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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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

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.’”



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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