Rahm Emanuel Could Stumble As Chicago’s Mayor

Even before former White House chief-of-staff and Mayor of Chicago-elect Rahm Emanuel decided to run for boss of America’s third-largest city, he already had a storied political career. A top aide to one of his election opponents referred to it in a USA TODAY piece this morning. Catalina Camia wrote:

“Running against Rahm felt like waking up every morning and running face-first into a gale-force hurricane,” Ken Snyder, media strategist for Gery Chico, told the Chicago News Cooperative.[Snyder noted that Emanuel — a former congressman and ex-aide to President Obama and President Bill Clinton — had advantages when it came to money, endorsements and celebrity cachet.

“He had $13 million. He had two beloved presidents. He had Hollywood stars. He had the tacit support of (retiring Mayor Richard M. Daley),” Snyder said, plus “a hell of a resume.”

The election is now over, but I can’t help but wonder if Rahm Emanuel hasn’t underestimated what it will take to succeed as Mayor of Chicago.

While the Daley family is moving out of City Hall, this doesn’t mean the mentality and politics that have become entrenched in the Windy City since Richard J. Daley was elected mayor in 1955 will be going away anytime soon. What am I talking about? From Rahm Emanuel’s victory speech last night (courtesy of the Chicago Tribune):

Thank you, Chicago, for this humbling victory.

All I can say, you sure know how to make a guy feel at home.

What makes this victory most gratifying is that it was built on votes from every corner of the city, from people who believe that a common set of challenges must be met with a common purpose.

It’s a victory for all those who believe that we can overcome the old divisions and the old ways that have held Chicago back.

It is easy to find differences, but we can never allow them to become divisions.

Tonight we are moving forward in the only way we truly can. Together. As one city, with one future.

And after five months, campaigning across this city and talking to thousands of Chicagoans from every community and every walk of life …

(Interruption from crowd: “We did it for you!”)

(Screeching halt). “We did it for you!” Not, we did it for the place where we live, the city we love- but “for you.”

And, while some may very well have acted solely to please the Rahmfather, I think a number of them really meant:

“We did it for us!”

Not “us” in the sense of better city government as much as “us” meaning favors, contracts, and jobs in a Rahm-led Chicago. From the unemployed campaign volunteer to the wealthy donor, many of these individuals expect something in return for their contributions to the cause.

You see, the “old ways,” as Emanuel called them, are alive and well in the “City By The Lake.”

“Ubi Est Mea?”

Pulitzer prize-winning newspaper columnist Mike Royko wrote in the Chicago Daily News back on October 27, 1967 (when “old man” Daley still ran the city):

“Let’s Update City’s Image”

Chicago needs a new city seal.

The old seal- with its themes of a garden city, an Indian, and early settler, and a cherub- is out of date.

We need a seal that captures the modern spirit of Chicago.

Therefore, I am launching a city-wide contest for a new seal. It is open to all doodlers, sketchers, and serious and amateur artists…

Once we have new city seal, we will need a new city motto. That I have provided. The old one is Urbs In Horto (City in a garden).

The invention of the concrete mixer has made the old motto meaningless.

The new motto- Ubi Est Mea- means “Where’s Mine?”

It is the watchword of the new Chicago, the cry of the money brigade, the chant of the city of the big wallet…

And it’s still around.

But seeing that Chicago is in such bad shape financially, what will Mayor-elect Emanuel be able to offer his “base?” After all, he will need them in any re-election bid. From the Associated Press’ Don Babwin and Tammy Webber this morning:

The city he inherits, though perhaps more beautiful than ever after years of extensive urban improvements, is in financial straits that it hasn’t seen since before Daley’s father, Mayor Richard J. Daley, came to power in the 1950s.

“Not since the Great Depression have the finances of the city been this precarious,” said Dominic Pacyga, a historian and author of “Chicago: A Biography.” The city’s next budget deficit could again exceed $500 million, mostly the result of reduced tax revenue from the recession, and could reach $1 billion if the city properly funds its pension system.

While the Emanuel administration might be able to “reward” supporters to a certain extent, financial constraints might handicap him from doling out city jobs and lucrative contracts as past administrations have been accused of. Babwin and Webber added:

Throughout the campaign, Emanuel has acknowledged he’ll have to make budget cuts, and has promised to spread the pain as fairly as possible, starting with his own office.

But, like the other candidates, he has been vague about how he’ll accomplish the reductions. And nothing he has suggested comes close to the projected deficit.

Emanuel said he can save $110 million by streamlining “outdated and duplicative work processes to focus on front-line service delivery,” according to his campaign. His campaign did not use the word “layoffs,” but it did allude to “reducing layers of management bureaucracy and consolidating redundant tasks.”

