Atlantic Cities

Rahm Emanuel: The Anti-Daley

Rahm Emanuel: The Anti-Daley
Reuters

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Chicago marathon starts at Harold Washington Park. The race begins at Grant Park.

Like a lot of other people in Chicago, Rahm Emanuel owes his political upbringing to the city’s legendary mayor, Richard M. Daley. He got his true political baptism as chief fundraiser for Daley’s first campaign for mayor in 1989. During two White House jobs, and in Congress, Daley was merely a phone call away.

And although no candidate got Daley’s endorsement last year when the former mayor said he was stepping down, it was clear to the city that Emanuel had Daley’s imprimatur, allowing him to sweep to the nomination without a runoff. When he took office in May, Emanuel paid homage to his mentor, telling the city he had “big shoes to fill.”

But he immediately discarded them, slipping on his own pair.

In his first, frenzied five months, Emanuel has publicly criticized and begun laying out plans to take apart many of the tenets of Daley’s long tenure as mayor.

“We can’t let the status quo go unchallenged one day longer,” Emanuel declared to Chicago’s city council last week, unveiling plans to attack a $637 million budget deficit.

He was talking specifically about reforms to its police and fire departments, but Emanuel has also taken aim at everything from the city’s tax system to water bills to the way it collects garbage. He’s been on a tear to bring city government out of the secretive, patronage-coated Daley era, and into a transparent, business-like Emanuel era.

Everything seems different, starting with Emanuel himself.

Where Daley strolled into events, and lingered afterward to chat with throngs of well-wishers, Emanuel rushes into appointments and rushes off just as quickly.

Daley was surrounded by political loyalists, many from Chicago, and had battalions of staff. Emanuel’s two highest profile jobs have gone to outsiders – schools chief Jean-Claude Brizard, who came from Rochester, N.Y., and Garry McCarthy, the police chief who arrived from Newark. And, he’s made it clear that city jobs will be cut.

Where Daley did the barest amount of social media, and spared little time for mainstream press, Emanuel’s photo is all over the mayor’s Facebook page, whether he’s checking email on an El platform, chatting with commuters or talking to children.

Though Daley declared Chicago to be a global city, hosting dozens of foreign leaders during his 22 years, his careful image as the city’s patriarch seems old-school compared with the publicity blasts from his seemingly accessible successor.

On Twitter, television and YouTube, Emanuel personally touts every new job announced in the city, whether he’s personally showing up at a Chase Bank or a Walgreen's, and links to his budget-cutting moves, like the $75 million he cut in his first hour in office.

It’s as if the mayor’s office was fueled by Red Bull instead of Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. But after a dozen years of deficits, the new mayor has no choice, says Joe Moore, an alderman from the city’s north side who clashed frequently with Daley, and who did not endorse a candidate in this year’s race.

“The highest priority is to get the city’s fiscal house in order,” Moore says.

The early Emanuel months have at least the perception of a more open administration rather than the mysterious, multi-layered system that kept Daley in place.

“Rahm really approaches politics as if it was a business, and he’s the CEO,” says Dick Simpson, a former alderman who now heads the political science department at the University of lllinois-Chicago. After decades of politicians who trod the same ground, “Rahm is literally different. He has a different political experience. As they say in Chicago, ‘he ain’t never worked no political precinct,’” Simpson said.

“I like what he’s doing,” says Dennis Byrne, veteran Chicago journalist and Chicago Tribune op-ed contributor. “This kind of personality is what this city needs, somebody who’s willing to upset the traditional backers, like the labor unions. He’s doing a good job of upsetting them.”

As he sweeps around the city, Emanuel has done everything to differentiate himself from Daley but attack the former mayor himself -- a line he is unlikely to cross.

“It would be political suicide to go after Daley,” says Keith Koeneman, author of an upcoming biography of the former mayor. “Voters in Chicago are very loyal, even when they realize peoples’ mistakes.”

It also would look downright ungrateful for Emanuel to take aim at Daley. “Daley has been like his sponsor, his patron, or his guide, almost a political father figure,” Simpson says.

Like any father who watches as his son takes over the family business, Daley has been publicly sanguine about Emanuel’s steps, even as he has been their target. Early on, Emanuel cut the former mayor’s police detail in half, causing murmurs in political and police circles.

“He’s doing a good job, sure,” a tanned and jovial Daley told the local Fox station a few weeks ago. Asked whether Emanuel’s moves stung, he visibly stiffened and replied in a clipped voice, “No. Not at all. Everybody has different styles.”

