Occupation: Mayor, City of Chicago
By James Ylisela Jr.
Five reasons Rahmbo almost lost this year’s top spot …
1 Two Chicagos.
While he regularly touts the city’s improved economy—rising household incomes, surging construction, booming tourism—Emanuel can’t seem to shake his image as Mayor 1 Percent, who puts downtown corporate interests (think DePaul’s arena) ahead of bettering the lives of everyday residents. Right or wrong, that perception helped tank his approval rating (35 percent last summer) and left him looking seriously vulnerable, if not beatable, in his bid for reelection.
2 Disenchanted black and Latino voters.
Four years ago, with strong backing from Bill Clinton and President Obama, Emanuel won broad support from African Americans and Latinos—a big reason he captured 55 percent of the overall vote in the mayoral primary and avoided a runoff. But among black voters, in particular, his popularity plummeted to a paltry 8 percent last spring, though by December it had rebounded to 40 percent in another poll. His effort to knock black businessman Willie Wilson off the mayoral ballot—quickly abandoned on Christmas Eve—didn’t help, either.
3 Crime capital?
Murders are down, as is overall crime, say the police brass. So why doesn’t it feel that way? One reason: Shootings are up, and in the national media Chicago remains the poster child for violence. Worse, the statistics reveal a widening gap in public safety between black and white neighborhoods.
4 School daze.
The Chicago Teachers Union strike was two and a half years ago, but memories of the first work stoppage in 25 years have hardly faded. Ditto for Emanuel’s decision to close nearly 50 schools, while offering his unflinching support for privately run charters. Many observers believe union president Karen Lewis got the best of Emanuel in their showdown—and in the final agreement that ended the strike—propelling Lewis to the top of the list of potential mayoral challengers before illness sidelined her.
5 Short coattails.
It was no secret that Emanuel and Governor Pat Quinn never got along very well, but Emanuel insisted he was working hard for Quinn and would help him get reelected. Didn’t happen. Low turnout in Chicago and suburban Cook County sank Quinn’s chances; Bruce Rauner captured 20 percent of the Chicago vote and made big gains in suburban Cook County.
… and five things he can do to keep the top spot next year
1 Fix the city’s pensions.
The mayor still has to solve Chicago’s pension problem, a potential political liability. The city faces an unfunded pension mess of $37 billion, but the mayor and the City Council have until 2016 to come up with the dough. That may mean a property tax increase, which the mayor can push through long before he has to go before the voters again in 2019.
2 Bring home the Obama library.
New York? Hawaii? Get real. This is a point of honor—and prestige—for Chicago, and the mayor will gain both if he can close the deal. He’s already personally taken charge of strengthening the University of Chicago’s clumsy proposal by securing Chicago Park District land near the school, while also supporting the University of Illinois at Chicago’s bid. If Emanuel can bring together community residents, park advocates, and the Barack Obama Foundation to win the library campaign, he’ll be the man of the moment.
3 Get real about crime.
Critics (and this magazine) have said that the mayor has been more concerned with managing perceptions of crime than actually doing much to curb it. In a second term, he can really show that he’s serious, not by just bragging about the city’s dropping crime numbers but by attacking the problems where they’re worst: in the neighborhoods.
4 Spread the economic development love beyond the Loop.
The mayor concedes that job growth has yet to be felt citywide, especially on the South and West Sides. He can turn things around by producing economic gains that people in those neighborhoods can actually see, including infrastructure improvements, loans for small businesses, and tax incentives to create good-paying jobs in hard-hit areas.
5 Be the Rahm from his campaign commercials.
Emanuel’s famously blunt, brusque, foulmouthed, take-charge style won him some early admirers. But it also soured many Chicagoans, who took it as a sign that Emanuel ignored their concerns. The mayor may not be the warm and fuzzy guy you see in those campaign ads, but if he can do some real fence mending this year and show Chicagoans he is more than a LaSalle Street big-business mayor—hiking the city’s minimum wage is a good start—he can solidify his power for years to come.
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