaign will spark a debate about what kind of global city Chicago wants to become. Adornments like Millennium Park are fine, but can we really move forward when so many neighborhoods are beset by violence and economic despair? We want the fruits of a global economy here, but we need them to be distributed with more equity.
The late alderman Paddy Bauler once famously quipped that "Chicago ain't ready for reform." In this coming mayoral election, old Paddy may be wrong.
But only if the right challenger emerges.