“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.
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?
* * *
Photograph: Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune
On the last day of June, the day of the Facebook town hall, I was invited to ride along with Emanuel. I was instructed to meet the mayor and his entourage beforehand at the Sheraton, where Emanuel was spending the morning schmoozing with CEOs and government officials who were in town for a Clinton Global Initiative conference. As I waited for Emanuel in the lobby in front of Shula’s Steak House, where the mayor had dropped by to speak to a group of UBS bankers, Mather, the communications director, approached me.
“Stay close,” she cautioned. “When he moves, we move. Fast!”
Sure enough, Emanuel soon charged out of the restaurant’s glass doors, like a racehorse bolting free of the paddock, blowing past me with a curt “Hello.”
To say Emanuel’s first few months in office have been similarly fast paced would be an understatement. Less than an hour after being sworn in, he had already signed six executive orders to reform some of the city’s ethics rules and cut $75 million from the 2011 budget. Hardly a day has passed since his inauguration—since Election Day, really—without Emanuel announcing some new policy or program. “At any given moment there seems to be six Mayor Emanuels announcing six different initiatives,” the New York Times columnist David Brooks observed in late June.
Notoriously impatient, Emanuel says he wants to go even faster. “If you think this is fast, wait—we’re going to pick up the pace,” he boasts. He is so focused on the job at hand and in such a hurry to get things done that once, when Sean Parker, the billionaire founding president of Facebook, was in town and was taken to meet him, Emanuel, according to a witness, hurried by him without stopping, barely even looking back to tell Parker, “I can’t talk to you now—I’ve got work to do.” Parker, incidentally, had cut Emanuel a $100,000 check for his mayoral candidacy.
Emanuel has already racked up significant legislative successes in both the City Council and in the Statehouse (not unlike how, as chief of staff for President Barack Obama, he led the charge on Capitol Hill to win approval for funding for the Troubled Asset Relief Program [TARP] and the health care overhaul legislation). He also cleaned house at the Chicago Board of Education, replacing all seven members, and eliminated and consolidated city departments. He took away credit cards from city workers and cut the lucrative stipends for two city boards and commissions, and he ordered a review of the pay for all appointees. He has used his connections to court companies—from United Airlines and Walgreens to Motorola Solutions and Chase—and to lure jobs, 4,200 of them and counting, into the city. He redeployed 650 police officers from desk jobs to heavy-crime areas and partially privatized and expanded the city’s recycling program. The list goes on.
Emanuel’s frenetic pace is reminiscent of the small-ball brand of politics he championed in the Obama administration and, years earlier, in the Clinton White House, when he spearheaded efforts to pass NAFTA, the crime bill, and welfare reform: a guiding philosophy of doing a lot of accomplishable things, one step at a time, that add up to a much bigger record of accomplishment. The little victories create a sense of momentum—or, as Emanuel likes to say, a feeling that “confidence breeds capability.”
It appears to be working. Emanuel’s job performance has won widespread plaudits—so much so that he is already generating 2016 presidential speculation. (Emanuel dismisses such talk in typical fashion. When, for instance, one reporter asked him a day before his inauguration if he had presidential ambitions, Emanuel brandished his middle finger at the reporter and said, “That’s the dumbest thing in the world.”) Practically wherever he goes, passersby want to shake his hand or give him a high-five, or they hold up their phones to snap pictures. Part of this reaction certainly has to do with his celebrity. Since his stint as White House chief of staff, he has been one of the most visible figures in American politics—even satirized on Saturday Night Live.
Emanuel is not a natural retail politician. He does not have Bill Clinton’s gift of feel-your-pain empathy or Barack Obama’s rhetorical flourishes. But he is a workhorse, and during the campaign and as mayor, he has spent untold hours at el stops, grocery stores, firehouses, and churches across the city, pressing the flesh and, more important, just listening to what’s on residents’ minds. He has also reached out to Chicagoans through Facebook and Twitter and through websites that his office has set up to solicit feedback and ideas. He has reportedly even personally called some residents who offered ideas that intrigued him.
So far, Emanuel has been rewarded for his efforts, earning glowing press and, more significantly, support from the public. An internal poll conducted by his political shop in late August showed a job approval rating of 79 percent, huge numbers by political standards. (Another poll, taken in June, showed similar results.)
