Can Rahm Emanuel Fix Chicago’s Problems?

THE NEW MAN ON FIVE: In his first few months as mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel has moved at breakneck speed to tackle long-neglected problems and drag a torpid bureaucracy into the 21st century. But the biggest battles lie ahead. Does he have what it takes to save the city?

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Rahm Emanuel
“I feel the sense of responsibility,” says Emanuel. “I think the public has expectations. I don’t want to let ’em down.”
Rahm Emanuel removes his blue suit jacket, puts on dark sunglasses, and hops into the back of his black SUV. He squirts a blob of Purell sanitizer onto his palms—virtually a job requirement for glad-handing politicians—and then takes a big swig of bottled water.

Emanuel is slight of build, but his cocksure swagger makes him seem bigger. He has a tanned complexion, with salt-and-pepper hair—mostly salt—cropped fairly short and perfectly coifed, as if he just left the barbershop. Deep, dark bags encircle his eyes, the result of little sleep and the breakneck schedule he keeps. But right now he is feeling loose and relaxed—like a school kid who knows he aced a test. Which he has just done, more or less. The new mayor, 46 days in office at this point, has spent the past hour fielding questions submitted via Facebook during a live televised town hall meeting filmed at Kennedy-King College in Englewood. He pretty much nailed every question without breaking a sweat and artfully dodged two or three trickier ones.

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Rock music plays on the radio in the background, just the way the mayor likes it, as we start the nine-mile drive back downtown to City Hall. Emanuel reclines a bit in his seat, one of the few opportunities he has in his long workday to relax. He betrays a slight annoyance at my presence in the back of the SUV—as if he were unhappy at being dragged into this car ride. Famously prickly, Emanuel at first spits out staccato answers to my questions. But the more he talks, the more revved up he gets, and pretty soon he is waxing expansive on the joys of the job and on all of the things he wants to accomplish in his first 100 days, first year, and first term—most of it boilerplate stuff he repeated ad nauseum during the campaign.

Suddenly he practically leaps out of his seat. From his window, he notices that we are approaching a private road that runs through a tunnel at McCormick Place—a route that the mayor’s security detail sometimes uses as a shortcut to the Loop.

“All right!” Emanuel calls out excitedly as we enter the tunnel. “I’m like Batman! I’m going down the Bat Cave! The Bat Road!”

He turns to Chris Mather, his communications director, seated next to him, and cracks, “We’re going to rename it. I want a sign made—‘Bat Road.’”

“We got rid of those,” Mather replies, in the obliging straight-woman role. (A couple of weeks earlier, Emanuel had put an end to displaying the mayor’s name on city signs, a practice, he explained, that wasn’t worth the cost, given the city’s financial woes.)

“Are you kidding? I can donate a sign,” says Emanuel, who likes to have the last word.

We pull up to a gate at the tunnel’s entrance. “Music louder!” Emanuel calls out to his driver. “This is the Bat Road!”

Chicago is a damsel in distress, in serious need of a superhero. The city is losing residents—more than 200,000 over the past decade, according to the latest census—and, just as significantly, many thousands of businesses and jobs with them—more than 30,000 between 2009 and 2010 alone. Not only is Chicago at risk of becoming the fourth-largest U.S. city, slipping behind Houston, it is careening toward bankruptcy. Next year, the city will be $635 million in the hole, not including unfunded pension obligations. Double that if you count the more than $700 million of red ink from Chicago Public Schools, which Emanuel also oversees but whose budget is separate from the city’s. And let’s not even get started on the Chicago Transit Authority, which is in similarly poor fiscal health.

Beyond the dire finances, there is also the stagnant housing market, an economy that is still in the tank, and a murder rate that is three times as high as that of New York City, which has nearly triple Chicago’s population. For some time now, the city’s spirits have seemed lower than the 76-foot hole dug for the never-built Chicago Spire. That gaping void has become a sad monument for a city that is not on the move but on pause—or worse, spiraling downward.

Rahm Emanuel wants to be Chicago’s savior, its Batman. “I feel the sense of responsibility,” he tells me. “I think the public has expectations. I don’t want to let ’em down.”

Since taking over as Chicago’s 46th mayor in May, the 51-year-old Emanuel has projected energy, urgency, and confidence. He has brought a more professional, West Wing–like management style to City Hall, which had felt increasingly anachronistic in the waning years of Richard M. Daley’s reign. (Emanuel’s office wasn’t even wired for Internet service when he moved in.) With brass-tacks candor, he has sent a clear and unmistakable message that the old order—presided over by Daley, with whom Emanuel will inevitably be compared—is gone. As the deputy mayor, Mark Angelson, said to union officials who were locked in a battle this summer with Emanuel’s administration over work-rule changes and layoffs: “There’s a new sheriff in town.”

