There's always controversy around a politician.  Some like the person, some hate the person.  And that is true for Mayor Richard M. Daley in ChicagoCrain's Chicago Business decided to do an analysis of the mayor's last 20 years in office in "Mayor Daley Runs Up Big Debts Building His Global City; What About the Rest of Chicago?"  

(As I write this, please keep in mind I live in Chicagoland and have done so for 20 consecutive years.  This is my second time in Chicago, having first in 1982 – almost 30 years ago.  It is my home, and I obviously like the area.  But that doesn't mean (a) some criticisms and concerns aren't warranted and (b) that other cities and/or states aren't in equal, or worse, condition and should learn something from a look at Chicago.)

The article has a host of ways to look at. evaluate, the mayor and the city.  Most of them compare one or the other to the Chicago suburbs, or to other big cities like New York, or to the situation in Chicago when he took office.  In other words, relative measures.  As a result, in many areas, it is possible to say Chicago is doing better than it was, or better than some comparable city.  And that's the problem with relative measures – you can always say things are somewhat different.  But, does it mean the city is in "good" shape, or that it is going to be prospering in 2020 – or 2050? 

However, what's important isn't how a governmental leader performs in comparison to others, but absolutely.  I don't care of I'm less starving than another person, I care that I'm not starving.  Nor does it matter how well the leader performs on a host (15 or 20 or 30) of measures, but rather how they perform on the critical, absolute measures.  I don't care how well I'm dressed, or coiffed, or energized if I'm starving. 

It's also important we avoid popularity polls as a way of determining "success."  The article points out that Mayor Daley is a favorite of business leaders.  According to the article largely because he thinks a lot like them, talks a lot like them and enjoys associating with them.  But just because he shares their personal Success Formulas, and he's a great "Happy Harry," to be around, and because he might be easier to talk to than his predecessors, or other city mayors, does not make Mayor Daley great, or the city great.  It just makes him popular.  Do you remember any popular students from your high school or college that simply didn't accomplish much?  They were probably even very popular with the faculty in many cases.  But did they make the school's reputation grow?  Or help improve the test scores of students rise, or improve the success of the athletic department?  Popularity is just that, but it doesn't create a long-term viable economic strategy.

That the mayor has brought a few corporate headquarters to Chicago, such as Boeing and Miller/Coors, is no doubt.  And retained United Airlines.  This shows the mayor is good at talking to CEOs.  And it has some "celebrity" and "symbolic" benefit.  Unfortunately, headquarters locations do not produce many jobs.

In the case of Chicago and mayor Daley, there are really 2 critical variables.  And they aren't how well he removes snow, or how many flights go through O'Hare airport.  Rather, it's debt and jobs

Debt can be used to help growth, otherwise it's bad.  If you can earn 7%, and borrow at 5%, then debt helps you grow.  But if you borrow at 5% and invest in something that has no growth, well then you're just losing money faster.  

Which gets us to jobs.  Debt incurred by a municipality should have the impact of creating growth.  It should create jobs.  But, looking at Crain's "Chicago Economic Indicators" we see that between 1989, Daley's first year in the job, and 2009 jobs shrunk by 150,000 (from 1.33million to 1.18million,) or negative 11.25%.  So the debt did not help Chicago grow – the only viable reason for incurring debt.  In the 20 years debt (including long-term capital leases), adjusted for inflation, grew 263%.  Fully 74% more than the property tax base.  Or, when compared to jobs, the inflation adjusted debt per job grew by 85% (almost doubled!) in the last 20 years!  What we can see is that those who are working now have one heck of a lot of debt to repay for the expenditures made by "city hall" the last 20 years!  Adjusted for inflation, twice what they had to pay back when I came to Chicago!

And this is AFTER the mayor sold off the city's parking meters and other sources of income!  He took one-time payments in order to keep the debt down, but gave up future income that used to be available to repay debt.  Throwing even more of the debt repayment load onto each job than existed when he took office.  And this hasn't factored in unfunded pension liabilities and anticipated escalating costs for infrastructure, education, public transit, etc.  which will require some form of tax – or economic growth.  

There is no doubt that even though he has detractors, Mayor Daley is a popular mayor.  From what I've heard, he's a charismatic individual.  He is obviously smart, and has great leadership skills.  And masterful political skills.  He also seems, from watching him on the news, to be a genuinely caring person who wants the best for all people in Chicago – and wants Chicago to be a great city for the next century.  But much of what's happened during his tenure has garnered him votes, while leaving Chicago with more debt and fewer jobs to pay for that debt.

If you live in Chicago, or any other major city, it is worth spending time not getting lost in the beauty.  Thirty years ago Detroit was full of glee about its investments in the Renaissance Center and other civic programs.  Didn't do any good when they couldn't keep jobs in the city – or region.  Pretty buildings surrounded by blight has been the result.  Civic leaders need to be paying attention to the debt per job – and realize that without growth – more jobs – its tough for any city to remain "a great place to live and work."

So what should mayor Daley do?  I'm offering up one idea, one article, from "I-Q Corridor is Stuff of Dreamers." This article discusses how some well placed funds, and not all that much given the overall budgets of the states and cities involved, could make a huge difference.  The notion is to invest in creating a "health care corridor" from Minneapolis, MN through Madison, WI and Milwaukee, WI into Chicago, IL.  This would bring together the resources of s
everal of the top engineering and health care schools in the USA, with several of the premier facilities (nearby Minneapolis area Mayo Clinic, Marshfield Clinic in WI, and Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago just to name 3 of many).  This kind of investing is the kind of thing that could create a LOT of jobs in a growing industry.  And probably for less than the cost of the proposed O'Hare expansion. 

For 2 years I listened to the mayor trumpet the need for Chicago to seek being an Olympic venue.  He roused up many corporate leaders to support him.  And he spent millions of dollars.  Even though it was never clear that the Olympics could even break even.  And far less clear it would create even one job post-Olympics. So why not view the I-Q Corridor as a White Space project for Chicago?  Why not use it to Disrupt old Lock-ins about the "rust belt" of manufacturing, and figure out how to generate high job growth?  It is just one idea, but I can get a lot more excited about spending money on creating some sort of "corridor of job growth" than putting on the Olympics.

(PS – I recently met the City of Chicago CIO at the CIOMagazine Perspectives event in Chicago.  He led a great panel with leading industry CIOs from the city.  It was a great conference, well attended, with a number of thoughtful people.  The event demonstrated what a great city Chicago is for business.  You can read a flattering review I've my presentation written by Steven Stern at "Innovate – Don't get Locked-In." I'll be updating that presentation which you can register to attend at the CIO 100 Conference August 22-24 near Los Angeles, CA.)