Occupation: Mayor, City of Chicago
His honeymoon with Chicago, such as it was, is over. But he’s still the top dog because when faced with issues big and small— but mostly big—the mayor meets them the only way he knows how: head on. He spoke to Chicago on January 30.
Who do you think is the most powerful person in town?
I have no idea. I don’t spend time thinking about it.
I thought you were going to say, “my wife.”
No. Sorry. That would be a chauvinistic comment. [Pauses.] I don’t have to say it; I think it. [Laughs.]
You’re nearing the end of year three. Has the job been harder or easier than you thought?
It’s been more exciting. This is the most rewarding time I’ve ever spent in public service—in the sense that you can really make a difference. I’ll give you one ex- ample. I made a decision with Barbara [Byrd-Bennett, No. 54] on day one, but [we] finalized it this year. For the first time in the history of Chicago, we have universal kindergarten. We used to do 20,000 kids at seven hours and 20,000 kids at two hours. Now all 40,000 kids enrolled in CPS kindergarten get a full day. In addition, we’re adding 5,000 more at-risk children to full-day pre-K.
What are your priorities for the next 12 months?
We’ve made dramatic changes and reforms to the city budget; we gotta keep making those reforms so we’re better at delivering services. We’re no longer going to be A Tale of Two Cities on recycling. We now have recycling in every neighborhood in the city. Our [high-school] graduation rate last year had the high- est one-year jump [from 61 percent for the 2011-2012 school year to 65 percent last school year]. Our on-track rate [of freshmen who anticipate to graduate] is now at 80 percent, the most significant turnaround of any big city. Then obviously the day-in, day-out effort of bringing safety to every part of the city and every neighborhood.
Some of these decisions have not been popular. in fact, your poll numbers seem to be going down. Do you—
First of all, the full school day, universal kindergarten — very popular.
Charter schools, school closings—
School choice is very popular. School closings, there’s a reason nobody else did it. We had to deal with the lack of quality throughout the system. Was it the right thing? It was very difficult, but I thought we did the most balanced thing we could do to make sure that every child got a quality education.
You have been trying to get the city’s fiscal house in order, but there are still huge structural problems.
Of course! You don’t expect years of sin to end in two years, do you? There was a reason nobody wanted to touch garbage collection—let me remind you, Chicago had the most expensive garbage-per-ton of any city in America. Nobody wanted to touch it because of politics. I took what was considered taboo, third-rail—we touched it, reformed it, and expanded the services. Nobody wanted to touch community health care because it was politically too hard. And now we know because of the studies [that our clinics offer] better health care, are open longer hours, and provide more services to the recipients. We took on the politics to do a better job.
You already have $6 million or so banked for your reelection campaign. are you nervous about somebody challenging you?
Look, you prepare yourself for the campaign, not for a particular candidate. I want to make sure I’m focused on the job I have and on what I’m doing.
Would you like to tell voters why you should be reelected?
Well, we’re not there yet. I will when I get there. Don’t worry.