Chicago needs new political blood, young faces and fresh ideas. It needs them like a plant needs water and a balloon needs air.
Let’s agree on that.
But how old is too old to run the rowdy nation of Chicago?
That question may divide us.
Susana Mendoza’s entry into the crowded mayoral race has pointedly raised the question of age. On Wednesday, in announcing that she’s running, Mendoza said she’s especially looking forward to representing “the voices of the youth population that really has felt they have been unseen.”
She mentioned that millennial voters had the highest turnout of any age group in the November midterm election.
“I’ve got the best years of my life yet to give in public service to this city,” she said, “and I’ve got a ton of energy.”
Mendoza, the state comptroller, is 46. Not the youngest in the race, but not the oldest, which is a convenient place to be. She does seem to have a lot of energy, and energy is a requirement for a job that burns it like a Hummer guzzles gas.
But her remarks could be interpreted as an ageist dig at some of her opponents. Soon after she made them, Ald. Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, who represents the 35th ward on the Northwest Side, called her out.
Ramirez-Rosa is 29. He’s backing Toni Preckwinkle, who at 71 is the oldest in the field. Other leading contenders include Gery Chico, who’s 62, Paul Vallas, who’s 65, and Bill Daley, who’s 70.
In accusing Mendoza of ageism, Ramirez-Rosa noted that he’d recently had so much trouble keeping up with Preckwinkle while going down a flight of stairs that he asked about her workout regimen.
That’s entirely believable and good to hear. Being 71 is not a debility. A 71-year-old can be as vital as someone who’s 41 or 51 or 61. It’s important to keep that in mind.
But I have to admit that even before Mendoza entered the race, I’d noticed the ages of the major contenders and thought: Them again? Still?
I’ve had that thought even though I’m closer to their age than to Mendoza’s. And then I’ve had to ask myself: Am I being ageist?
The answer is yes, maybe, probably, some.
Our ageist attitudes are baked in and often invisible even to ourselves. We’re conditioned from the time we’re young to think of old as bad or, at best, as less.
We fling around demeaning words for older people, often without realizing it, sometimes so subtly that we’d swear we hadn’t done it.
Many of us — I include myself — deride certain politicians as “old white guys.” It’s shorthand for the ones who work to keep people who aren’t like them out of power, but it leaves no space for all the ones who work hard on behalf of people who aren’t old or white.
Dick Durbin, anyone?
We often use the word “old” to mean out of step, out of touch, close-minded, devoid of new ideas, lacking in energy to do the job or fight the worthy fight, whatever the job or fight is.
We apply it in our workplaces and in our politics. The problem isn’t only that it doesn’t do justice to older people; it also pits young people against older ones in ways that do a disservice to both.
Younger people and older people aren’t separate species. The old were once young, the young will get old. We have a lot of common cause.
Ageist attitudes, behaviors and systems don’t help anyone. We need to notice them and name them.
Still, I’m wary of tarring Mendoza as “ageist.” For one thing, paying attention to the needs and voices of young people is essential work for any politician. Courting their vote is only normal. All politicians tout their credentials, and energy is a valid, vital one.
“She’s not saying the other candidates are too old,” said a friend in her 60s when I asked what she thought of Mendoza’s remarks. “She’s saying their ideas are too old.”
Ideas. That’s what it comes down to. Ideas and the ability to execute them. That’s what we should look for in candidates of any age.
Do they have ideas?
Do they have the skills and energy to do the job?
What and whom do they care about?
Can they unite more than they divide?
What have they done to prove it?
MORE FROM MARY SCHMICH
Columns,Region: Chicago,City: Chicago,Opinion
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November 16, 2018 at 05:09AM