Rahm Emanuel—the new sheriff in town

Obama’s tough-talking former chief of staff sets out to transform Chicago
FILE - In this Jan. 4, 2011 file photo, Chicago mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel speaks at a news conference at the Better Boys Foundation in Chicago. As Emanuel prepares to take over as mayor on May 16, he is shaking things up behind the scenes and moving quickly to put his mark on City Hall. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green, File)
The new sheriff in town
Chris Helgren/Reuters

Rahm Emanuel’s inauguration as mayor of Chicago said it all. There was the allure of his powerful Washington friends—an impressive parade of attendees that included U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner—and the shadow of the city’s budget deficit of over US$500 million. The ceremony, in fact, took place in the Pritzker Pavilion, part of Millennium Park, an ambitious and over-budget development that symbolizes the city’s struggle to keep costs under control.

For America’s third-largest city, the event was the end of an era, one dominated by the Daley political dynasty, which controlled the mayor’s office from 1955 to 1976 under Richard J. Daley, and from 1989 until last week, under his son Richard M. Daley. The younger Daley is credited with turning Chicago from a manufacturing economy into a business and financial hub. The former mayor, though, also left the city burdened with unprecedented debt.

And while Emanuel worked as a fundraiser in the 1989 electoral campaign that first elected Daley, he spared no criticism of the outgoing administration, and during his first speech called on Chicagoans to “face the truth.” “It is time to take on the challenges that threaten the very future of our city: the quality of our schools, the safety of our streets, the cost and effectiveness of city government, and the urgent need to create and keep the jobs of the future right here in Chicago.” Emanuel’s fame as a relentless bulldog who, as the White House chief of staff, helped President Barack Obama shepherd the Democratic ranks and pass crucial congressional measures, surely helped him capture more than 50 per cent of the vote in February. Nicknamed “Rahmbo,” Emanuel seems to many to be the heavy-hitter needed to take on Chicago’s notoriously tough bureaucrats and unions and to replenish public coffers.

Loath to upset expectations, the mayor-to-be, a full week before moving into the mayor’s office, promised in his transition plan to shave US$75 million from city budgets within his first 100 days. The document lists 55 initiatives, everything from streamlining government bureaucracies, addressing gang violence, expanding the public transit network and even fixing the public school system, which currently graduates only about half of its students. Students can expect to spend as much as 90 more minutes in school a day now that Emanuel is in charge. While critics wonder if he’s set the bar too high, many agree with the assessment of the Chicago Tribune, which deemed the plan “audacious and refreshing.”

Emanuel’s return to Chicago, after being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2002 before becoming Obama’s chief of staff, surprised many. Some analysts have suggested that by taking on an administrative position, Emanuel is simply trying to plug a hole in his resumé. But Charles Wheelan, a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy, thinks running the Windy City may be his ultimate goal. Chicago, after all, must be a welcome change from Washington’s Byzantine backroom politics, he says. And this job, says Wheelan, “is simply more fun.”