Back in 2005, a young lawyer running as an Independent shocked the establishment by beating the Democratic incumbent in the Rockford mayor’s race. Now, 12 years later, he’s ready to hand the keys to his 8th floor city hall office to the next mayor. In today’s Friday Forum, WNIJ’s Susan Stephens sat down with Larry Morrissey to talk about his three terms as mayor and his plans for the future.
A lot has changed for Larry Morrissey since he was elected mayor of Rockford in 2005. Personally, he entered office as a single 30-something and leaves as a 47-year-old married man with four children at home. He calls the past 12 years “an incredible adventure, both personally and professionally.” He is already looking back on his tenure fondly, proud of his accomplishments, but very ready to get on with the next chapter in life.
The Rockford native announced last September he would not run for re-election. In May, he’ll step aside when the next mayor is sworn in. Four candidates are vying for the position.
Morrissey says as much as he loves the job, it takes a toll on him personally and professionally. “For me I am ready, I’m looking forward to passing the baton on. I’m very proud of the work we’ve done. But in a very real way, for the city to progress, we have to move beyond this being the mayor’s vision and the mayor’s work to this effort toward excellence everywhere for everyone. Whatever the next mayor wants to call it, it has to be more broadly owned.” The latest battle at City Hall is weighing heavily on him: He has worked hard to make the transformation of an old downtown factory into a downtown hotel and conference center. Critics don’t like the fact that the city would kick in some of the funding for the private development. Morrissey says he’s heard this song before: “Opponents are trying to make it about me. It’s a problem. It’s not about me. Ultimately for the downtown and west side to prosper, it should not be about the mayor. But it’s about the will of our community and the will of our council and the voices heard throughout our community. I think that’s hopefully what we’ll see happening throughout the transition. Hopefully, we will get the project approved, and doing so, broader voices of community will be heard.”
It’s a battle like that that has him “excited and energized about entering a new phase of my life and career where I can still be helpful and a member of the community and be civically-minded but wouldn’t necessarily have the title and responsibility of mayor.”
The thought of taking the aspects of the job he loves most and throwing the rest of it away is pretty attractive. So what has he liked most about the business of being mayor? Morrissey says he has enjoyed “putting the city in a trajectory for success, with high standards, and excellence everywhere for everyone.”
Morrissey says his next phase in life will focus on what he has come to believe is the essence of successful cities – a comprehensive vision of health. His definition of health includes physical and behavioral health. Then it broadens into a healthy economy, a healthy education, and a healthy public safety system.
“One example of the types of work we’ve been involved with and will continue through the end of my term, is supporting value and performance based partnerships that utilize enterprises like our Rockford firefighter EMS employees to support mobile integrated health care.” In Dec. 2015, Rockford became the first fire department in Illinois to be licensed to do mobile integrated healthcare. Morrissey says instead of waiting for a 911 call to action, the fire department can get paid to do intervention work.” He says 911 calls are a 24-7 indicator of where a city is sick and what the challenges are. Under the program, he says emergency workers can identify people, then help them before a problem strikes. Now they’re looking at getting the police department to consider similar practices.
“People who are likely to commit or be victims of violence have long standing patterns of violence and even PTSD traumas. If we know this, why can’t we get ahead of it?” Helping cities redefine themselves by considering health is the next phase of life Morrissey is looking forward to. He says he has a few offers in that line of work that he is considering.
Rockstat and Compstat
The Morrissey administration has been a data-driven administration. He has more than a decade of data to help him understand his city’s needs. He says the Rockstat and Compstat programs have been critical elements in helping build a “disciplined system.” But they’ve also struck him as “frustrating” because of a lack of partners “acting and thinking the same way.” In the waning days of his lame duck session, Morrissey has found an ally in the new Winnebago County Board chairman, Frank Haney.
When President Barack Obama left office, his successor pledged to undo many of his proudest accomplishments. Morrissey knows no matter who takes his place at city hall, much of his legacy will remain.
“Much of the transformation leading toward this vision of excellence everywhere for everyone is that everywhere is the place called Rockford, and everyone is the people,” says Morrissey, “When you look at the place, we’ve set a trajectory for success.” He cites road rebuilding projects on Main and West State Streets. He says there’s a template in place for the next phases of the projects and infrastructure funding exists thanks to a 1% public infrastructure sales tax that voters approved three times. He says growing public support for bike-friendly streets and multi-purpose pathways give him hope that the physical rebuilding of the city will continue after he leaves office.
