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How Rahm Emanuel might reinvent Chicago politics

He takes over a city that will test his legendary toughness and may become a laboratory for addressing the problems that plague urban areas in hard times.

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Mother Teresa, actually, with a website, a top-notch staff helping him to fill positions, and a valuable capacity for saying less than you might think you are hearing. He has called for adding 1,000 police officers, for instance, which sounds good until one realizes it's going to be hard to find the money for them. Also, crime numbers are way down.

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But gang violence remains the rotting core of otherwise impressive crime statistics and the media driver behind perceptions. The police are said to be unhappy with the city's leadership, too. Even a couple hundred new cops would help with that.

Chicago has been getting little tastes of how Emanuel will govern since the election. His every policy decision and new hire is proclaimed on his new website, which looks a lot like the kind of website Mr. Obama used in his campaign.

Emanuel has collected an array of key aides in education, transportation, finance, and public safety; pushed them to the front; and let them speak weeks before he took office. He has said he did not want the city to think he was letting the moment pass without giving an idea of where his administration would go.

Veteran Chicago business columnist David Greising wrote that the new mayor went outside to fill most of those jobs, an important political message that will help separate him from the legacy of Daley, who turned to insiders 22 years ago to fill his first administration.

Emanuel has been magnanimous in victory. For now, the character who played the bad boy's role in the Obama administration – that vulgar chief of staff always ready to unleash a practiced collection of obscenities to make his point and help push through monumental legislation on health care and finance – is somewhere off stage. No muttered phrases, no surprising gestures come from the mayor-elect.

That might have worked in a more stuffy Washington. But obscenities won't get you very far in Chicago, where they are generally used by some people as punctuation. Besides, there will be plenty of time for tough talking later.

Just now, the man who swept from the president's staff into the mayor's office on a $14 million wave of campaign contributions (no one else came anywhere near in that category) is the personification of sweetness and light, at least in public, which may be smart. Historically, one of the most important challenges for Chicago mayors is to be liked. A forgiving electorate will go a long way toward helping a mayor who is liked and who keeps the place plowed in the winter and sparkling in the summer.

Still, it may be fortunate that Emanuel was classically trained in ballet as a youth because he is walking on eggshells in some respects. He has to be careful not to load too much blame on Daley for the city's problems, even as he moves quickly to identify them and present some solutions.

Bruce Dold, chief of the Chicago Tribune's editorial board, sat with Emanuel for a long Web-streamed interview in front of a packed audience at the Field Museum a few weeks after the victory and a few weeks before the swearing in.

Emanuel was the perfect opposite of his tongue-tied and occasionally eruptive predecessor. He was so comfortable he stopped at one point to pull up his socks. He made a lot of jokes, smiled abundantly, said his mom was happy with his victory, and at every opportunity underlined the challenges that will define his first 100 days in office: There is a billion-dollar deficit, the pension system is nearly broken, the school system still struggles despite "reforms," the transit system is wobbly, and, worst of all, someone else swept in a long time ago to pick all the low-hanging tax-and-revenue fruit.

In short, he is stepping into a mess.


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