In truth, says Koeneman, Emanuel is walking the same tightrope that Daley walked 22 years ago. When he took office, the racially divided city was still reeling from the death of its first black mayor, Harold Washington, who died in office in 1987.

To Chicago’s black community, whose support Daley badly needed, Washington was an icon who brought never known diversity to a city whose neighborhoods defined residents’ identities. Washington’s picture can still be seen on the walls of African-American businesses all over the city.

“Daley had to be respectful of that legacy, whether or not he agreed with it,” Koeneman says. He stepped carefully around Washington’s failings and rolled out his own reforms, while never blaming Washington. Now, Emanuel must do the same, Koeneman says.

“The legacy of Rich Daley is two decades of leadership and stability for Chicago. It’s so powerful, that publicly, you have to pay homage to it,” he says.

But there’s a key difference, says Simpson. Daley is alive and well and so is his political machine.

Even though Chicago Magazine put him on its cover with the words, “The New Boss,” Emanuel only came back from Washington a scant year ago, and is just now moving back into the house he leased out, giving little time for his new organization to take root.

Emanuel will have to accommodate Daley’s old-style political bosses, as well as his allies in the city’s business community who embraced the mayor’s effort to turn Chicago into a global city. He’s already started reaching out to both, showing up for a preliminary budget briefing with the city council, the first time Moore could remember a sitting mayor doing so.

He also glides at a 50,000 foot level. This month, Emanuel hosted Chicago Ideas Week, a gathering of big thinkers in business and the arts that included a live broadcast of Meet the Press, and put on a dinner for the prime minister of South Korea.

Back on earth, his biggest, toughest challenge is his push for a longer school day, which has won him praise from parents and enmity from the city’s teachers union.

Even though Emanuel emphasizes the need for more classroom hours at every turn, only 13 schools out of hundreds have opted out of their union contracts and accepted the $150,000 bonus offered by the city to keep kids in class longer. Meanwhile, the union is vowing to take Emanuel to court.

Daley, political experts say, might have avoided the fracas, saving the demand for the next round of teachers’ contract talks, held behind closed doors. But Byrne argues it’s an accomplishment for Emanuel to even get 13 schools to defy their union.

And Emanuel is pushing on to another showdown, proposing that the city combine police and fire headquarters, close three police district outposts, and put 1,100 officers on the streets rather than work at desk jobs.

Emanuel admitted last week that shutting down police stations is the “third rail” of Chicago politics, in a city where every alderman wants to keep a police presence. It’s clearly something Daley never would have done, say the pundits.

The new mayor also wants to undo a feature called the “head tax,” a $4 per employee, per month charge on every business with more than 500 people in the city. “No longer will Chicago tax the creation of jobs,” he said last week.

Emanuel claims that proposed step helped the city land 2,000 new jobs at two Ford Motor plants in Chicago, although workers at both plants rejected a tentative agreement that includes the creation of the new positions.

Thus far, the Chicago mayor has laid out his plans in a largely calm manner. His infamous profanity, which inspired writer Dan Sinker’s sly f-word laced @mayoremanuel Twitter feed throughout the campaign, is not much in evidence, at least in public.

But scratch the surface of this Xanaxed Emanuel, and flashes of the politician who sent a dead fish to a pollster can be seen. At an August event reviewing his first 100 days in office, Emanuel refused to take questions from the audience, then began jockeying after a half hour to duck out, saying he wanted to go home to see his kids.

He caused an audible murmur at an otherwise cordial pre-inaugural gathering of non-profit arts administrators, telling them they would have to start paying water bills, something Daley never made them do.

Knowing he can push only so hard, Emanuel is reaching out to Daley’s adversaries, including Moore, with whom Daley fought publicly and bitterly over his proposal for big box stores to pay a $10 an hour minimum wage.

At an early encounter, Emanuel told him, “It’s time to push the reset button,” and Moore says he’s had more communication with the new mayor’s administration in five months than he did with Daley’s in two decades.

That fresh start is what Emanuel is trying to do for the sparkling yet troubled city, where crime remains a top concern and where the economy continues to sputter. Daley will occasionally be at his side, as at the dedication of the Richard M. Daley library branch in West Humboldt Park in July.

But when the ceremonies end, it’s Emanuel who rushes off to the next appointment on his crowded agenda, leaving Daley behind.

 

 

Micheline Maynard is journalist living in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She most recently led Changing Gears, a public radio project exploring the reinvention of the industrial Midwest, and was previously Detroit bureau chief for The New York Times. All posts »

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