His popularity was on full display one sunshine-filled Saturday morning in mid-August, at the Bud Billiken Parade in Bronzeville. Upon his arrival, Emanuel was mobbed by paradegoers. Before the festivities began, an alderman, Walter Burnett, followed Emanuel around like a pestering little brother. “Can I walk with you?” Burnett kept asking. “I don’t run this show,” Emanuel told him. Emanuel took a hero’s stroll—actually a jog—down the two-mile route along King Drive, zigzagging from one side to the other to shake hands, kiss babies, and soak up the adulation from spectators shouting, “Rahm!” and “We love you!”
At one point along the route, when Emanuel ran over to hug and high-five a group in the crowd, I overheard one police officer tell another, “He ain’t like Daley, huh?”
Emanuel has a joke about how he can tell if he’s popular or not: “My test of this—my joke—is when [people] wave, all five fingers are still up in the air. You always know how you’re doing whether they drop any of those fingers.”
* * *
Not that there haven’t been stumbles or embarrassments. For one, Emanuel’s otherwise flawless unveiling of his cabinet faltered when it mattered, in his two most important appointments: his choices for school superintendent and police superintendent. Emanuel scrambled into damage-control mode after Jean-Claude Brizard, his pick to head up Chicago Public Schools, came under heavy fire for exaggerated graduation rates at the school district in Rochester, New York, that he had just left and for two federal discrimination lawsuits filed against Brizard during his three-year tenure. Was there a flaw in the mayor-elect’s vetting process? the local press wondered. Similarly, a week after Emanuel chose Garry McCarthy, the police chief of Newark, New Jersey, as Chicago’s new police superintendent, the U.S. Justice Department announced that it was launching an investigation into hundreds of complaints that the Newark police force had violated civil rights—including false arrest, discrimination, and excessive force—and simply swept the allegations under the rug.
Emanuel also took criticism when, on Memorial Day, city and police officials abruptly shut down North Avenue Beach, citing excessive heat. (It was 88 degrees that day.) News reports soon surfaced casting doubt on the official story. It turned out that the police had gotten a slew of 911 calls about gang fights at the beach, and many people suspect that Emanuel and McCarthy cleared the area not on account of the weather but because they didn’t want to suffer the negative publicity that would ensue if the violence got out of hand.
Then there’s the story Emanuel likes to repeat (he did so with me at least twice, and I heard him tell it again at other public outings) about how, during a classroom visit to South Loop Elementary, an inquisitive first grader asked him about his proposal to lengthen the school day and school year. The mayor was so impressed by the little boy’s question that he invited the child to join him at the bill-signing ceremony a couple of weeks later. The part he doesn’t mention: His office invited the wrong student, a girl, who stood with Emanuel at the event. “Oops!” read the Sun-Times headline the next day.
Emanuel’s rush to make his mark is in part self-serving: He wants to escape Daley’s long shadow as quickly as possible. He has a tough, if not impossible, act to follow. Love him or hate him, Daley was a transformative mayor. For nearly a quarter of a century, he changed Chicago in ways large (Millennium Park) and small (wrought-iron fences), and he helped keep the city from becoming another Rust Belt casualty.
Daley and Emanuel go way back. They are political allies and personal friends. A fresh-faced Emanuel rose to political prominence as the chief fundraiser for Daley’s successful mayoral campaign in 1989, and many years later, in 2002, Daley’s political muscle helped Emanuel win his congressional seat.
Early on during Emanuel’s transition as mayor, when a reporter wondered if he was “walking a tightrope” in his comments about Daley, Emanuel just grinned—or maybe he was gritting his teeth—and cracked, “Thank God I had some ballet training.” He quickly changed the subject.
In private settings, though, Emanuel has been more candid, says one close supporter who asked not to be named. According to the supporter, Emanuel once kvetched to him about how the city was in worse shape than he had originally thought. “Rahm feels there was a lot broken that no one was calling Rich on,” the supporter tells me. “But he thinks it doesn’t do any good to say, ‘Look at the mess [Daley] got us in.’”
