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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

What Would It Mean for Chicago If Rahm Quits After Two Terms?

He doesn’t seem to be a mayor-for-life, so what happens if this is the last time Chicago votes for Rahm for mayor?

Rahm at a Casimir Pulaski event on March 2, 2015.  Photo: Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune

Here’s another way to look at the April 7 Rahm/Chuy mayoral runoff: This could be the last chance Chicagoans have to vote for Rahm—at least for mayor.

This viewpoint of mine, I should say first, is predicated on my long-held belief that if Rahm wins next month, he will not run again; he’ll be up and out when his second term ends in 2019, if he lasts that long. He will not be a mayor-for-life.

(One caveat: My opinion is not based on anything Rahm has told me, since he has not responded to my many interview requests. My latest, sent on March 9 to his campaign press secretary, Steve Mayberry, has still gone unanswered.)

Rahm has bigger things than Chicago on his mind, such as the White House, or the Naval Observatory (now occupied by Joe Biden and vice presidents before him), or even a major Cabinet post—unlike the Daleys, who held fast to the conviction that there was no better job in America or even the world than mayor of Chicago. When I interviewed the late Congressman Dan Rostenkowski in 2010, he told me that Richard J. turned down Cabinet positions and other big job offers and wondered why any sane person would think he’d ever want to trade Chicago for D.C.

If Rahm wins on April 7, he will have saved his reputation by avoiding the humiliation of being a one-termer. If he decides this next term will be his last, he will no longer have to waste time worrying what his constituents think of him and his policies and how that might play when they next enter the polling booth. He can do what he wants. He can revert to real Rahm, who got stuff done for Rich Daley, then Bill Clinton, and then Barack Obama.

On the plus side, a reelected Mayor Rahm can force down Chicagoans’ throats the bitter medicine needed to fix the city’s malignant and metastasizing finances. He has already warned that without help from the General Assembly and his buddy Gov. Bruce Rauner, property taxes will “explode.” 

And well they might, but at least Rahm won’t have to worry about his future as Chicago mayor exploding along with them. He can look objectively and clearly down that dark municipal finance tunnel and make deep cuts to popular programs, take a wrecking ball to union contracts, and retain revenue-producing programs such as those hated red-light cameras—anything necessary to get to some light at the end of that tunnel. When the squawking and squealing start, he can simply say, “This is what’s needed, so I’m doing it, and by doing it we will avoid the abyss of bankruptcy. If you don’t like it, fucking move to the suburbs or to Portland, or wherever the fuck you want. Because if we don’t fix the pensions and bring down debt, you’re not going to have a city that anyone would want to live in.”

There is great freedom in not having to face voters. Ask President Obama, who has found his footing and his voice via executive orders in a manner he wouldn’t have dared tried before his reelection campaign in 2012. He’s done with voters now and he is pushing through the progressive agenda, both domestic and foreign, that he has always wanted but could never admit to, much less impose.

On the bad side, if voters in 2015 have hesitated to vote for Rahm because of his arrogance and his undisguised icy disdain, they’re likely to get even more of that next term: the means-justify-the-ends Rahm who, until he became mayor, would say or do whatever was necessary to achieve his goals.

As editorial board members like to write, “on the other hand,” a reelected Rahm Emanuel free of giving a [insert profanity here] will be unrestrained. If he was rude to mental health activists last week who were pressing him about closing clinics, you haven’t seen anything yet. Members of the City Council’s Progressive Reform Caucus who endorsed Chuy Garcia, watch out! Vindictive, you bet. Purveyors of frozen fish might want to start stockpiling their product. The controlled rage so audible and visible in Mayor Rahm’s first-term exchanges with reporters and critics, will no long be controlled.

The “Fuck you, Lewis” that he unloaded on the CTU President during a private meeting in 2011 was heard across 50 wards, and seemed particularly to offend older black women. Pundits pointed to it as a possible reason for his depressed numbers last month—relative to 2011—among African Americans. That dropoff is the most important reason for his failure to get to 50 percent plus one vote; the reason why he has to participate in this miserable, embarrassing runoff. Undoubtedly Rahm regrets those three toxic words, but, once reelected, he can pack those regrets away.

And if he has a national race or appointed position in mind, voters will be attracted, I believe, to Rahm unleashed; a tough guy, even if he borders on thugishness—think Chris Christie before Bridgegate. Rahm can run on the promise that he tells people what they need to hear, not what they want to hear; that he has the insight, savvy, and courage to identify problems and fix them. When Rahm was a congressman his constituents, who happily sent him back every two years, appreciated his “I get stuff done” style. That style—profanity and alarming temper notwithstanding—would almost certainly have catapulted him into the position of Speaker of the House. He’s off that track now, but when he exits City Hall’s 5th floor, another track—likely one with even more prestige—awaits him.

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

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