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Triangular Politics in Chicago

Russ Stewart 9 June 2011 No Comment

When Chicagoans elected Rahm Emanuel as mayor, they kissed the proverbial toad and got Prince Triangulation. Clintonism has surfaced in the Second City.

The era of former Mayor Rich Daley, characterized by mangled syntax, pay-to-play politics and devious doings cloaked in secrecy, has been interred. It’s a new day dawning — of Tweeter, Facebook, 24/7, and Mayor Emanuel daily in your face, on the tube or your Blackberry, with a ready quip, teardrop, or sputtering indignation about any and every glitch on Chicago’s road to Utopia.

City Hall is now Tweeter Hall. Instead of reacting to developments, as did Daley, the new mayor makes news. Every mayoral thought, utterance or action can be observed, enjoyed and digested in real time. The Emanuel Administration is reality TV.

“All my liberal friends think Rahm is an ideological liberal, and will govern accordingly,” observed John Kane, host of a Portage Park-based Internet radio political talk show. “I think he’s an opportunist.”

Kane is correct. Emanuel, like his aging mentor, Bill Clinton, does not view issues or problems in the context of right or wrong, liberal or conservative. His goal is not to please his political base. Rather, every crisis or controversy is an opportunity, and is viewed in the context of being beneficial or detrimental to Emanuel’s career advancement. It’s all about positioning, so as to avoid aligning with political extremes on issues, and embracing a “third way” – thereby minimizing political damage.

That third way, as refined by Clinton and Britain’s Tony Blair, is called “triangulation,” and is predicated on polarization and demonization. It works like this:

On any issue, personal and economic self-interest sets the table. Let’s take education “reform.” The teachers’ unions adamantly oppose teacher competence testing, charter schools, tampering with tenure and longer school days, and demand automatic pay raises. Parents’ groups want to have the ability to fire the schools’ teachers and administrators, re-charter public schools under private auspices, and keep kids in class for 10 hours daily.

Were Emanuel a typical liberal, like Governor Pat Quinn, he would embrace the teachers’ position. Triangulation is the alternative. Master opportunists like Clinton and Emanuel do not align with either faction, as that only engenders enemies. Instead, they craft a creative compromise. For example, school days are slightly lengthened teacher testing made less onerous, dechartering and pay hikes rejected.

The unions, rather than be enraged at Emanuel’s partial abandonment, are fawningly grateful that their foes didn’t achieve their goals, and the parental reformers are amazed that they won anything.

The result: Emanuel, the Great Triangulator, makes allies and alliances, not enemies.

Of course, it helps to have an obnoxious adversary who, lacking calculation and clinging to self-interest, can be demonized – like Newt Gingrich during Clinton’s reign, and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, the unions’ bete noire. Here’s a scoop: Emanuel’s Newt Gingrich will be Pat Quinn.

Emanuel’s “Chicago 2011 Transition Plan,” a 72-page opus with 55 specific “initiatives,” gives a clear insight into the difficulty of triangulation governance. He posits lofty if not ludicrous goals like “making the government, city council and public partners,” pledging to “reinvent” government operations so as to “reverse the deficit, enhance performance, improve critical services, and deliver better value to the taxpayer.” Don’t tune out yet. The platitudes are endless. And, Emanuel promises “transparency and accountability.”

With a $5.3 billion 2011 city budget, and a structural deficit estimated to be between $700 million and $1.2 billion, amputation, not just minimal trims, is the order of the day. The city’s share of the sales tax will soon drop by .25 percent. The city’s pension system, said Emanuel during the campaign, is “dishonest and unsustainable.” And city workers, with their guaranteed income, must “share the pain” of the economic quagmire, and suffer pay and benefit cuts.

The liberal establishment, meaning the teachers’ unions, public sector unions (AFSCME and SEIU) and social service lobby, dismissed Emanuel’s campaign rhetoric are political pablum. They are being disabused of their fantasy.

