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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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Chicago survived wave after wave of truly creative, defining political corruption. A political convention turned into a police riot in 1968. It was indeed a racial tinderbox in the Civil Rights Era.

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Before that, two of its favorite mayors, Carter H. Harrison, who called the city his bride and said it was destined for greatness, and Cermak, builder of the modern political machine, were assassinated, the first at the close of the great 1893 World's Fair and the second in Miami during a visit with President Roosevelt in 1933.

Chicago survived all that and thrived. Along the way, it created one of the nation's most engaging skylines, nurtured too many social and progressive movements to list, and became the home of a collection of great universities. In 2008, it gave the nation its first black president.

Beyond the cliché of Al Capone and liquor-turf machine-gun battles during Prohibition, Chicago's big legacy may be machine politics. Yet Emanuel will not be able to turn to the structure invented by Cermak, and perfected by the first Daley, even if he wanted to. Lawsuits and investigations and reform have limited the ability of the machine to operate.

Power now resides in the world of finance, being able to raise money for big development and civic projects, not in the old world of favors for ward bosses and precinct captains. It remains a place where an aggressive US attorney can still make a name and scratch lots of notches into his gun, perhaps by settling on rumors that a governor once known as "Elvis" was trying to market a US Senate seat. But the schemes are not as transparent or as abundant as they were in the day when patronage provided thousands of job opportunities, and payoffs came in brown paper bags.

One respected political consultant, Don Rose, says Emanuel has the chance to make a final break with the felonious politics of the past, one Richard M. Daley could not make because of his connection with his father and the big machine he constructed. "We don't need any of the old-school politics here," Mr. Rose says. "Daley could not leave it behind.... Most of it was not necessary for reelection, and we don't think Daley was dollar dishonest, but the old ways were just not necessary."

In Rose's view, although no one has accused either of the Daleys of profiting from public office, both of them were too astute to be unaware of corruption around them. Those who got in trouble under the latest Daley fell from grace. Rose argues the message from the very beginning (and the message Emanuel should send) should have been: "Don't do that. I will not accept that."

It's the difference between an ethos that says not even the appearance of impropriety will be tolerated and the need to occasionally throw some embarrassed miscreant under the bus.

"Take the chance of being a one-term mayor by doing the right thing about economics, by doing the right thing with the schools, by doing the right thing about patronage waste – take that chance," says Rose. "My sense is that the people will stand behind you if you do that."

Charles M. Madigan is presidential writer in residence at Roosevelt University in Chicago.

IN PICTURES: Taking on Chicago

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