Mayor Rahm Emanuel‘s recipe for “change” is so unlike The Chicago Way it’s hard for this native to believe in it as much as I would like to. I hope he pulls it off.
What he’s promising is nothing less than toppling nearly a century-old political culture that has comprised everything from “good graft” to outright corruption. My own memory of Chicago mayors goes back as far as Martin H. Kennelly, an ineffective reformer who got dumped by the dark forces who installed Richard J. Daley as mayor. I recall nothing comparable to what Emanuel promises to bring.
Since Kennelly, Chicago has had mayors who had either given lip service to reform (that would include Harold Washington who basically installed his own beneficiaries without really changing the spoils system) or were short-timers whose footprints on the city’s political habits have been as permanent as those on the lakefront. That would include Eugene Sawyer, Jane Byrne and Michael A. Bilandic, whose terms were not devoid of accomplishments, but did little to attack the city’s legendary, reptilian and sometimes celebrated political culture.
For the last few weeks, Richard M. Daley‘s accomplishments have filled the newspapers and broadcasts, but nothing he has done compares with Emanuel’s promises of what’s to come from this day forward. Daley has been a builder of lots of stuff, not all of it great or even good, and managed, by distributing the largesse far and wide, to tear the city’s races and ethnic groups away from each other’s throats. Which was great and good. But when it came to leading the city out of the swamp of costly and damaging corruption, his leadership was nil. When his insiders were convicted of corruption, he morphed into Mayor Big Shrug, as if he knew nothing about it and his conscience was clear. In a farewell interview with WLS-Ch. 7, Daley even sounded forgiving.
There’s no shrugging or forgiving on Emanuel’s part. Delve into the pages and pages of campaign promises and his 71-page “Chicago 2011: Transition Plan” for a whiff of the fumigation to come. Ethics reform. Professional procurement. The introduction of meritocracy into a stale bureaucracy. Financial accountability. For example, his sights are aimed directly at a bloated Chicago Public Schools administration, lazy or incompetent principals and teachers, and the Chicago Teachers Union, all responsible for the city’s stubbornly bad schools. By Emanuel’s own accounts, he is taking on the very people who crafted, nurtured and defended The Chicago Way of life.
All these problems — from the schools and crime to corruption and neighborhood abandonment –were handed to Emanuel by the Daley administration, yet Emanuel gives the departing mayor laurels for a job well done. It would be as if Barack Obama had praised George W. Bush‘s many accomplishments while promising to fix them all.
Emanuel’s wide appeal to the voters can be found not in the details of his campaign literature and transition plans, but in the attitude they represent; their aura is decidedly one of change for the better. My own guess is that Emanuel’s cross-city appeal reflected a desire to replace a Mayor Shrug with a Mayor Tough Guy. Emanuel is the not-Daley. A knuckle-cracking butt-kicker. Rahm the Ram. A mayor who has picked a school and a police superintendent made in Emanuel’s own no-nonsense image.
Perhaps it shows that Chicagoans share something with the tea party folks: They’re fed up. For Chicago, this would be a sea change.
Yet, Chicago-style cynicism intrudes. My Chicago voice tells me, “Don’t be a chump.” The forces of resistance against Emanuel are too entrenched to be moved. Or, he doesn’t mean all that he says. Nothing will change. The guy is a creature of the machine and always will be.
I hope that’s wrong. Call me a patsy and a sucker, but I see something different about Emanuel as a would-be reformer, unlike previous do-gooders. Old lakefront independents and other “goo-goos” stood not a chance against the likes of Richard J. Daley, Edward Vrdolyak, Fred Roti and Tom Keane. But Emanuel is as tough as any of them.
It’s a good bet that Emanuel will get something done. It has yet to be seen whether it will lead to a well-managed, honest and effective government or just a new version Old Chicago.