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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Emanuel has shown the vague shape of his proposed solutions, although he is decidedly short on specifics, a sign he is preparing for battle. As a revenue source, the word "casino" is in the air, with the new Trump hotel, jutting, glass-encased, into the sky. Emanuel says he could accept a casino in Chicago, but that drew demands for a referendum from gambling opponents.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Rahm Emanuel: Taking on Chicago
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He told the Field audience he has already moved to slash $75 million from Daley's current budget (Daley has slipped quietly out of the klieg lighting save for a round of neighborhood farewells). He said he wants a frank conversation on the cost side of the city equation. He told the audience he wants everyone's ideas and is not interested in lapsing into the old Chicago way of unleashing tribes against one another.
What he wants from the unions, he said, is what they can give to help him solve the problem. They need to understand that the pension for firemen is in jeopardy. Something has to happen to resolve it now – but not an increase in property taxes, which he resists.
Charter schools that operate under conditions that provide flexibility in collective bargaining are one part of the education solution, he says. But he pointed proudly to success in the state legislature in pushing bills that would give Chicago a longer school day and a longer school year (both of which are now the shortest among big urban districts) and open the door to pushing out tenured teachers who can't do the job.
Parents are a crucial part of the formula for success in education, the new mayor told the Field audience. The city has to find a way to get them more involved in the fortunes of the schools, and in the futures of their own children.
Emanuel is not shy about anything. In an earlier interview, a reporter tried to paint him into the "mayor versus city council" corner, but he would have none of it. He accused the reporter of old thinking and said he wanted to govern in concert and cooperation with the 50 council members, the public employees, the teachers, the parents, the taxpayers, with everyone.
The media picking and poking, a blood sport here, seems mostly to be on hold for the moment. That's in part because a mayor who is not a Daley is such a novelty. Emanuel is like a candidate who fell from the sky and was anointed, much to the chagrin of an abundance of old-fashioned locals who were upended by Daley's sudden decision last year not to seek reelection. No one had time for preparation.
There was nowhere to hide from Emanuel's campaign. At elevated railroad stops early in the morning, at coffee shops after that, at favored lunch places and well on into the day or night, Emanuel, hand out and smiling warmly, might show up anyplace. That was intentional. He said early on that the goal for any mayoral candidate in Chicago is to be out with the people, becoming known. By Feb. 22, it was the rare commuter who didn't have at least passing contact with the persistent Emanuel.
It was not an ideological campaign. Without a lot of specifics, he focused on fixing the city's problems and moving ahead for everyone. In the election, no one else even came close.
He will have to keep reaching out to all the city's various ethnic groups and social classes to rule with any kind of authority. Chicago, like many American cities, is a classic melting pot.
The Germans, then the Irish and Eastern Europeans, the Indians, now the Mexicans and Central Americans and the latest waves of Russians and West Africans all settled here, kept their cultures alive in clearly defined parishes and neighborhoods, yet managed to function as one big city.
Up on Devon Avenue, where Chicago almost runs out of city on the north side, Pakistanis, Indians, Russians, Orthodox Jews, the occasional Chinese restaurateur and butcher selling goat meat or live chickens all live in redolent, prosperous peace. To this day, when you ask someone where they live, the answer is likely to be a Parish name – "St. Ben's" or "Old St. Pat's" or a ward. Only a scratch-and-sniff map could deliver an adequate sense of the kind of ethnic mix that makes up modern Chicago.
It has become fashionable to claim the city faces its worst problems ever as Emanuel takes office. But that seems a tad hyperbolic given Chicago's robust history. Created in the 1830s by bold, greedy visionaries who raised it from a pestilent bog along the lake, the most important part of the town burned to the ground in 1871, but was rapidly rebuilt.