The Chicago Election and The Philadelphia Story

The lesson of Chicago’s mayoral election is that undecided voters will choose managerial competence over populist anger. Are you listening, Williams, Kenney and Abraham?

The Chicago Election and The Philadelphia Story

The lesson of Chicago’s mayoral election is that undecided voters will choose managerial competence over populist anger. Are you listening, Williams, Kenney and Abraham?



There are many ways to characterize the political battle within the Democratic Party in American cities, including the familiar patterns of race and ethnic identity. But that is only part of the story.

Some see today’s elections as a referendum on post-industrial urbanism: newly animated downtowns and the gentrifying core versus neighborhoods poorer today than they were a few decades ago.

A few national writers saw last month’s Chicago election as a battle between corporatist perspectives within the Democratic Party (say Hillary Clinton) and a resurgent populism (say Bill de Blasio or Elizabeth Warren).

Both Kenney and Williams are legislators who had the luxury of policy making without the burden of operations. As with challenger Garcia in Chicago, who needed to convey more managerial confidence, both Williams and Kenney now have to demonstrate an executive temperament.

Some see it as a fight between public unions and more market-oriented practices that threaten public employment. Education policy has been one of the lightning rods for that conversation for nearly two decades.

The April election in Chicago reminded everyone of the gravity of that city’s finances. From the size of its current budget deficit to its unfunded pension liabilities and its bond rating, the city is near bankruptcy.

This does not jibe with the image we have of Chicago, but it is true nonetheless. Moody’s has rated Chicago bonds near junk. Its public pension funds are woefully underfunded and in 2016 a mandated payment to the police and firemen’s fund of more than half a billion dollars is coming due. And there is a legal obligation to pay. Moreover, its school district is close to running out of cash.

The Philadelphia financial position is far less dramatic. A 1991 fiscal crisis enforced budgeting discipline, although with limits. The Philadelphia bond rating is strong but the city has a dangerously underfunded pension system. The school district is in perpetual red ink and the next city budget will be more painful than the last one, in part because of pension contributions and fatigue over tax increases.

Chicago will not be able to meet its contractual obligations over the next few years without deep political and organizational surgery. Is it headed for Detroit status? Not yet, and maybe it will never get to that point. It is still a dynamic global city with strong amenities and large pockets of growth, but like Philadelphia, high poverty rates and dysfunctional politics hamper its ability to cure public problems.

Illinois’ fiscal position makes it all but impossible to come to the rescue of a medium sized town, let alone the nation’s third largest city. If you need to be saved by Illinois, get out the lifeboat! Republican Governor Rauner has already made it clear that the state has no ability to bailout Chicago.

Like Tom Wolf in Pennsylvania, Rauner is a first year politician. They both face tremendous challenges with their respective legislatures. In comparison to Illinois, Pennsylvania is a well-oiled governing machine. Remember, four of the last eight governors in Illinois went to prison.

Mayor Emanuel did not win because he is particularly likeable. In fact, he decided to use his fabled arrogance and lack of tact as a point of folksy self-deprecation.

Although Emanuel had some union support, most public unions were against him. The teacher’s union was particularly anti-Emanuel.

It was during Emanuel’s first term that 52 schools were closed and the city attempted to negotiate a longer day and new performance standards as part of the teacher’s contract. The 2012 teacher’s strike in Chicago gave Emanuel a bloody nose and resulted in a defeat for many of his proposals.

As in Chicago, the teachers union in Philadelphia is playing a major role in the election. It supports Jim Kenney but is more focused on its disdain for Tony Williams, who is viewed as the education choice candidate. The teachers union money counts, but it’s hard to predict what that will mean come election day, with a third of all students in charter schools, new taxes as unpopular as ever, and many teachers living outside the city.

One of the issues that drove the left wing of the Democratic Party against Emanuel was privatization, including his failed attempt to sell the Midway Airport. You can favor the privatization of city functions and assets for one of three reasons: ideology, a competitive service strategy or necessity. Sometimes the three reasons converge.

The ideology of privatization revolves around your view of the role of government: what is its core functions, what should it manage and what should it outsource. A competitive service strategy views government as a vendor that ought to compete with other vendors for the best delivery price and quality. Privatization by necessity is a fiscal restructuring decision driven by the need to improve a government’s balance sheet, generally through the sale or the long term leasing of public assets.

