CHICAGO (Reuters) - One of the cliches about Chicago, along with “City of Big Shoulders,” is the line attributed to a former Democratic machine boss that “Chicago ain’t ready for reform.”
But former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who was elected mayor of the nation’s third-largest city Tuesday, said in his first post-election press conference on Wednesday that it is time for reform, and he is looking for help from everyone, including those who campaigned against him.
“I will reach out my hand to everybody to work for reform,” Emanuel told reporters in Chicago Wednesday.
“Reform is the spirit, the goal and the objective ... ” Emanuel said. “We face a common set of challenges that require a common purpose.”
Emanuel won by 55 percent of the vote over five rivals and will take office May 16 when longtime Mayor Richard M. Daley retires. The former congressman and advisor to presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama will face a formidable task as Chicago’s finances, like those of many U.S. cities and states, were devastated by the recession. Besides fixing the city’s balance sheet, Emanuel has said he also wants to tackle violent crime and improve Chicago schools.
Emanuel has said he wants to give public school principals greater autonomy, reward teachers for excellence and provide parents with more information so they can be more involved.
While Chicago’s crime rate is down, Emanuel pointed out that its murder rate in parts of the city is still double that of New York‘s. He wants to replace the current police superintendent, Jody Weis, place 1,000 more police officers on the street, and provide after school programs to protect children from street violence and help them learn.
He told the press conference about meeting a little girl who said she has to be driven to school because it was not safe to go any other way.
“My goal for this election and my goal for the four years and the measure of my progress will be whether that child can think about her studies and not her safety,” said Emanuel.
Chicago has a $500 million budget deficit, and severely underfunded pensions. A report by the Civic Federation, a Chicago-based government financial watchdog group, pegged Chicago’s unfunded pension liability at $12.4 billion or $4,348 per capita in fiscal 2009.
Emanuel said “shared sacrifices” are required by union members for meeting the pension problem, and said that he himself would not take a pension. He also pledged not to raise property taxes to fix the problem.
Workers know that changes are necessary, Emanuel said. “What they wanted is someone to be honest and level with them.”
Emanuel will have a new, less pliable city council than Daley enjoyed, with 20 of its 50 wards or districts getting new representatives known locally as aldermen. Emanuel said he doesn’t want a “rubber stamp” City Council.
“It can’t be a rubber stamp,” he said. “That’s unacceptable. The challenges are too big.”
Writing by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Greg McCune