May 16, 2011
Text and photo by Ted Regencia
CHICAGO — Declaring that Chicago “is ready for change” and vowing to address major problems such as school reform, street violence and a large budget deficit in city government, Rahm Emanuel took his oath as Chicago mayor on Monday before a large crowd that includes U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.
“Today, more than any other time in our history, more than any other place in our country, the city of Chicago is ready for change,” said Emanuel amid cheers from thousands and supporters and hundreds of flag-waving schoolchildren.
Emanuel succeeds Richard M. Daley, the longest-serving mayor of the city for 22 years, and will inherit from him a modern metropolis, dubbed as one of the greenest cities in the world, but which also faces lingering racial segregation, high unemployment and a $654 million budget shortage. He served as President Obama’s chief of staff before returning to city to run for mayor.
“While we are not the first government to face these tough questions, it is my fervent hope that we become the first to solve them. The old ways no longer work. It is time for a new era of responsibility and reform,” said Emanuel, the 46th mayor of the city that had its first chief executive in 1837.
Aside from Vice President Biden and Mayor Daley, national and local officials spotted by Xinhua include Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, U.S. Senators Richard Durbin and Mark Kirk, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
In succeeding Daley, Emanuel acknowledged that he has “big shoes to fill” crediting the outgoing mayor for pushing through major projects such as the expansion and modernization of O’Hare International Airport, and the transformation of downtown Chicago from an “urban eyesore” into a world-class park that attracts millions of visitors every year.
“A generation ago, people were writing Chicago off as a dying city,” said Emanuel, who was born in the city but grew up in the neighboring suburb of Wilmette. “Through Mayor Daley’s vision, determination and leadership, this place, like our city, was reborn.”
While lavishing praise on Daley, a political ally whom he helped get elected mayor in 1989, Emanuel also did not shy away from acknowledging the many challenges in the city during Daley’s tenure.
For one, Emanuel said the Chicago Public School system only graduates half of its kids. He pointed out that Chicago has one of the shortest school days in nation, resulting in less productivity for its students.
“As some have noted, including my wife, I am not a patient man. When it comes to improving our schools, I will not be a patient mayor,” Emanuel said.
“Each child has one chance at a good education. Every single one of them deserves the very best we can provide.”
One of the things Emanuel vowed to do to reform the school system is to lengthen the school day and to “keep good teachers” by giving them better pay.
Outside of school, Emanuel, who once worked with former U.S. President Bill Clinton in banning the use of assault weapons, vowed to make Chicago’s streets even safer.
In 2010, Chicago recorded 435 homicides, according the the Chicago Tribune newspaper. While that number is the city’s lowest murder rate in 45 years, high-profile crimes within the city’s low-income African-American neighborhoods persisted. In 2009, high school student Derrion Albert was beaten to death by schoolmates and the attack was caught by a cellphone video sparking a debate on youth violence.
During his speech Emanuel recalled visiting a memorial for children killed by gun violence in Chicago. He noted that it contained the names of 220 slain children, with 150 names yet to be added.
“What kind of society have we become when the memorials we build are to the loss of innocence and the loss of childhood,” Emanuel asked. “That memorial does more than mourn the dead. It shames the living. It should prod all of us — every adult who failed those kids — to step in, stand up and speak out.”
“Kids belong in our schools, on our playgrounds and in our parks, not frozen in tme on the side of a grim memorial,” he said.
At the same time Emanuel challenged the neighborhoods to step up and help the police solve crimes, bemoaning the culture of silence among some neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, the new mayor warned about the looming financial crisis the city faces saying, “We simply can’t afford the size of city government that we had in the past. And taxpayers deserve a more effective and efficient government than the one we have today.”
He said he expects some sectors in Chicago to oppose his policy reforms, but he insisted “change” is needed to balance the budget.
“Given the challenges we face, we need to look for better and smarter ways to meet our responsibilities,” Emanuel said. “From now on, when it comes to change, Chicago will not take no for an answer.”
Alongside the promise for fiscal discipline is Emanuel’s vow to attract more businesses and create jobs in Chicago, which he noted, lost 200,000 residents during the last ten years.
“No great city can thrive by shrinking,” he said. “The best way to keep people from leaving is to attract the jobs that give them a good reason to stay. The jobs of tomorrow will go to those cities that produce the workforce of tomorrow.”
Emanuel also vowed to support immigration reform and called for the passage of the Illinois Dream Act, which gives children of undocumented immigrants in Illinois the chance to go to college.
Emanuel was elected last February becoming the first Jewish mayor of America’s third largest city. He received 55.25 percent of the vote, an endorsement by Chicagoans to a candidate backed by President Obama and former President Clinton. But only 42 percent of the total registered voters cast their ballot with Emanuel receiving 321,773 votes.
To put that in perspective, the overall number of voters in this year’s mayoral election, an estimated 585,000, is less than the votes cast in 1983 for Mayor Harold Washington, who garnered 667,552, or his Republican rival Bernard Epton, who received 620,003 votes.
During the campaign, Chicago civil rights leader Jesse Jackson told Xinhua that he opposed Emanuel’s candidacy because the former Northside congressman has not fully addressed the concerns of the city’s Black community, which is about third of the city’s 2.7 million population.