I’ve already written two posts about Mayor Daley’s visit to campus (see here and here). But a few days later, two themes, a lack of partisanship and an emphasis on regional cooperation, continue to stand out for me as I have thought about how this talk fits with my research on suburbs. Here is why these two themes matter:
1. To start, many people might look at Daley’s visit to the suburbs as strange, particularly since he came to Wheaton, a community known both for its political and religious conservatism. Daley is quite well-known for being a Democrat and one who sits atop a broad Democratic machine in Chicago. And yet, Daley stressed that many issues facing cities and municipalities are not partisan issues. Rather, they are issues of serving the people and having a balanced budget.
On one hand, we could view this as Daley simply knowing his audience: with a more conservative crowd, Daley might have been unwilling to sell a Democratic agenda. But on the other hand, this idea of a lack of partisanship is quite common in suburban government. While certain communities are known to be more Democratic or Republican (roughly, further out suburbs are more Republicans, inner-ring suburbs are more Democratic), local mayors and councilman (or alderman) rarely run on party platforms. Rather, their “parties” tend to be called things like “Citizens to Improve Wheaton.”
When a problem arises, such as dealing with police or firefighter unions, Democratic or Republican communities might approach the issue in different ways. But at the same time, it is not as if Republicans can dismiss or ban the unions while Democrats can’t simply give in to every union concession. With a more limited budget in many suburbs, city governments have to maintain good levels of service (indeed, good suburbs tend to be marked by a lack of crime and good fire coverage) while still meeting a budget.
Additionally, Daley mentioned the need for businesses in a community multiple times. Whether Democrat or Republicans, communities need businesses to provide jobs for citizens but also to maintain and grow the tax base. This issue of a tax base is not just an abstract matter: it is directly linked to the size of the municipal budget. Therefore, mayors and leaders on both sides have to be pro-business (though their approach might differ somewhat) in order to provide services.
2. A second theme was the need for regional cooperation. Daley was introduced by former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert who said, “what is good for Chicago is good for northern Illinois, and what is good for northern Illinois is good for Chicago.” Daley said something similar that what is good for the suburbs is good for Chicago and vice versa.
Again, Daley might have been playing for the crowd but I don’t think this is a full explanation. One, regional cooperation is needed on certain issues. Daley mentioned O’Hare expansion several times. Although the land is in the City of Chicago, the slow process has involved several suburban communities who have opposed Daley’s plan. Unlike a situation like Meigs Field where Daley could do what he pleased, he has had to work with others on this project. (Whether he wants to work with others on O’Hare is another matter.) Another transportation issue that drew regional emphasis was the fight over whether Canadian National should be allowed to purchase the Elgin, Joliet, & Eastern railroad line. Similarly to the O’Hare issue, this purchase harmed certain suburbs by increasing train traffic while reducing traffic on other lines in other communities. (See the largest regional group opposed to this purchase.)
Two, Daley mentioned regularly meeting with suburban mayors (as well as with big city mayors in the US and around the world). Outside of particular large issues, regional mayors and city managers get together to discuss “best practices.” While there were county groups that did this (like the DuPage Mayors & Managers Conference), Daley brought together mayors from 272 communities across the region in the Metropolitan Mayors Caucus which began in 1997.
At the same time, we could ask why groups like these don’t push harder for tackling larger regional issues like planning or crime. The Chicago region is notorious for having a large number of independent, taxing bodies. The whole region would benefit from a regional planning approach that could start to tackle issues like affordable housing across the region (and not sticking it only in certain less wealthy communities) and containing sprawl (which impacts issues like traffic congestion and pollution levels).
We know historically that the split between cities and suburbs really became clear in the early 1900s when suburban communities no longer wanted to be annexed into the nearby big city. Communities want to work together: just recently, a number of suburban leaders said they were looking for help from new Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (though I also wondered whether these suburban mayors would help Emanuel in kind). Today, these regional groups are better than having no groups but primarily focusing on practical or technical municipal matters leaves a whole range of regional issues left to be tackled. Granted, these regional groups have no binding legislative authority but they could also be leveraged to do big things in a region.
Ultimately, a mayor or city leader has to respond to the needs of one’s citizens. However, many of the issues that mayors face are similar across communities and the challenges are often beyond the scope of just one municipality. All suburban and city leaders need to deal with the tax base, balancing the budget, and thinking about regional issues such as transportation and how to manage growth.