Some among the political cognoscenti have tried to read between the lines of Emanuel’s rhetoric about the city’s problems and have concluded that he is attempting to pin the blame on Daley, subtly, of course. In late July, for instance, when Emanuel released his administration’s report on the financial health of Chicago—a highly damning analysis of the city’s fiscal stewardship over the previous ten years—James Warren, a columnist for the Chicago News Cooperative, described the report as “the equivalent of a superficially alluring velvet shiv” stuck into Daley’s back.
Others allege that people in the new administration—possibly even Emanuel himself—have been going out of their way to feed the press stories to protect the new mayor from being battered over anything remotely scandalous that might have occurred on his predecessor’s watch.
A prominent Chicago political insider, for one, points to a Sun-Times article published in early June that revealed that Daley’s son, Patrick, had collected $708,999 from a Chicago-based wireless Internet company less than a year after the company signed a 2006 contract with the city to provide Wi-Fi at Midway and O’Hare. The article was based on newly obtained company documents.
“After all these years trying to catch the mayor’s kid’s fingers in the cookie jar, some information suddenly becomes available?” the insider asks rhetorically. “It was just too convenient. It was a direct message being sent [to Daley]—‘Make sure your people behave themselves. I hold the keys to the kingdom. The king is dead. Long live the king.’”
* * *
By now almost everybody who follows Chicago politics knows at least a bit of Emanuel’s political backstory. Here’s the Twitter-length version (actually, 357 characters): The nine-and-a-half-fingered ballet dancer becomes a dead-fish-sending political operative and Daley moneyman, a top Clinton adviser, and then a millionaire investment banker, wins Blago’s old House seat, leads Dems back into the majority in Congress in ’06, sets sights on becoming the first Jewish Speaker but leaves the Hill to be Obama’s chief of staff.
But while his curriculum vitae is widely known, Rahm Israel Emanuel—the man—remains something of an enigma. So well established is the caricature of him that many Chicagoans know only the cartoonish Rahmbo, the hyperaggressive, hyperprofane, and hypertempermental political operator with an instinct for the jugular.
Emanuel says the media gets too hung up on his personality and personal style, political and otherwise (i.e., stories about dead fish and the like). “You guys ask the same fucking five questions all the time,” he tells me. Once, when he was in Congress, he recalls, a journalist wrote a piece knocking him for wearing pants with pleats. “My God, who cares?” he exclaims.
Ideologically, Emanuel is an intensely partisan dyed-in-the-wool Democrat—he calls himself a “progressive”—in a Democratic town. But so far in office, he has pushed a political agenda that resembles the Republican view of the world: cutting spending and the size of government, promoting private enterprise at the expense of unions, resisting tax increases, and reinforcing law and order. He has had no choice, really, given all of the city’s problems.
Even so, he has shown flashes of his liberal side. For instance, he has made eliminating so-called food deserts a top priority—pledging to fast-track permits, zoning, and licensing for grocers who open up stores in neighborhoods where fresh meat and produce are hard to find. He opened the city’s first protected bike lane. And despite the humongous budget deficit, he changed the city’s employee leave policies in July to offer paid maternity leave.
As a manager, Emanuel has brought in mostly professional technocrats, not party bureaucrats. And while Mayor Daley was notorious for pitting commissioners and cabinet officials against one another—it spurred competitiveness, he felt, which, in turn, resulted in harder work (but often just led to backstabbing)—Emanuel prefers cooperation to confrontation, aides say, and so far his team has coalesced nicely. Emanuel says he encourages vigorous debate, even dissent, but once he makes a decision, usually quickly—he’s impatient, remember?—he expects his lieutenants to rally around it 100 percent, just as he did in the White House, even when he disagreed with what was decided. He despises leaks. “When I make a decision, I don’t need to have it relitigated somewhere else,” he tells me one day in his conference room, next door to his office. “The litigation room is here,” he says, rapping his finger sternly on the conference table.
And his trademark persona? Well, Emanuel says, that’s here to stay—style points be damned.
Besides being unapologetically profane, Emanuel is blunt. He once called a group of liberal detractors “fucking retarded.” On another occasion, he reportedly told a stammering male staffer at the White House, “Take your fucking tampon out and tell me what you have to say.”
