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.

Ann Hermes staff photo/John Kehe staff illustration
This is the focus article in the May 16 weekly edition of the Christian Science Monitor.

It is hard to follow a Daley into the mayor's office here. There is no instruction book. Richard M. has been sitting there for 22 years, a little longer than his father, Richard J., sat in the mayor's office when he was creating "the city that works."

Rahm Emanuel, scheduled to take office May 16, knows that well, and with the blush fading from a first-round victory in the mayor's race on Feb. 22, he is moving with characteristic aggressiveness to put his stamp on the office.

That is prudent, because the nation will be watching. With its pension deficits, its billion-dollar budget shortfall, its troubled public schools, and its bubbling array of social challenges, Chicago may well become the laboratory for addressing the problems that plague big cities in hard times.

But if anyplace in America has a good track record for attacking problems, it sits here in its sparkling architectural glory, flat in the center of the nation's heartland. Chicago may be the most American place in America, forged by an array of brutally efficient moguls and an army of immigrants who built the railroads, chopped up and shipped pigs and beef to feed the nation, tapped mayors who built enduring political traditions that ran from vile to visionary and left a legacy of prosperity across generations.

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Now comes Mr. Emanuel and his "moving forward" mantra – "Together, as one city with one future" – which he first tossed out on election night. It echoes on all the news shows, the theme he probably hits most often when he is asked about his plans.

He is, perhaps even more so than any other Chicago mayor, a pragmatist with a question at the center of the administration he is about to lead: "What do we need and where can I get it?"

Despite the city's reputation as a solid blue Democratic political playground (there have been no Republican mayors since Big Bill Thompson, the most corrupt in the city's history, was dumped during the Great Depression), Chicago seems to work best when political labels are ignored and real dealing steps in. That pragmatic philosophy fits the city like a good winter boot.

Chicago remains a segregated city by race (not as segregated as that description would suggest), but it was segregated by nationality long before African-Americans began arriving in vast numbers in the early 20th century. Emanuel and every successful politician before him reaching back into the 19th century recognized that reality.

No one wins in Chicago without building coalitions that stretch across every description imaginable, the very process Emanuel used in structuring his February victory. He captured 3 of every 4 wards. Keeping that connection with all the slices in this most ethnic American city will help determine whether Emanuel succeeds, or succumbs to dreaded one-termer's syndrome.

This is not yet Emanuel's city. No one erases the legacy of a Daley very quickly or very easily in a Chicago that is wedded to both their names and their styles.

Even the younger Daley, the outgoing Richard M., was just marginally regal enough, without the polish, to make it seem that he was at the top of a machine, although that was not actually the case. Where his father, Richard J., "the Boss," was as much of a brute as he needed to be and had lots of levers to pull to prove it, Richard M. was almost wonky, more a technician of city government than commander of it.

Still, Emanuel is no neophyte to Chicago's ways. In Congress, he represented the Fifth District, which includes Old Town, Lincoln Park, Lakeview, and Uptown, where the city stores much of its most delicious real estate and influence. He raised money for Richard M.'s campaign. He was a confidant for legions of Chicago politicians, among them President Obama.

He made millions as an investment banker after his years in the Clinton White House. He knows where all the unmarked political graves and land mines are. He's going to need all that knowledge, and more, not to mention the pepper he delights in bringing to every job he has held.

Emanuel will have to come in charging, his reputation for toughness and aggression on full display, says Paul Green, a political scientist at Roosevelt University in Chicago and a stalwart on the mayoral watch for many years. "The pretty card has been played," says Dr. Green of Daley's determined campaign to beautify what had once been the grittiest city in America with parks, flowerpots, rooftop gardens, and bike paths. The city sparkles, but the problems loom just beneath the surface.

"Now he's going to have to deal with the financial stuff. That's where it's at," says Green. "I think the big thing with Emanuel is, can he keep intimidating people? I think his intimidation skills are stupendous."

"It's a weak mayor/strong council situation, so the only way you get the council to not act like a bunch of idiots is to intimidate them. I think that is what you have to do, and blowing your top at the correct time is a real advantage.... The city council's the Pips and Rahm's going to be Gladys Knight."

Green, who co-wrote "The Mayors: The Chicago Political Tradition," believes the only time the city progresses is when it has a strong leader in city hall. Throughout history, when the city council was in control, Chicago "went down the tubes."

Traditionally, it has been all but impossible to weld the city's 50 wards – whose aldermen make up one of the largest city councils in the country – into a single identity because they remain as ethnic and unique today as they did during the Great Depression, when Mayor Anton Cermak created the first genuine Democratic machine.

"You could never have a real vision for the city, or a real reformer, because the people's idea of reform stopped at the boundary line of their own ward or parish," Green says. "But once Cermak got in and that machine got rolling, it was a democracy – but they played with a different card. They showed that machines could provide services as part of the machine, just as long as it was your guys providing the services."

Then and now, fear has a lot to do with it.

Both Daleys became forces of nature. This was very effective over the four decades father and son held the mayor's office, interrupted for just a while after the old man's death during a frenzied interregnum that included Chicago's first woman mayor, Jane Byrne, and its first black mayor, Harold Washington.

"The mayor has to crack the whip," Green says. "That used to be Emanuel. But now he's acting like Mother Teresa. I don't know how long that is going to last."

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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