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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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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.’”

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