He often starts sentences with “Look” or “Here’s the deal,” and he just as often concludes them with a terse “OK?”—as if to say, in a slightly patronizing way, “You get it?” He speaks machine-gun fast and has a habit of not finishing one sentence before launching into the next. His thin, reedy voice can reach high decibels when he’s angry.
Howard Tullman, a prominent businessman and an old friend of Emanuel’s, recalls that someone asked him shortly before the mayoral election whether he even liked Emanuel. (At the time, Emanuel was living in Tullman’s West Loop loft while the infamous Renter Who Refused to Leave occupied the Emanuel family’s Ravenswood home.) Tullman said that, yes, he did like Emanuel. The questioner then reminded him that, years earlier, he had called Emanuel an asshole. To which Tullman replied: “Of course he’s an asshole. So what else is new? He’s my asshole.”
But Tullman and others interviewed for this article are also quick to note that Emanuel can be incredibly gracious, sensitive even. For instance, Emanuel says he calls every parent who loses an innocent child to violence in the city. (In one of our interviews, his voice cracks when he talks about those calls.) He even paid a condolence call on a reporter whose dog died. And when civil unions for same-sex couples were legalized in Illinois in June, Emanuel officiated the union of David Spielfogel, his policy chief. Spielfogel says Emanuel had heavily lobbied state lawmakers during the campaign to pass the civil unions bill, and after it became law in January, Emanuel told Spielfogel that he wanted to preside over his ceremony at City Hall once the law went into effect. “That meant a lot,” says Spielfogel. “He drives us very, very hard but, at the same time, treats us like family.”
By all accounts, Emanuel has kept his hot temper mostly in check—many Chicagoans may be wondering if he’s on tranquilizers—and he has dialed down much of the salty language. He has been careful, particularly in public, not to let the old Rahm emerge. But sometimes he can’t help it.
“He’s still very pushy, treats everybody like a second-class citizen,” one alderman told me at a City Council meeting in early July. “He always has an agenda in his head—his to-do list: ‘I need you to do this.’”
Emanuel, the alderman continues, often punctuates his words with some sort of physical contact, usually a touch or a grab of the arm. It’s a tactic that he uses to implore, not necessarily to bully, but it can come across as menacing. The alderman demonstrates on me, grabbing my arm firmly. “It’s not just a touch. He grips, LBJ-style.”
That is, in the style of Lyndon Baines Johnson, or the famed Johnson Treatment—the way the masterful Texas political wheeler-dealer used close contact, among other tactics, to bend others to his will.
“Does it work?” I ask.
“I guess it works on some people.”
* * *
Emanuel has quickly shown the city Council who’s the boss. Just days after he won a resounding victory in February’s mayoral primary, political circles here were abuzz with talk that the mayor-elect was putting the aldermen, particularly the old-timers, on notice: He had his eye on them, and he wasn’t going to put up with any shenanigans—especially of the dishonest sort—that his predecessor may have tolerated.
During Emanuel’s transition, some City Hall watchers predicted that the aldermen—many of whom don’t like or trust Emanuel and who, for years, grumbled privately about Daley’s authoritarian hand—would try to exert more independence under the new mayor and tip the pendulum of power back their way. So far that hasn’t happened. Instead, the council, with nary a peep or even much debate, has rubber-stamped everything that Emanuel’s office has put in front of it, including new tougher ethics rules and a reorganization plan that cut the number of council committees from 19 to 16, the fewest in 50 years. (The mayor has also floated the idea of cutting the size of the council in half, to 25 aldermen.) Emanuel even stripped away some power from Edward Burke, the long-serving dean of the City Council, who, as the chairman of the finance committee, controls much of the city’s most important legislation.
Even Emanuel’s first nonunanimous vote was virtually without dissent. In late July, the council voted the mayor’s way, 45 to 3, to award a major contract for redeveloping and running the concessions at O’Hare’s international terminal to an out-of-state concessionaire, replacing a local clout-heavy firm that included one of Daley’s closest associates, Jeremiah Joyce.
Several aldermen I spoke with vowed that the new mayor is likely to see more closely contested votes after his honeymoon ends. “We’re waiting for the right issue and the right moment to launch a rebellion,” says the alderman I spoke to in July. “The moment of truth will soon be here.”
