How Rahm Emanuel Might Reinvent Chicago Politics

Article excerpt

He takes over a city that will test his legendary toughness and may become a laboratory for addressing the problems that plague urban areas in hard times.

It is hard to follow a Daley into the mayor's office here. There is no instruction book. Richard M. has been sitting there for 22 years, a little longer than his father, Richard J., sat in the mayor's office when he was creating "the city that works."

Rahm Emanuel, scheduled to take office May 16, knows that well, and with the blush fading from a first-round victory in the mayor's race on Feb. 22, he is moving with characteristic aggressiveness to put his stamp on the office.

That is prudent, because the nation will be watching. With its pension deficits, its billion-dollar budget shortfall, its troubled public schools, and its bubbling array of social challenges, Chicago may well become the laboratory for addressing the problems that plague big cities in hard times.

But if anyplace in America has a good track record for attacking problems, it sits here in its sparkling architectural glory, flat in the center of the nation's heartland. Chicago may be the most American place in America, forged by an array of brutally efficient moguls and an army of immigrants who built the railroads, chopped up and shipped pigs and beef to feed the nation, tapped mayors who built enduring political traditions that ran from vile to visionary and left a legacy of prosperity across generations.

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Now comes Mr. Emanuel and his "moving forward" mantra - "Together, as one city with one future" - which he first tossed out on election night. It echoes on all the news shows, the theme he probably hits most often when he is asked about his plans.

He is, perhaps even more so than any other Chicago mayor, a pragmatist with a question at the center of the administration he is about to lead: "What do we need and where can I get it?"

Despite the city's reputation as a solid blue Democratic political playground (there have been no Republican mayors since Big Bill Thompson, the most corrupt in the city's history, was dumped during the Great Depression), Chicago seems to work best when political labels are ignored and real dealing steps in. That pragmatic philosophy fits the city like a good winter boot.

Chicago remains a segregated city by race (not as segregated as that description would suggest), but it was segregated by nationality long before African-Americans began arriving in vast numbers in the early 20th century. Emanuel and every successful politician before him reaching back into the 19th century recognized that reality.

No one wins in Chicago without building coalitions that stretch across every description imaginable, the very process Emanuel used in structuring his February victory. He captured 3 of every 4 wards. Keeping that connection with all the slices in this most ethnic American city will help determine whether Emanuel succeeds, or succumbs to dreaded one-termer's syndrome.

This is not yet Emanuel's city. No one erases the legacy of a Daley very quickly or very easily in a Chicago that is wedded to both their names and their styles.

Even the younger Daley, the outgoing Richard M., was just marginally regal enough, without the polish, to make it seem that he was at the top of a machine, although that was not actually the case. Where his father, Richard J., "the Boss," was as much of a brute as he needed to be and had lots of levers to pull to prove it, Richard M. was almost wonky, more a technician of city government than commander of it.

Still, Emanuel is no neophyte to Chicago's ways. In Congress, he represented the Fifth District, which includes Old Town, Lincoln Park, Lakeview, and Uptown, where the city stores much of its most delicious real estate and influence. …