Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Republicans for Rahm? His Night at the Economic Club

Rahm sold out the Hilton Chicago Hotel’s International Ballroom Monday for a speech before the Economic Club. On the dais surrounded by such captains of industry as Lester Crown, Thomas Wilson, Gregory Wasson, Glenn Tilton, the newish mayor started out shaky, occasionally flubbing his lines, his voice rising to resemble his predecessor’s. His reception by the black-tie members of the club and their guests, was chilly at first…

Rahm sold out the Hilton Chicago Hotel’s International Ballroom Monday for a speech before the Economic Club. On the dais surrounded by such captains of industry as Lester Crown, Thomas Wilson, Gregory Wasson, Glenn Tilton, the newish mayor started out shaky, occasionally flubbing his lines, his voice rising to resemble his predecessor’s. His reception by the black-tie members of the club and their guests, was chilly at first; Rahm dubbed it “one percent” applause. His shot at the teachers union was the first crowdpleaser, and applause grew louder as the mayor discussed the 13 schools currently implementing longer days, bitterly opposed by the union, and plans next year to add 250 instructional hours to the schoolday for all schools.

A longtime and reliable source of mine—a member of the club, an acute observer, in attendance at the event—told me in an email, “This crowd hates Obama and would spend gazillions to get rid of him…. Many around my vantage point in the room didn’t applaud much and rarely had smiles.”

The attendees in the room may not have voted for Rahm, but they came out to see him because, after all, he’s the guy on the Fifth Floor, and his policies and decisions impact their bottom lines.

Madison Dearborn Partners CEO John Canning Jr., the club’s just-anointed chairman, made the introduction. In recapping Rahm’s resume, Canning noted that Rahm joined the one percent when he left the Clinton administration in 1998 and returned to Chicago as an investment banker. (Canning didn’t mention the numbers: $16 million-plus in two-plus years relying on his golden Clinton administration Rolodex.) Rahm, in turn, anointed Canning head of “Republicans for Rahm.”

Dressed in a business suit, Rahm took the mic to explain how he would retool the City Colleges of Chicago to better equip the workers that his dais-mates need to staff their companies—like Walgreens, Allstate, etc. It was an important topic. “Let’s be candid,” Rahm said. “Most community colleges teach students what they should have learned in high school.” Malcom X College, he explained, would focus its curriculum on preparing students for careers in healthcare sciences and Olive-Harvey would train students for careers in transportation. Rahm said his plan is to alleviate the “skills gap”—the 100,000 Chicago-area jobs that the CEOs in attendance can’t fill—in a city with 10 percent unemployment, because of a shortage of skilled workers. “In one of the worst recessions in our country’s history the answer is right under our nose—the community college system.” 

By the end of his speech the crowd—whose children, after all, do not avail themselves of the services of the city college system—had warmed up and accepted his warning, “I will not take no for an answer. Any business that stands pat on …change is a business doomed to failure…. People in this room are leaders, not followers.” 

After the speech, scores of people headed for the exits and missed the Q&A that followed—and was far more entertaining because Rahm was charming and funny. He attributed his messing up his remarks to being up “way past” his bedtime (it was around 8:30). In boasting of his ethics reforms, he said, “There is no higher calling than public service,” adding that people who agree and come to work for him “may never join the one percent.” He was animated in describing his plans for the Chicago River, once green with pollution (and not only on St. Patrick’s Day) now the site for his proposed four boathouses for kayaking, canoeing, and sculling. He noted that Chicago has seven more miles of riverfront than lakefront. 

On the question of the Cubs breaking their curse, he joked about the selection of Theo Epstein and his own status as the first Jewish mayor. “Are they losing their minds? Nobody ever has a Jew in sports, what the heck’s going on?”

“Favorite restaurants, north and south?” “You’ve got to be kidding…. We used to go to Glenn’s Diner, a fish restaurant on Montrose, on date nights. And Nightwood down in Pilsen.”

Finally, at 8:45 sharp, came Canning’s last question. “What’s your favorite four-letter word?” Rahm hit it out of the park: “Love.” 

My aforementioned source told me that he was “disappointed for Rahm in those who left before the Q&A, some of whom,” it turns out, “were in Kitty O’Sheas downstairs.”

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