Leavitt: Don’t rely on the next mayor to fix Chicago

Irv Leavitt

Someone will be elected mayor of Chicago April 2, but at this point, it doesn’t really matter much whether it’s Lori Lightfoot or Toni Preckwinkle.

In general, it wouldn’t even matter much if on Feb. 26, two different candidates had been voted eligible for the upcoming runoff.

That’s because the who of the mayoralty is not as critical as the what.

What the constituency lets the new mayor do.

Chicagoans are learning about their government as never before. And knowledge is power. They can make that government do what they want it to.

They have to, because business as usual has got to end, and end soon, if the city is to succeed.

It’s not succeeding now. There are many too many Chicago residents living lives that are too hard. Their pain radiates through the entire city, and out into the nation, telling everybody exactly what Chicago has become. The government has helped make it that way, and the government has to fix it.

There is brave talk from the two women, and it may be totally sincere. But there will soon be tremendous temptation to go along to get along. It’s terrifically hard to run against the wind in the windiest of cities.

The Chicago City Council is not much of a legislative body. Very few initiatives are introduced by aldermen. That function is left to the mayor.

Many other municipalities work similarly. But they shouldn’t. That’s not representative government.

Chicago aldermen are often afraid of initiating legislation, because the mayor might react by depriving them of power or dignity. So everything goes through the fifth floor of City Hall. Chicago has turned its mayors into Mussolinis.

Just because it’s been that way through living memory doesn’t mean it has to be that way forever. The next mayor should share personal power to create a truly powerful and more democratic government that gets things done because the people are behind it.

The aldermen have to become the representatives of their residents, instead of clearinghouses for local city services. Chicago should elect legislators, not street cleaners.

It’s the right time to turn the aldermen into legislators, because it’s also the time to get rid of aldermanic prerogative, the illegitimate source of power, and sometimes popularity, on the council. Kill it now, when many of the people of Chicago finally know what it is, and know they don’t like it.

This veto aldermen have over zoning decisions in their wards must go, Lightfoot agrees. Preckwinkle is not on board on that yet, but she should be pressed on it now. She may think she can trim this aldermanic clout later, when she’s stabilized her administration, but that’s unlikely. It’s better to cut the cord to racist zoning decisions and corruption now. Put the aldermen on notice.

If we don’t, we’ll never have nearly enough affordable housing in Chicago. And the central city will continue to grow at the expense of the neighborhoods.

Chicago schools need considerable help. The resource disparity between the better schools and the bad ones is huge. It’s destroying the city.

Beyond resources, the school system has lost sight of its mission. Most high schools should have vocational training components, to interest students and prepare them for jobs that actually exist. It might be better if such offerings started in seventh grade.

The city needs to attack its mental health and drug issues in a substantive and credible fashion. It’s necessary to save the lives of those who are afflicted and addicted, and the innocents who are in jeopardy because of our failure to adequately address these issues.

We have been asking the police to be our city’s psychologists and drug counselors at a time when they’re hard-pressed to cope with policing in general. The federal government is now forcing the city to create a new police ethos, through the recent consent decree. That’s a mountain to climb in training, administration and personnel.

Solving these educational, mental health, housing, drug and police issues can’t be done without solving the corruption problem. Fixing what ails Chicago will cost a lot of money, and lenders can’t be expected to cooperate to the extent necessary. Not unless they know that the contracts will be awarded fairly, with a minimum of waste.

If Chicago addresses its problems faithfully and honestly, the result will be a universally livable city that can attract new residents and businesses and pay its pension debt.

It doesn’t much matter who’s in charge. As long as you are.