On the human side, Morrissey says his work with state of Illinois has shown him the Rauner administration is willing to align its departments more with local governments to get things done. He says there’s state support through the Illinois Criminal Justice Authority for a systems based approaches to reduce violence.
The Future of Illinois
Larry Morrissey insists he is not going anywhere. His next job may require more travel, but Rockford will still be the place he calls home. “I love the city of Rockford, I love the state of Illinois. Despite our challenges, I’ve always been a believer that you don’t fix challenges by moving away from them. You have to get in the middle of them.” He says as the father of young children, he has to be optimistic. He’s optimistic about the state, especially because he sees growing cooperation among lawmakers, and is “hopeful this legislative session will be the most productive in years.”
The Future of Rockford
Rockford’s evolving, according to Morrissey. He says one visible sign of that is on the chests of its young residents – t-shirts made by companies like Rockford Art Deli and Bygone Brand that express pride in the city. That’s new. He sees big downtown events like Stroll on State and Rockford City Market as successes that can lead to more: he wants to see proposals for an indoor market and a hotel and conference center go forward as he leaves office.
So what does he want to be remembered for? He says, “Ultimately, I want my children to grow up and not feel like I felt that there was something odd about being pro-Rockford. I want my youngest three to grow up feeling proud of Rockford, not thinking there’s an alternative. So the measure of my success won’t primarily be that people remember my name but my children will have a great city to grow up in. I know if I do that well, there are a lot of other kids who will benefit from it.”
Morrissey was elected as an Independent in a city that has leaned Democratic in recent years (although two of Rockford’s mayors were elected under the Socialist banner in the distant past). He says he's more comfortable than ever with an “I” as his party designation. “It’s not been easy, it’s been hard, but it beats the alternative. For me, at least.” He says it has forced him to push harder to get things done, and that can be mistaken for an unwillingness to compromise.
Excellence Everywhere For Everyone
There’s a phrase that Morrissey adopted early on as mayor: Excellence Everywhere for Everyone. He says he’s proud of the commitment to changing the city’s attitude. And he takes the fact that many people made fun of the phrase as showing that he was getting somewhere. He says there are accomplishments that prove that it wasn’t just an empty slogan: record levels of investments in public infrastructure, partnerships, growth at the airport, and the work he finds most exciting, even though it has been behind the scenes, the healthy cities initiatives. He says his work with Alignment Rockford to improve schools is also very important to him.
The Elephant in the Room
There’s no denying Rockford has a crime problem. The city’s own statistics spell that out. Morrissey says the answers don’t lie in hiring more police officers: the system has to change. He points to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his frustration that officers keep arresting felons with multiple gun convictions: he calls that a lack of management in the criminal justice system. Morrissey says part of the problem is judges don’t wants to have their work measured or publicly reviewed, so police get blamed. He says a systems-based approach would solve that. He says to call it “the criminal justice system” is a misnomer, because “it’s just people doing stuff that has an impact on each other. Talk to a systems engineer and they will tell you there’s no systems-based approach currently because that would require someone taking a broad-based view of what goes on the moment a human being is born to the day they commit their first violent crime and what happens after that crime.” He says cycles of violence are set in motion and no one is looking at the root causes. It’s easier to blame mayors and police chiefs. Morrissey says he was “sabotaged politically” when he tried to push for a systems-based approach in 2008, but he sees more acceptance for the idea now.
Advice for the Next Mayor
Elected officials expect abuse from the public when they sign up for a life in politics – but the extent of that abuse can wear them down. Morrissey says he’s had enough to last a lifetime and is ready for the next chapter in his life. He says “a good lesson for anybody who is going to be an elected official is to stay off Facebook as much as possible, because it’s not a true indicator of the work you are doing. If someone else monitors it, fine, let them tell you if you need to respond to something. Otherwise, it’s just divisive and detrimental.”
In spite of the grief over the past 12 years, Morrissey calls being the mayor of his hometown “the job of a lifetime. I don’t know that I will ever do anything else in my life that will be as rewarding as this job, I also don’t know if I’ll do anything that has been as hard as this job, so it’s one I truly appreciate, it’s been an honor and I thank the voters, those that have supported me, even those who have challenged me, because ultimately, through that challenge, I think we have grown as a community. I’m looking forward to next phase of my life and the transition and doing everything I can to help the next mayor and the next city council to be successful.”