Emanuel triangulated beautifully on the issue of a Chicago casino. Quinn sputtered about “the people come first, not the gamblers, not the insiders.” The state legislature authorized four more casinos, with one in Chicago, and the mayor laid it on the line: Who cares if Chicago takes business from the nine existing casinos? They each generate gross revenues of $140-287 million annually. Who cares if people have a gambling problem? Why shouldn’t Chicago get a piece of that action? It’s about the money, stupid. It’s not government’s job to cure gambling addiction.

Here’s an analysis of the “transition plan”:

Crime, health and safety: Like Daley, Emanuel is adamant in his support of gun control. According to his “plan,” since 80 percent of the 435 2010 city murders were committed with a firearm, then it logically follows that stricter enforcement of existing gun control laws is obligatory, as is “stopping the gun flow.” Last year, 8,000 guns were seized by Chicago police. To triangulate, Emanuel has to balance 2nd Amendment rights, which in a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision recognized the constitutional right of “self-defense” by keeping a firearm in the home, with advocates of “concealed carry.” On guns, Emanuel will take the liberal tack.

Police deployment is a hot-button issue. With the CPD undermanned, the mayor promised “hundreds of new officers on the streets.” He relies on statistics indicating that for every ten percent increase in on-street police presence, violent crime declines by four percent, and property crime declines by five percent. Moving cops from outlying, lower-crime districts to inner-city, high-crime areas will reduce crime levels. Emanuel wants to be a tough-on-crime mayor, with falling crime rates. Expect continued redeployment. Every added dollar spent on policing “saves $8 in the long-term,” the plan claimed.

As for the CAPS program, the “plan” deems it to have “faltered,” and wants to “reinvent” it with pilot programs in five police districts. The mayor also proposes to “improve street safety,” addressing bike lanes, dangerous intersections, and fatality rates, to increase access to “under-served” public space (meaning parkland), to “review” the 2,000-plus public events and festivals, and create 125 miles of bike paths.

The “plan” bemoans other ills: Four million tons of waste are collected annually, only one-third of Chicago households have blue-cart recycling, and 9,000 miles of sewers and water pipes are degrading. Does Emanuel privatize recycling?

Education performance: Emanuel ordered $75 million in CPS non-classroom cuts, and is coping with a $720 million deficit; classroom sizes were maintained, but the teachers’ salary raise of four percent was scuttled. According to the “plan,” of the city’s 410,000 students, 10,000 drop out yearly, and the graduation rate is 56 percent, up from 47 percent in 2000. Only eight percent of CPS high school graduates ever earn a college degree. The mayor wants a “race to the top” and to “transform underperforming” schools, but does not embrace charter schools. He wants to “link student/teacher performance to academic outcomes” – in short, fire or slash the pay of teachers who don’t produce classroom results. As for a longer school day, Houston’s is three hours longer than Chicago’s.

On the city college system, the “plan” noted that there is a 54 percent dropout rate before a student earns the first 15 credits, and that over 300,000 credits are lying fallow, and not being applied to a degree.

Fiscal issues: Emanuel wants to restructure the city’s 40 departments, “reform” the $1.6 billion in contract procurement, and “simplify” the 600 city regulations and two million inspections performed annually. He wants “ethics reform,” banning city employees from lobbying for two years after departure. Currently, city pensions are 42 percent funded, with a $550 million shortfall. The legislature passed a bill mandating 90 percent funding by 2041, with property tax hikes beginning in 2015. The mayor wants to eliminate the $4-per employee “head tax,” and “reform” TIFs, which absorb $500 million yearly in property taxes.

Privatization of city recycling is Emanuel’s real test of triangulation. A total of 359,000 households are serviced. It will cost $13.3 million to do the job with city laborers, half that with private contractors.

It’s a “day of reckoning,” prophesized Emanuel during the campaign. Yet the mayor’s “transition plan” is long on aspiration, but short on details. Emanuel aspires to the White House, and a 2014 governorship bid is likely. To cut one-fifth of the city budget is an enemy-making, career-crippling proposition. Triangulation will be his salvation: Make the cuts, be the hero, give voters the impression that he’s working 24/7, and blame Quinn.

Clintonism is alive and well in Chicago.

Russ Stewart is a regular columnist for the Chicago Daily Observer

E-mail Russ@russstewart.com or visit his website at www.russstewart.com.

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