These days, City Hall has the feel of a hot start-up. The suite of offices on the fifth floor where the mayor and his top staff work crackles with high-voltage—if somewhat chaotic—energy. Spend time around the mayor’s office and you can’t miss the small army of 20- and 30-somethings (some of them returning Obama administration veterans) in power suits, clutching their Starbucks cups or BlackBerrys, bouncing around the hallways or busily at work in a hive of cubicles. It is a marked contrast to the perceptible malaise and inertia of Daley’s last years, in which new ideas seemed few and far between and there was a palpable sense of an administration merely treading water.

Emanuel’s changes are more than just stylistic; they are generational. He is astute enough to realize that the old bedrock principle of “good government is good politics”—especially the practice of promising city jobs in exchange for campaign work—is outmoded and unsustainable. The patronage and cronyism that were permissible in the past, he knows, are not only bad government but also very bad politics at a time when Chicago’s unemployment rate tops 9 percent and many residents are exasperated by the corruption, waste, and selfishness that flourish here. Through his rhetoric and actions, Emanuel has positioned himself as a change agent for the future—despite his obvious debts to Chicago’s political past. “We aren’t our parents’ Chicago anymore,” he tells me during one of our interviews. “That’s a good thing. We appreciate what our parents did, but this is different.”

To underscore the point, Emanuel has led a full-on assault against the “status quo”—two words, he has said, he is “banning” from the vernacular of city government. What is the status quo? It is years’ worth of unbalanced budgets, patronage-padded payrolls, and insider deals; a chronically failing public school system; a dysfunctional and, literally, crumbling mass transit system; an undermanned and outgunned police force; and an entrenched and corrupt political culture. At the everyday level, it is waste (three city workers needed to change one streetlight bulb), Rube Goldberg–like inefficiency (40 different firms to process and collect checks), and insider privilege (four taxpayer-funded bodyguards for one alderman, Edward Burke). It is 1,400-plus shootings a year, a high-school graduation rate of 50 percent, and a Red Line train that has difficulty getting from Howard Street to 95th Street trouble-free.

“Some people were telling me, ‘Rahm, don’t run for mayor, why would you want this job?’” says Emanuel. “Well, I love this city. I think it can achieve great things, and I’m ready to put my resources to that.”

One could be forgiven for wondering if Emanuel is some kind of masochist. He spent five years—an eternity when measured in doglike West Wing time—as Bill Clinton’s chief political adviser, remaining through the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the subsequent impeachment saga; he returned to the White House with Barack Obama, smack-dab in the midst of the Great Recession and with two taxing and unpopular wars overseas; and he wanted to be Chicago’s mayor, despite the “shit sandwich,” as Emanuel has privately described the mess, bequeathed to him by his predecessor.

With a self-assuredness that borders on cockiness, Emanuel is confident that he has the right plan and an able leadership team in place to turn things around. A fiery competitor, he seems to want to constantly one-up his predecessor—not necessarily to rub Daley’s nose in it, but because he is never satisfied. (He has a to-do list that he says his staff “lives in fear of.”)

The political-operative-turned-commentator Paul Begala, one of Emanuel’s close friends, gave an apropos description of then congressman Emanuel to Rolling Stone: “He’s got this big old pair of brass balls, and you can just hear ’em clanging when he’s walking down the halls of Congress.”

That same clanging sound now reverberates throughout City Hall, as well as across all 228 square miles that lie within Chicago’s city limits—and can even be heard 200 miles farther south, down I-55, in Springfield.

Emanuel is clearly relishing the role. “This is the best job I’ve had, and I’ve had great jobs,” he tells me. “I jokingly say—and it’s a joke—I always thought it was a great job, but if I knew it was as great as it is, I’d have challenged Rich [Daley] four years ago.”

So far, everything for Emanuel has gone almost like clockwork, perhaps too smoothly. But this is still the prelude, the honeymoon, and the big battles are about to really begin. For starters, his first budget, for 2012, is due in the coming weeks, and he’ll have to somehow erase the city’s $635 million deficit with a lot less money coming in from the state and federal governments. Complicating this task, too, he has promised to do so without raising taxes, cutting police officers, or relying on one-time revenues: tactics that Daley used to balance his recent budgets but that Emanuel calls “cheating.” The painful choices he will have to make are no doubt going to be unpopular with many, especially the unions representing city workers and teachers. Next May, Emanuel will face another huge test when the NATO and G-8 summit meetings, which he helped bring here, come to town, creating a host of security challenges.

Meanwhile, he has his 71-page list of promises he says he intends to keep, come hell or high water. Some are smaller tasks, some are seemingly intractable large-scale problems. But just months into office, one could wonder: Did Emanuel set expectations too high? Can he keep up the frenzied pace? And will his sharp-elbowed manner wear well over time?

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Photograph: Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune

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