Occupation: Mayor, City of Chicago
“We got the longer school day. Done! We’ve been debating grid garbage for a decade. Done! We’ve been debating competitive bidding. Done! We talked about bringing recycling throughout the whole city. Done!”
No one can accuse the most powerful man in Chicago of being shy about his accomplishments of the past year. Sitting for an interview in January in his office on the fifth floor of City Hall—he has banished the stodgy Daley-era decor and replaced it with a more contemporary Room & Board look—he rattled off a litany of victories with an assault-rifle-like delivery. (Banning assault rifles, by the way, is yet another task on his to-do list.) He stopped only when he noticed that he was running out of fingers.
The ultimate political shark in a town full of big fish, the mayor lives by the axiom “Move forward or die.” Notoriously impatient, with a killer competitive streak, Rahm devours—or at least attempts to chew up—anybody standing in his way. He insists that it’s all for the betterment of Chicago. Of course, his critics, who call him a dictator, don’t see it that way.
It was one of those critics, Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis (No. 24), who threw down the most serious challenge to Emanuel’s power in the past year. The seven-day teachers’ strike she orchestrated last September—the first in Chicago in 25 years—proved that there are chinks even in Rahm’s armor. He wound up conceding on pay raises (a blow to the city’s finances) as well as on health insurance matters and merit pay tied to student test scores. But he retained almost complete discretion on school closings and prevailed on his top priority: a longer school day (seven hours) and school year (180 days). “This is a moral issue,” Emanuel says, raising his voice. “We either have the shortest day in America or we get our kids what every other child is getting. . . . Whenever I’m out, I get parents thanking me.”
The other force that revealed the limits of the mayor’s power in 2012 was crime. Specifically, the city’s 506 murders, a 16 percent increase from 2011. That tragic toll—and the bad press that followed nationwide—chagrined Emanuel deeply. “We are making progress, but not fast enough,” he says, furrowing his brow. “There are bigger forces than even the police force and the mayor, but I am responsible and accountable.”
Lewis and crime aside, Rahm racked up enough significant wins over the past 12 months to cement his position atop this list. In addition to the undeniable victories he touted at the start of the interview, there’s his second city budget, balanced and nearly unanimously approved without property tax hikes; commitments for nearly 25,000 new jobs from 70 companies; an overhaul of the City Colleges of Chicago; a widely praised and problem-free NATO summit; and what he calls his “kids-first agenda,” which has expanded camps and afterschool programming.
Lest you think the mayor lacks a softer side, he singles out a squishy accomplishment as one of his biggest: boosting the morale of Chicagoans. “Nobody thinks [anymore that] our challenges are insurmountable or that we don’t have the political will or capacity to [fix] them,” he says. “That’s a major game changer.”
As for the rest of 2013, Emanuel says his big goals include cranking up the city’s quality of life. He’s planning more parks and recreational facilities (“when we’re done, every child will be within a ten-minute walk to a park”), more libraries, new buses, and freshened-up el stations. A cycling enthusiast, he is practically spinning in place about the prospect of adding 50 miles of additional bike lanes to the 58 he has already built. He hints, too, at what he says will be one of his “big legacy projects”: the revitalization of the Chicago River with a vibrant downtown river walk and promenade).
For Emanuel, it’s all about keeping moving. Anyone in his way had better move over.
Photograph: Taylor Castle