Just asking: When does election tackle real issues?

6 Jan

By Jack Conaty

(This is one in a series of guest Op-Ed articles for DePolitics1011.com. Conaty is the former chief political correspondent for WFLD-TV in Chicago.)

Sometime during the second season of “Mad Men”, ad executive Don Draper is faced with a client angry that plans to modernize Penn Station in New York City in the early 60’s are running into cultural resistance. Draper’s advice is classic. “If you don’t like the discussion, change the conversation.”

Fast forward, if you will, to the culture wars in the Chicago race for mayor and you can sense that dynamic is well underway. Rahm Emanuel has already been branded as a one name sensation, like Cher or Madonna or Sting. But selling that brand in this race is still a challenge. So change the conversation.

No fair minded citizen of this city can make a case that Emanuel is an interloper. Nor is it wise to challenge his intelligence, experience or political savvy. But the issue that first came to dominate the mayor’s race is the legitimacy of his residency. The conversation then centers on the process. Will he be challenged and by whom? How long will the process take and how long can it dominate the news cycle. And at the end of all of that, does Emanuel look like an insider or outsider to voters? Is he an opportunist or a victim?

But the more time and news coverage spent on this, the better he looks. And the less time voters have to figure out why he’s ready to take on a job the current mayor no longer wants.

The second conversation began the day the parking meter rates jumped because of that dreadful leasing deal. That should, and briefly did, raise questions about how the city ever got in this mess.

That was the conversation Carol Moseley Braun wanted Monday morning. What she got was a conversation about financial disclosure. The way she handled questions about revealing her income tax returns only served to remind many people why she’s now in the organic food business instead of in a Senate office on Capitol Hill.

Buoyed by her apparent hubris about becoming the “consensus candidate” among African-American mayoral hopefuls, she flippantly and defiantly told reporters she wouldn’t make the returns public until or if she made the mayoral run-off. Why? “Because I don’t want to!…” she said Monday.

Only after she and her campaign realized what a firestorm she created did she grudgingly produce evidence of just how much she now needs that job on the fifth floor of City Hall. “Needy” doesn’t sell in American politics. Just ask Christine O’Donnell.

All the mayoral hopefuls now have their tax returns on the public record but only one is a story. Only one set of returns speaks for itself. City Clerk Miguel Del Valle is the only major candidate whose returns match his salary at City Hall. Gery Chico and his wife are riding out this recession quite comfortably, apparently from his law firm’s business in city bonds and lobbying work for city contractors. Emanuel wasn’t scraping by either. The millions he made as an investment banker apparently provide a very comfortable living well beyond his salary at the White House.

Both Chico and Emanuel dumped their returns into the pre-Christmas news cycle, Emanuel on Christmas Eve, when newsrooms are short staffed and preoccupied with stories about retail sales and projected snowfalls. No worry about changing the conversation then, the media will do it for you. By the time Braun is ready to set an agenda on Monday, Chico and Emanuel’s finances are old news, and Carol is the headline. Almost made you forget Emanuel was returning from a campaign vacation in Thailand. Is he worried? I don’t think so.

And if you want to get back to those parking meters, hold on. Bill Daley is headed to Washington to replace Rahm as Chief of Staff at the White House. There’s an entirely different conversation that speaks to power, connections and presidential politics in 2012. Real or not it’s a talker and it’s time to throw more money in that meter. The parking story is now all but forgotten, until you have to leave your car in downtown Chicago.

This was supposed to be a golden time in Chicago politics, a time to have a real campaign about the real issues in this city. So far, it’s being run like a national campaign with image spots and carefully researched messages.

So what if Emanuel looked like a guy waiting for his driver at O’Hare in that first commercial. The message was “he’s one of us.” Politics here will not get real until we drop this “Chicago is the greatest city in the world” nonsense and begin talking about where we really are and where we’re going. That is the discussion none of these candidates really seems to want.

City Hall is broke, the State of Illinois now looks worse than California with its budget debt and gridlock and John Boehner just took over the House in D.C. How bad is it and how bad could it get?

Chico and Emanuel have to stop pretending the last twenty years have been Camelot and tell us just what sort of a jam we’re in and what they intend to do to get us out of it. It won’t be a discussion that will leave you feeling as warm and fuzzy as some of the TV commercials but Don Draper was right.

It’s time to change the conversation.