As a South Bend native living in Chicago, I closely follow local politics in two cities that have close economic ties yet are vastly different in many ways.
Roughly 90 miles separate the two cities along the southern shoreline of Lake Michigan and the cornfields of Northern Indiana, a stretch that is easily traversed in a couple of hours thanks to generous public infrastructure investments made long ago that were funded due to visionary leaders. Two interstates (I-94 and I-80/90) and two rail lines (Amtrak and South Shore) make travel between the two cities relatively hassle-free — at least when it’s not construction season.
While South Bend has experienced a turnaround during the eight-year tenure of outgoing mayor Pete Buttigieg – who is in the midst of a presidential campaign that once seemed farfetched but now seems less so, if early polling and fundraising numbers are any indications – Chicago has experienced a malaise under outgoing mayor Rahm Emanuel: large budget deficits, deteriorating credit ratings, and a modest population decline.
This should not be the case in a city as bustling and dynamic as Chicago, the nation’s third largest megalopolis and the economic powerhouse of the Midwest. Simply put, Chicago should be thriving.
Chicago acts as a magnet for young, talented workers and immigrants looking to lay down roots in one of the most exciting and prosperous cities in the world. Businesses that require a diverse, educated workforce and quick, reliable connections to global markets set up shop in the ever-expanding Loop and surrounding neighborhoods. The city’s impressive infrastructure network acts is its spine and its workforce is its life blood.
Even with all of its tremendous strengths as a global city, Chicago has begun to buckle under both social and economic pressure. Years of mismanagement and corruption in the city council and mayor’s office, privatization boondoggles that have left the cash-strapped city government with fewer revenue streams, the gutting of public schools, gun violence, and under-funded pensions have taken their toll on a great American city struggling to find its way in the 21st century yet primed for a major comeback.
Things are looking up, though. My adopted city is about to undergo a radical political shift thanks to the election of Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot, a former prosecutor
With nearly 3 in 4 of the city’s voters casting ballots for Lightfoot in Tuesday’s runoff election, Chicago voters sent a clear message that they were fed up with the status quo. Voters here are hungry for change, and Lori Lightfoot – a gay African-American woman with a political coalition as diverse as this city – epitomizes that change.
This is a tremendous opportunity for the mayor-elect to seize this unique moment — an overwhelming mandate for change after a heavily-contested election — and lead with conviction, courage, integrity, and the public’s best interests in mind. It’s an opportunity to buck the status quo and boldly reform a broken system that works well for the wealthy and connected but too often fails the most vulnerable and impoverished, the very people who government should protect. It’s an opportunity that she will not have again in her lifetime and that our city will not have for at least a generation.
But just as many of us learned a decade ago during Barack Obama’s presidential run, change doesn’t come overnight. It doesn’t come without a fundamental understanding of how politics works. It doesn’t come without grassroots organization and mobilization. It doesn’t come if the power structures in place are unresponsive to public pressure and mechanisms for accountability (such as the news media).
So while Mayor Lightfoot has an opportunity to tangibly improve the lives of everyday Chicagoans – and lift the outlook for the entire region in the process, including Northern Indiana and Southeast Wisconsin – everyday Chicagoans also have an opportunity to change how their government works for them and to lay the groundwork for a brighter future.