The new terms for Chicago’s elected officials commenced Monday at a packed Chicago Theater with a stage full of celebrating politicals, their families, and concluded with a speech from Mayor Rahm Emanuel that was long on aspirations and short on solutions.
As inaugurations tend to be, the event had plenty of symbolism. Bookended by a blessing from a West Side, predominately Latino church and a passionate rendition of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” from the South Side-based Chicago Children’s Choir, Mayor Emanuel’s nineteen minute speech focused on Chicago’s duty to its youth and the need to recover a “lost generation” in some of Chicago’s most disadvantaged communities. The speech mentioned “youth” or “children” 36 times, but only mentioned “pension” once, with no word of the city’s budget woes.
The speech sidestepped specific policy goals and the fiscal problems looming over city government. As many other news outlets have pointed out, because of our money problems, it seems that the big pieces of Chicago’s future will be decided over a table in Springfield, not City Hall. Emanuel chose to not only ignore that fact–recently brought home by Gov. Bruce Rauner in a speech to City Council–but talk about something else entirely.
The audience, chock full of mayoral supporters and aldermanic friends and family, cheered on the Mayor’s speech, roaring with approval at its completion–with a vitality only matched by the greeting given to former Mayor Richard M. Daley and former President Bill Clinton when they took the stage at the beginning of the ceremonies.
In contrast to the 2011 inauguration ceremonies, which was held outdoors at the Pritzker Pavilion and open to the general public, getting into this year’s event required tickets and for attendees to squeeze through a phalanx of Chicago police. A highly controlled event, there were still a few unplanned moments, such as the reappearance of the guy who had yelled, “Nice!” at Emanuel’s Election Night party; he somehow figured out how to reprise his line at the top of his lungs about eight times during the ceremonies.
But even before the Mayor took over the mic to discuss Chicago’s most vulnerable–he was the penultimate speaker–several speakers referenced the same theme.
The inauguration included the showstopping poem from Harold Green III, “Something to Live For”, which illustrates the struggles many living in poverty face, and the blessing administered by Fellowship Flock Church Pastor Lynette Santiago, who gave a modern take on the Christian Beatitudes, which asks those to bless those less fortunate.
Speaking after the festivities, several aldermen praised the Mayor for addressing what they believe to be an issue that doesn’t get a lot of attention at City Hall. And when asked if the Mayor should have spent more time on addressing the city’s financial issues, many aldermen agree that just because it wasn’t discussed, it doesn’t mean everyone isn’t thinking about it.
Ald. George Cardenas (12) called the inaugural speech “very motivational” and praised the Mayor for “sending a strong message of optimism.” When asked about the Mayor’s decision to sidestep the issue of the city’s finances, Ald. Cardenas said it was “more important” for the City Council to, “talk about the little things that mean a lot”, adding, “I think the financial piece we’ll figure it out. I think eventually we’ll come to terms that there are some things that we need to put on the table and make some concessions to get our house in order.”
Aldermen Willie Cochran (20), Walter Burnett (27), and Joe Moore (49) agree.
“His speech was directed straight at the areas where we have the biggest challenges in our community: focusing on family, resources, support, and overcoming challenges,” Ald. Cochran said, adding the state of the city and state’s finances aren’t, “something we are unfamiliar with.”
“I thought it was timely, fitting,” Ald. Burnett, one of the Mayor’s biggest supporters in the Council, said of the Mayor’s focus on youth. “Of course we did not talk much about the financial challenges we have ahead of us. I thought something would be spoken about that.” Burnett added, “I think that making sure our kids are safe and get a good education is all part of our financial challenges,” Burnett said both issues go, “hand-in-hand.” Burnett also suggested the theme was a decision likely made following the reaction Emanuel received on the campaign trail. “I think that really gave him a really great opportunity to get more engaged in the communities and feel the pulse […] and I think the best of us have to help the rest of us.”
Ald. Moore was equally surprised, but not without praise for Emanuel. “I think everyone was expecting to have, yet another address on the city’s fiscal crisis,” Ald. Moore said. “We’re all very aware that we have some very tough decisions to make, but far too often ignored in the political discourse is the crisis facing our young people.” Ald. Moore’s Ward, which includes Rogers Park, is plagued with much of the youth violence and poverty the Mayor addressed in the speech.
Even Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6), a member of the Progressive Caucus, commended Emanuel for giving a “hopeful” speech and liked the Mayor’s promise of increased cooperation with the City Council, something Ald. Sawyer says was missing during Emanuel’s first term. “I am happy to talk to [Mayor Emanuel] at any time,” Sawyer said. “You know, I’ve already talked to him more this term than I had the whole first term. The cooperation has been really great, so I am really encouraged by that.”
New Alderman Milly Santiago (31), who ran as a “progressive” and aligned her runoff campaign with Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, also defended the Mayor for not addressing the financial issues facing the city, saying there is a time and place for such a discussion and an inauguration isn’t one of them. When asked if she was surprised by the speech, Santiago responded, “Remember, this is a day of celebration, and I think people expected some sort of a soft statement, a soft speech to welcome all the new members of [the] City Council.” She says she and the other new members had a recent discussion with the Mayor on the “tough issues [they’ll] be facing”. She plans to “compromise and work” with the Mayor “in any way possible, if the changes and and his promises are real”.
Ald. Patrick Daley Thompson (11) replied in similar fashion. “I think that we all know that is the issue and we are going to be addressing that. I think today what the Mayor was doing was reaching out to all of Chicago to get engaged and help solve this problem.” Thompson added, “Obviously, financially, we want to leave this place better to the next generation than we had it, and our parents did a good job [..] We want to make sure that we engage the youth because they are the new leaders of tomorrow. So, I think, it’s important to have them involved.” Ald. Thompson said that when the time does come to discuss the city’s finances, “everything will be on the table” when the city looks for new sources of revenue.
Unlike his peers, Ald. Scott Waguespack (32) was not as thrilled about or encouraged by the Mayor’s pivot to disenfranchised youth. “He didn’t mention the words pension, finances, or the crisis that we have in those areas,” Ald. Waguespack said, calling it a “lost opportunity” to detail a plan and suggested the Mayor’s silence indicated there isn’t a plan. “You can’t address the death and destruction and the poverty and the education woes that we have without fixing the finances at the same time,” Ald. Waguespack said a lot of communities and local organizations are already working on the issues related to the Mayor’s speech and it will be the job of the Progressive Caucus to keep Mayor Emanuel accountable and focused on addressing the city’s pension debt, which Ald. Waguespack called a funding issue. “The whole city is counting on us to do that. I don’t think anyone else will. We have to step up and we’re going to have to provide solutions.”