Philadelphia may eventually have to sell its gas utility (despite its botched deal last year) and its city-owned parking lots to deal with long-term liabilities and infrastructure costs. There will undoubtedly be some privatization by necessity if we are going to solve the pension fund issues without either cutting back on city services, increasing taxes significantly, or denying pensioners their benefits.

The progressive wing of the Democratic Party went after Emanuel ferociously on privatization issues in everything from no-bid education contracts to public housing, calling him “Mayor 1%.” But he won by 12 percentage points. Why? There are lots of explanations: name recognition and turnout strategy, a significant money advantage, and support from President Obama and the Clintons.

But there was something else at play over and above money and celebrity advantage. At the end of the day, he was viewed as the more competent (fairly or unfairly) of the two candidates during a time of fiscal uncertainty.

Emmanuel’s opponent, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, did not effectively convey that he understood the tough decisions that had to be made over the next few years. He gave more priority to populist anger than managerial competence. This did not work with the independent center that could have been swayed to his side.

Garcia failed to name names, as one Chicago political writer noted. Who were the people he would tap to run the city and review tax and spending restructuring options? After the activist rallies, how were the operations of government going to be conducted?

Garcia was especially vague on fiscal issues. While he was willing to raise taxes, when it came to reining in costs it was hard to take him seriously. He talked about inter-government collaboration to save money, reform of economic development programs, doing an audit on the city to figure out how to save money, and so on.

All of those cost-saving suggestions may be helpful, but in the absence of specific proposals, he spoke the language of avoidance. We have seen the same language used in the mayor’s race in Philadelphia by all of the candidates. Their alternatives to Nutter’s school funding proposals are a case in point.

Emanuel was not much more specific, but better at handling the facts and addressing the pension crisis with a few substantive proposals. He projected an image as the adult in the center of the storm. Of course, now he has to deal with the storm.

The Philadelphia election may come down to a similar decision by undecided voters: Which candidate do they trust to run the city? If the few polls are correct, this is a race between three candidates: Jim Kenney, Tony Williams, and Lynne Abraham. The other candidates are, at best, spoilers for the top three. And realistically it may come down to Williams and Kenney, with Abraham a solid third.

With less than a month to go before the election, Williams and Kenney each have a significant base of voters they can count on, but they are fighting for undecided voters and those that will abandon the other candidates as election day gets nearer.

As far as racial math goes, Kenney gets the majority of the white vote and Williams the majority of the African American vote. But Kenney could cut into Williams’ African American plurality, given some of his union and political endorsements. And Williams will similarly have a measure of white voter support.

Williams and Kenney have well funded surrogates that could possibly go into attack mode if they feel desperate. Kenney’s union supporters might characterize Williams as the tool of a few big financial supporters that favor charter schools and school choice. Williams has surrogates that could paint Kenney as the standard bearer for the status quo.

The Williams surrogates could make subtle or not so subtle references to IBEW leader John Dougherty’s support for Kenney. They could try to paint a picture of Dougherty as the ultimate old-style political insider. Of course this is a risky proposition because carpenter’s union head Ed Coryell, who is not the poster child for a new way of solving problems, supports Williams.

Both candidates are a good deal more complex then the surrogate characterizations. They can respond by painting a different portrait: Kenney the new urban progressive and Williams the state senator who supports all Philadelphia schools. Kenney, the friend of immigrants and the LGBT community, and Williams, with his own labor support, including the teamsters, laborers and transit workers.

With an election that could be close, the Chicago election is instructive. One of the major candidates is going to have to convince undecided voters they are best suited to run the city at a time when the city is in a fragile upswing. This is an election about not going backwards as much about moving forward. The city is more interested in an executive than a populist.

Both Kenney and Williams are unknown as executives. They are legislators who had the luxury of policy making without the burden of operations. As with Garcia in Chicago, who needed to convey more managerial confidence, both Williams and Kenney have to demonstrate an executive temperament in the last several weeks.

Policy papers have been written, endorsements have been made, and field operations are in motion. Now someone has to close the deal.

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