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.


Photo Gallery: The First 100 Days
The first 100 days

Behind the Scenes at the Photo Shoot

From August, on the roof of City Hall

Our 1992 profile of Emanuel, then Bill Clinton’s finance director

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



3 years ago
Posted by KChicago

TARP was signed into law by President BUSH on October 3, 2008. You should probably correct this error in your article. Maybe you're thinking of the stimulus, or maybe the auto industry bailout? But Emanuel clearly was not working to get TARP funded, since that occurred prior to President Obama taking office.

3 years ago
Posted by Chicago Magazine

EDITOR'S NOTE: TARP was signed into law by President Bush and continued by President Obama.

3 years ago
Posted by Another reader

[[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.]]

Well, Warren and all the other cronies of Lipinski should know a thing or two about stabbing people in the back.

3 years ago
Posted by Another reader

[[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.”]]

Of course, this alderman lacks the testicular virility to speak on the record and was probably one of the sheep who voted for the parking meter fiasco.

3 years ago
Posted by JimH

Because of this asshole Chicago is a shooting gallery for the criminals because lawbiding citizens cant cary protection.

3 years ago
Posted by JimH

Cicago is very safe for the criminal to have open season and year round target practice on innocent people that abide by the law and don't cary. Poor chicago people don't have the right to cary protection.

Emanuel and Quinn need to go.

3 years ago
Posted by The Straight Dope

This story has so many outrageous statements that it's hard to know where to begin. In no particular order: First, Rahm is not bordering on cocky -- he's one of the most arrogant persons on earth and if you don't agree, just wait -- you'll see (he also says the "f" word so frequently, it's frankly embarrissing). Second, Rahm's staff is totally overwhelmed and trying to live up to the bar set by Daley's staff (of course they will never admit that publicly, but since the author of this article relies on private conversations and unnamed sources, I cite to the same in making this statement). Third, since Rahm's own Budget Director (Alex Holt) was a Deputy Director in Daley's budget office AND the top protege of former Daley Budget Director Bill Abolt during a good portion of the past 10 years, it is pretty ironic and funny that Rahm and his budget staff speaks about how Daley's budget has been unsound and based on smoke and mirrors for the past ten years. Fourth, since the author of this article never even set foot in Mayor Daley's office, it is pretty disingenuous and a flat out lie for him to say Daley's staff has been asleep while Rahm's office is buzzing. Fifth, please -- Chicago is hardly a "damsel in distress" compared to other cities. Has the author ever bothered to visit other cities in the country?? I could go on and on and on.

3 years ago
Posted by finleyrc

Lot of good information & background here. One quibble(?). No broadband access in the mayor's office? There wasn't a single ethernet jack or wifi hotspot connecting to a network (& the internet) in all of the mayor's office suite? I doubt it. Think somebody is trying to make a point about old administration being old fashioned & over-reaching. I mean - come on - worse case - he could have hopped on the free public wifi that's been active down on Daley Plaza for the last couple of years. ;)

3 years ago
Posted by Free The PRC

Rahm wants to be a "Superhero".

In short, he soes not want to empower the citizens of Chicago but wants them to be depoendent upon him.

This is the kind of mentality that is perpetuated by 3rd world dictatorships and not the kind of thinking that should prevail in the United States of America.

To Rahm and his ilk, the people of the People's Republic of Chicago need to be sheeple so that he and his can continue to rule.

3 years ago
Posted by moe

The city is EXTREMELY VIOLENT and the mayor and police cheif DO NOT have a control on crime. I've never been to any other city where open air gangs sell drugs on every corner on the west side.

Here's a response from the Chicago Tribune that a cop posted. How's this for morale of the city.,0,2327466.story

written at 3:30 PM October 9, 2011

I live on the west side about 4 blocks from the deadly location and we barely see the police in our neighborhood. We've pleaded to Commander Eric Washington and he continues to ignor our calls for safety. Whatever Garry McCarthy is doing to realign officers is certainly not working in K-town. We have many hardworking people in these areas that have lived here for decades and worked to pay off our homes. We cannot afford to leave.

The State of Illinois needs to build more prisons. Or the the private sector should do so because the west side alone can fill them to capacity. Almost every person who commits a crime in Chicago comes from the west side or the south side of the city. It doesn't matter what neighborhood, they'll travel to yours.

We need to find out which judges are letting these urban terrorist back onto the streets after being arrested 3,4,5,15,30 times. These judges are just as criminal as the convicted animals and they should not be getting elected or appointed. Until the laws are changed, Chicago will always suffer from these animals on the loose.



cpd765 at 5:52 PM October 9, 2011

You can call all you want, nobody is going to come. I work in 011 and you know those open air drug markets you see all up and down the block, they are there because us beat cars don't even get the jobs. Thats right, when you call 911 to report narcotic sales our supervisors tell the zone 10 dispatchers to read them out and 19p them per the sarge. We are not held down to investigate the report, its put in our stacking than coded. The media, mayor and CPD bosses are all lying to the public about the crime stats and our over mission.

Us patrolman have been beaten down so much that we really are just doing it for the 1st and 16th. Why would any cop go the extra mile to help someone and than get it shoved right up and broken off by this liberal city? I drive by and just put the blinders on because Im not doing anything thats going to put my family in the poor house. What about the foot post we had at Pulaski/Polk????? We were told by the citizens and street corner REV's that we shouldnt be there because we scare the community, hahah get real. You cant have it both ways, and now since 99.9% of officers feel like this good luck with your problems because we are not trying to solve any of them.

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