They can certainly try, but negotiating—both tactile diplomacy and the hostile arm-twisting variety—is Emanuel’s hallmark. Few can rival him. “He’s very persuasive,” says Mark Angelson, the deputy mayor. Recently, seated at his desk in a corner office down the hall from the mayor’s, Angelson, the former chief executive of RR Donnelley, tells me how Emanuel recruited him. Shortly after the election, Angelson, who left Donnelley in 2007, says he was talking to Emanuel about wanting to do more philanthropic work, and Emanuel said to him: “Well, you have to do this.” Angelson was thinking more along the lines of volunteering for a charity, donating money, and the like, not starting a government job. But Emanuel, he says, was insistent, talking to him about the job regularly over a period of several weeks. Despite the coaxing, Angelson kept demurring. Finally, Emanuel put it like this: “This is an opportunity for you to help millions of people with a problem that is denominated in billions of dollars. If anybody else is offering you that opportunity, great, go do it.” Angelson gave in. He earns a salary of a dollar a year.
This aggressive bonhomie is very much Emanuel’s style; it was highly effective in Washington and has been here so far too. Before leaders of the powerful public employee unions could even say “honeymoon,” Emanuel confronted them with a challenge to come up with salary concessions and work-rule changes to fill a $31 million gap in this year’s budget. And if they failed to act, he warned, he would lay off 625 city employees to balance the budget. Emanuel gave them a deadline, and when they missed it, he sent out the layoff notices.
The gambit paid off. Emanuel’s tough stance forced reluctant union leaders to give him detailed ways to save money, and although they didn’t meet the mayor’s deadline, they eventually delivered a lengthy report highlighting ways to cut $242 million from the city budget—at the very least a conversation starter for the even bigger showdown between the two sides that is expected in the fall to close the $635 million deficit in the 2012 budget.
Emanuel has been equally adept in Springfield. During the spring legislative session, the new mayor lobbied hard for a landmark education package that would lengthen the school day, allow school districts more freedom to fire bad teachers, and make it harder for city teachers to go on strike. He also put on a full-court press for the expansion of gambling, including a megacasino in Chicago that could be a badly needed financial windfall for his administration. And he weighed in vocally in favor of a workers’ compensation overhaul and the so-called Illinois DREAM Act, a college scholarship program for the children of undocumented immigrants.
Jack Franks, a Democratic state representative from Woodstock, credits Emanuel with being the difference maker in the last legislative session, particularly for his efforts lining up votes for the gaming legislation. “It wouldn’t have passed without Rahm,” says Franks. It was a remarkable feat, he adds, considering that gaming expansion of any type has not found consensus in years.
Emanuel’s hands-on style could not be more different from Daley’s. The former mayor avoided Springfield like the plague—going to the capitol perhaps once or twice a year and rarely, if ever, personally lobbying lawmakers. When I ask Emanuel why he is so personally involved in Springfield business when Daley wasn’t, he replies, “I’m the new mayor.
“It’s not a judgment about what he did,” he continues. “It’s about what I need to do for our future. Given that our relationship is tied to what Springfield will do—or not do—I can no longer afford to ignore it. So, on behalf of the city, not on behalf of me, I will be aggressive.” Then, imitating a child’s whiny voice, he adds, “I can’t say, ‘Well, geez, that’s in Springfield. Boy, that’s going to be hard.’ No! I gotta get it done.”
But by being aggressive, the rookie mayor risked invoking the ire of the Springfield establishment, in particular the mercurial Michael Madigan, Speaker of the House, who has ruled the General Assembly for decades. This time around, Emanuel and Madigan were largely on the same page, and the mayor became a valuable wingman to the Speaker to cajole, prod, and play rough, if necessary, to whip up the votes they needed.
One story that raced through local political circles a few months back has it that Emanuel went ballistic on Greg Harris, a Democratic state representative from the North Side. The mayor called Harris to lobby him to vote for a contentious amendment on pensions to the workers’ compensation bill, introduced by the House Republican leader Tom Cross, that would cut future retirement benefits for current state employees. Harris told Emanuel he couldn’t support it. He felt it was too unfair to the public work force.
