article

02.22.11

Rahm Emanuel, the New King of Chicago

By crushing the competition, Rahm Emanuel is not just mayor—he may be mayor for life. Jonathan Alter reports from the victory party, from the jokes about Rahm's residency flap to the challenges he faces.

By crushing the competition, Rahm Emanuel is not just mayor—he may be mayor for life. Jonathan Alter reports from the victory party, from the jokes about Rahm’s residency flap to the challenges he faces. Plus, Howard Kurtz on the rise of anti-politicians.

Batten down the hatches, Chicago. He’s Da Mare. The *!#&! mayor.

When a Chicago lawyer named John Levi last fall introduced Rahm Emanuel to the partners at Sidley Austin (the Chicago firm where a young Barack Obama met Michelle Robinson in the late 1980s), Levi reminded his audience that for Chicagoans, there are only two truly important political jobs in the world—president of the United States and mayor of the city of Chicago.

“And not necessarily in that order!” Rahm exclaimed.

After crushing the competition with 55 percent of the vote and avoiding a runoff, Emanuel is not just mayor; he may be mayor for life. Richard J. Daley served for 21 years before dying of a heart attack in 1976. When he leaves office this May, Richard M. Daley will have served 22. “Mayor Rahm” is 51 years old and exceptionally fit; the one-time professional-level ballet dancer bikes, swims, and runs like a fiend, then reduces stress with yoga. It’s not unreasonable to expect that he’ll be mayor for 20 years or more. He’s probably thinking more like 40.

But Chicago has daunting problems that could keep even this force of nature from succeeding. A $655 million deficit (a tenth of the budget). Stubbornly high crime rates. Failing schools.

At his Election Night victory party at a union hall on Chicago’s near-West Side, Rahm was at his emotional best when describing the stakes. “We have not won anything until kids can go to school thinking of their studies and not their safety.” Then he repeated it for emphasis: “We have not won anything.”

I’ve been at a lot of Election Night parties in Chicago since I was a kid. This was the first where the winner raised the bar on himself immediately after being elected. He stopped short of repeating his tough-love campaign promise that city workers would have to retire later and contribute more to their health-care plans. Just short.

Rahm’s victory speech contained its share of platitudes. He joked to the crowd about the controversy over his residency that almost derailed his campaign. (“You sure know how to make a guy feel at home!” was his opener.) He paid homage to Daley (an “impossible act to follow”) and ladled on the praise of Chicago (”We’re known as the Windy City, but this is the warmest place in America”).

I’ve been at a lot of Election Night parties in Chicago since I was a kid. This was the first where the winner raised the bar on himself immediately after being elected.

Even so, there was a seriousness to it that might bode well for Chicago. While he complimented Daley, he stressed the need to “overcome old ways that have held Chicago back.” These range from school days that are among the shortest among major cities to the presence of “food deserts” in poor areas—broad swaths of the city that lack any supermarkets. One insider told me he expects the latter practice to end almost immediately after Rahm becomes mayor. “He didn’t know about the issue at first—didn’t realize the extent of the problem. But now that he does he’s not going to let chains do business in Chicago if they cherry-pick communities.”


Rahm Emanuel's Victory Speech

Video screenshot

Campaigns can often be important guides to performance in office. Rahm’s was nearly flawless. “He was the perfect candidate,” said Larry Grisolano, managing partner of AKPD Media, the firm headed by David Axelrod and David Plouffe that manages not just Emanuel but President Obama. “The whole thing was done with a touch of finesse he’s not usually associated with.”

It helped that he raised more than $10 million, half of it in increments of more than $50,000, obtained last fall just before a new Illinois law barred such large contributions. But because much of that money was from out-of-state, from people like Steven Spielberg and Roger Altman, Rahm will arrive in office without big debts to pay powerful local interests.

Beyond being rude on occasion, Rahm’s biggest flaw is that he can be too reactive and tactical—governing on the basis of what fire in the news cycle needs to be put out. The disciplined, strategic and programmatic quality of his campaign offers Chicagoans some hope that he has changed enough to allow him to become a historic mayor.

Jonathan Alter is a columnist for Newsweek and a contributing correspondent for NBC News. He is the author of The Promise: President Obama, Year One, a New York Times bestseller out in paperback in January. . Alter is also an originator and author of Newsweek's Conventional Wisdom Watch, which uses up, down and sideways arrows to measure and lampoon the news.