For a city known for its politics, Chicago doesn’t have a recent history of grand political rhetoric—save for Barack Obama and Berny Stone—thanks in large part to its now ex-mayor and his father, neither of whom have been mistaken for orators. And like them, Mayor Emanuel is more of a political creature than an oratorical one. So I wasn’t surprised to find that Rahm Emanuel’s inaugural speech lined up with Richard M. Daley’s.
"New times demand new answers; old problems cry out for better results. This morning, we leave behind the old ways and old divisions and begin a new day for Chicago. I am proud to lead a city united in common purpose and driven by a common thirst for change." —Rahm Emanuel, May 16, 2011
"I begin this season filled with hope for the future, and dreams of victories we can win with a new spirit of teamwork and cooperation. And as we enter this new season, it’s time to leave behind old setbacks, disappointments and battles. Because in the campaign for a better Chicago, we’re all allies." —Richard M. Daley, April 24, 1989
Chicago politics evolve slowly, as do the city’s political and cultural anxieties. The most pressing issues, according to Daley’s speech, were schools, youth violence, and government efficiency. And those are the issues Emanuel went straight for in his speech; the word cloud goes Chicago, school, children, government, more or less in that order. It’s hard to go wrong with kids: Emanuel was welcomed by a children’s choir, a kid on the violin, a bunch of kids in the audience—"[I t]hink children represent the biggest demographic at Rahm Emanuel inauguration," tweeted WBEZ’s Natalie Moore—and a lot of sometimes moving rhetoric about children.
It’s to be expected. There’s only so much you can do in an inaugural. Just the requirement of praising your predecessor while at the same time outlining the problems your administration faces leaves a narrow rhetorical strait to shoot. Which is why the most interesting parts of inaugural speeches are the occasions when they get specific, and actually outline the policies and politics to come. Because what makes it in is likely at the front of the politician’s mind.
In 1989, Daley took on the state legislature with some aggression: "I’ll also bargain hard in Springfield, where they sometimes forget that a healthy Chicago is vital to the future of Illinois." This time around, it was unions, specifically teachers’ unions. The first bit of policy explicitly addressed was the school-day length (see Eric Zorn on that) and collective bargaining reform recently passed by the state legislature, which created some heat in coming, passed the Senate with surprising ease… and then went back to being controversial again before the House vote.
Our legislature in Springfield has taken an historic first step, and I want to personally thank Senate President John Cullerton, Senate Assistant Majority Leader Kimberly Lightford, Speaker Mike Madigan, House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, Representative Linda Chapa LaVia, and all those in the Illinois General Assembly, members from both parties, who took this courageous and critical vote. Finally, Chicago will have the tools we need to give our children the schools they deserve.
A longer school day — and year — on par with other major cities. And reformed tenure to help us keep good teachers and pay them better.
And in case you missed the inference:
That also goes for businesses large and small, and all of our labor unions…. So today, I ask of each of you — those who live here, and those who work here; business and labor: Let us share the necessary sacrifices fairly and justly.
Not that Emanuel was wielding a stick, per se. He called out our political neighbors in Wisconsin and Indiana, where their impossible-to-miss ideological throwdowns have come largely at the expense of unions: "I reject how leaders in Wisconsin and Ohio are exploiting their fiscal crisis to achieve a political goal."
It’s a middle course, as almost all inaugural speeches are. But it seems to confirm what a lot of people, including me, have suspected: the Chicago Public Schools, and new chief Jean-Claude Brizard, are going to be the big issue early in Mayor Emanuel’s first term.
Photograph: Chicago Tribune