As the prominent political insider, who got the story secondhand, retells it, a furious Emanuel went off on Harris: “You better support it, you motherfucker, or I’ll burn your house down!” Afterward, the insider says, Harris jokingly called the local firefighters’ association to see if they’d have his back if Emanuel torched his home. (The pension amendment, by the way, didn’t pass—a rare instance in which Emanuel did not get what he wanted.)
Harris confirms the gist of the anecdote but calls the story “exaggerated.” He won’t offer specific details about the exchange, saying only that Emanuel “is an aggressive guy, always has been, always will be” and that the mayor “was trying really hard to be persuasive.” The three-term representative adds that he hasn’t met anyone in politics who doesn’t have a temper: “There are tough decisions, and there’s going to be a lot of arguing. To say we can all smile and the world is full of happy puppies and smiling kittens—that’s not reality.”
Sara Feigenholtz, another Democratic state representative who was on the receiving end of an Emanuel tirade in the frenzied final days of the session, says that while his style has ruffled some feathers, it has not caused widespread rancor. “I’m sure there are members who like a different style, but frankly, I warmly welcome it,” the Chicago legislator tells me. “I like knowing what he’s thinking. It wasn’t always easy to read the tea leaves in the prior administration.”
* * *
Emanuel shows similar feistiness with the press, treating reporters like sparring partners. He can be genial and harsh—sometimes both at once. When I first sat down with him, three weeks after he took office, as an icebreaker I told him a story about how, upon arriving at Millennium Park for his inauguration, I was attacked by a bird, a red-winged blackbird, I think. I asked him if it was a bad omen. He curtly replied, “You could [see it as an omen] if you were paranoid.” A bit later, when I asked if he had been surprised by anything in the job so far, he deadpanned, “Just the bird that attacked you.”
He lost his cool in late July during an on-camera interview with the veteran NBC reporter Mary Ann Ahern after Ahern asked about rumors that he planned to send his three children to private school. Accusing her of crossing a sacred line of privacy, he unclipped his microphone and stormed off. According to Ahern’s account, he circled back, got inches from her face, and told her off some more. (In apparent retaliation, Emanuel gave an exclusive interview later the same day to a rival network to officially confirm the rumor that he was sending his children to the private University of Chicago Lab Schools in Hyde Park.)
You would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the local political press corps who hasn’t received a tongue-lashing from the mayor—myself included. Back in June, at the height of Weinergate—the sexting scandal involving the New York congressman Anthony Weiner, a friend of Emanuel’s—I asked Emanuel about the scandal. “I’m not talking about it,” he snapped. “There’s no reason for me to comment. If I wanted that, I’d go on a TV show and blather about stupidity.” And then, when I broached the subject of his possibly taking the stand at Rod Blagojevich’s trial, he brushed off my question testily: “C’mon! Who cares?”
But that was nothing compared with his response when I mentioned that some lawmakers I had spoken to were highly critical of his combative negotiating style.
“On what? On what?” he shot back. “I don’t mean to do your job for you. On what? On what?”
It was a fair question. I had neither named names nor offered specific examples. Trying to hold my ground, I started to say something in general about his brusque manner with aldermen and other officials. The mayor saw right through it.
“Good luck with the journalism part,” he said, slapping his hands on the table and abruptly walking out of the room into his office next door. Moments later, he returned to work me over some more. “On what? On what?” he demanded, now practically shouting. “What did we do? You’re just repeating something. We didn’t do anything. I’m asking you, on what?”
By many accounts, Emanuel is obsessively controlling of his public image. As Peter Baker, of The New York Times, wrote in a profile last year, he is “unquestionably a master manipulator of the news media.”
Emanuel, who earned a master’s degree in communications at Northwestern University, has brought a new level of sophistication and discipline to the City Hall press shop, which some critics have derided as a Washington, D.C., or Rose Garden, style. Whereas Mayor Daley’s press office was largely defensive minded (reactive rather than proactive) and often unaccommodating (many unreturned calls), Emanuel’s is fast, aggressive, and highly choreographed. At a recent City Council meeting, for example, reporters received e-mailed news releases from the mayor’s office announcing that the council had passed this or that measure, just seconds after the actual votes.