According to the Chicago Sun-Times’ Fran Spielman back on February 4, Emanuel is proposing to actively-combat cronyism. She wrote:

Careful not to criticize Mayor Daley directly, mayoral challenger Rahm Emanuel is proposing a series of reforms to “change the culture” of contract cronyism that has dominated the Daley years.

“We’ve got to change the culture. We’re in the business of delivering services. This is not about rewarding friends and family members,” Emanuel said.

If he’s elected mayor, Emanuel wants to shine a brighter light on the $110 million in no-bid city contracts awarded each year and force companies that help draft bid specifications to first disclose how they or their associates stand to benefit.

Problem is, such cronyism is alleged to have kept the Daleys in power, among other things. If Emanuel can’t or won’t reward his supporters, I doubt they’ll be working on his behalf (“we did it for you!”) come re-election time. It’s the “Chicago Way.”

To make matters worse, the Chicago City Council, who have always been afflicted by the “where’s mine?” syndrome, were placated by the Daleys to such an extent that they served merely as a rubber-stamp body in recent times. Now they are becoming more vocal seeing there’s a new sheriff in town. From the AP piece:

Members of the City Council, including a number elected Tuesday, have made clear they will demand more authority after years of domination by Daley.

More authority? Most likely this means more benefits for them and their wards to ensure the ink will be wet for the rubber stamp.

Then there’s the municipal and school employees. Declining funds and staffing levels have taken a toll on morale, and no doubt they’ll be wanting more resources from the incoming mayor. From Babwin and Webber:

He’ll have to find new leadership for the struggling public school system, as two top interim executives plan to leave. He’ll also need a new police chief, having said he would not renew Police Superintendent Jody Weis’ contract. The department is suffering from low morale and staffing estimated at 1,000 officers below previous levels.

Having worked in municipal government for a number of years, I’ve witnessed just how effective disgruntled city employees can be at throwing a wrench in the works should they so choose.

Perhaps the biggest potential stumbling block for Rahm Emanuel in Chicago is the reaction of the general public if conditions don’t improve. Many Chicagoans feel they have the right to ask “where’s mine?” if only for the reason that they are residents of the city. They will expect the new mayor to right a sinking ship. Residents will demand more jobs, better schools, safer streets, more services- you know how it goes, as this isn’t just unique to Chicago. Emanuel, like his former boss in the White House, may be depending on increased revenue from a sustained economic recovery to meet these demands. I don’t see it in the cards anytime soon however. If the economy continues to flounder or even takes a nosedive under Mayor-elect Emanuel’s watch, he could probably expect his political fate to look something along the lines of what market forecaster Robert Prechter wrote in his book Conquer the Crash: You Can Survive and Prosper in a Deflationary Depression:

Leaders in power during financial collapses are rarely directly at fault. Usually years of mismanagement by others set the stage. The leaders in power at the time, though, always appear inept, because they take actions designed to “help the economy,” which fail, or they decline to take actions and are blamed for fiddling while Rome burns. Regardless of what they do or don’t do, the public blames them and their party and kicks them out.

I wish Mayor-elect Emanuel all the best in trying to revive Chicago’s fortunes. It’s a world-class city full of wonderful people. But if he’s unable to cope with the dynamic behind “Ubi Est Mea?” he might want to be prepared to add “one-term Chicago mayor” to that star-studded resume of his.


Camia, Catalina. “Running against Rahm Emanuel like facing ‘hurricane.’” USA TODAY. 23 Feb. 2011. (http://content.usatoday.com/communities/onpolitics/post/2011/02/rahm-emanuel-chicago-mayor–1-2/1). 23 Feb. 2011.

“Rahm Emanuel’s victory speech.” Chicago Tribune. 23 Feb. 2011. (http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/elections/chi-emanuel-victory-speech-text,0,292574.story). 23 Feb. 2011.

Babwin, Don and Webber, Tammy. “Emanuel faces big money woes as next Chicago mayor.” Associated Press. 23 Feb. 2011. (http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110223/ap_on_re_us/us_chicago_mayor). 23 Feb. 2011.

Spielman, Fran. “Emanuel urges city reforms on no-bid contracts.” Chicago Sun-Times. 4 Feb. 2011. (http://www.suntimes.com/news/elections/emanuel/3653019-505/contract-bid-emanuel-daley-contracts.html). 23 Feb. 2011.

Prechter, Robert R., Jr. Conquer The Crash. Hoboken: John Wiley& Sons, 2002.


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Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011 Government

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