The mayor scoffs at the Rose Garden criticisms. “A smooth-operating operation—I think that’s a compliment,” he says. “What would you like, the opposite?”
Emanuel’s office tries to restrict his exchanges with the press to brief, carefully scripted events, invariably from behind the lectern in the City Hall briefing room or set up elsewhere, including once in front of a large recycling truck for a press conference he held at a Streets and Sanitation facility about changes to the city’s recycling service. Emanuel also gets aggravated when news photographers take pictures of him away from the lectern. One journalist witnessed him barking at an aide to “control” a photographer who was following him after he delivered his remarks.
“So what if I use a podium,” he replies when I ask about his reliance on it. “I will leave people who have time to think about style points the luxury [of doing so].” (He meant me.)
Paradoxically, Emanuel and his office are not above scrutinizing the other side: the press. Emanuel’s aides are known to call reporters—and their editors—to complain about coverage that the mayor’s office doesn’t like, not necessarily objecting to the facts but to more picayune things, like punctuation and even word choice.
The office also tries to quash bad press before the media can get the word out. One journalist tells me that Emanuel’s press staff keeps close tabs on the Freedom of Information Act requests filed by reporters to see what they’re digging around for. In one case, after discovering credit card abuses at the Chicago Park District, Fox Chicago News and the Better Government Association filed FOIA requests seeking additional records about credit card spending at sister agencies in the city. But before Fox and the BGA received the data—let alone responses from the agencies—they got a call from Emanuel’s press office. A spokesperson said that the mayor’s office had reviewed the information and, indeed, found egregious abuses, particularly at the Chicago Housing Authority. But instead of handing over the information to Fox and the BGA to report, the mayor’s office issued a memo to his cabinet and the heads of all the sister agencies ordering them to immediately cease the use of credit cards. “Don’t worry,” the spokesperson told Fox and the BGA, “you’ll get first bite at the apple” as a “quote-unquote exclusive.” In other words, the mayor’s office acted proactively, before the media could report the news. So instead of headlines like “Fox Chicago and the BGA Expose Credit Card Abuses at City Agencies,” the headlines were “Emanuel Cuts Use of City Credit Cards” (Chicago Tribune) and “Emanuel Orders Agencies to Stop Using Credit Cards” (The Daily Herald). “It was an interesting display of power,” says the journalist, who has firsthand knowledge of the episode.
* * *
Back in Emanuel’s suv, we continue driving down the Bat Road, traffic-free and with no potholes. Soon, though, we come to a halt in front of a closed gate.
“Uh-oh,” says Emanuel. “What happened here?”
He turns to me and says, “This is where we drop you off. Sayonara.” He cackles with devilish laughter. For a moment, I think he’s half-serious.
The driver swipes a keycard, and we travel on. We soon emerge from the McCormick Place tunnel to post-card-like views of Burnham Harbor and Northerly Island. Moments later, when we’re cruising by Soldier Field, I look out the window, westward, and see that we’re also going by a townhouse complex in the South Loop that is part of Central Station. I point it out to Emanuel and remark that Mayor Daley lives there—as if he didn’t know. It was, basically, an off-the-cuff attempt to get him talking about Daley—a touchy topic the loquacious mayor gets evasive about. He ignores me.
After several more minutes, Emanuel seems to get jittery—his impatience starting to show. He reaches out to a small panel on the console facing his seat and pushes a button that controls the radio’s volume. Like that, the sound cuts out. Emanuel looks befuddled.
“I told you not to play with the buttons,” Mather teases him, smirking.
“I know, I know,” an annoyed Emanuel says, fiddling with the knob, to no avail.
His frenetic energy, some have said, could turn out to be his Achilles’ heel. “His strange combination of intense focus and attention deficit disorder might send him careening off course,” the political writer Jonathan Alter recently put it.
Emanuel readily admits that he will no doubt make some mistakes down the road—some of them because of his impatience. But he adds that, like with anything else in life, he’ll learn from his missteps and move on. “I step in the dog shit, and I’ll come back—maybe an hour later, a week later, a month later—and say, ‘Well, that was boneheaded. That’s life.’” Put another way, he says, “Some days I’ll do well. Some days I’ll strike out. But nobody will ever say, ‘Rahm didn’t try.’”