Mayor Rahm Emanuel began his inaugural speech declaring that “more than any other time in our history, more than any other place in our country, the city of Chicago is ready for change.”
And then he immediately contradicted himself, by recalling conditions in the city when former Mayor Richard M. Daley took office:
“A generation ago, people were writing Chicago off as a dying city,” Emanuel said. “They said our downtown was failing, our neighborhoods were unlivable, our schools were the worst in the nation, and our politics had become so divisive we were referred to as Beirut on the Lake.”
In 1989, people wanted change. They wanted change in 1931, when they threw out the last Republican mayor, the corrupt, Capone-controlled William Hale Thompson, and elected Anton Cermak, an immigrant mayor who built the city’s first multi-ethnic coalition.
They wanted change in 1979, when Jane Byrne defeated the Machine’s candidate, Michael Bilandic. And they wanted change in 1983, when Chicago’s first black mayor, Harold Washington, defeated Byrne.
Emanuel was elected with the support of Chicago’s ruling political class -- his campaign was supported and tacitly endorsed by President Obama and Mayor Daley. The fact that he is mayor is a sign the city is happy with its leadership. He’s promised to improve the schools, reduce crime and bring jobs to Chicago -- but would Gery Chico, Miguel del Valle or Carol Moseley Braun have promised any less?
In the next four years, Chicago is going to change Rahm Emanuel more than Rahm Emanuel changes Chicago.
Emanuel is a D.C. politician. He ran a D.C. campaign, with million-dollar fundraisers. He sat for profiles in Time, Newsweek and GQ, while the Chicago Reader got a five-minute phone interview. His press conferences featured presidential symbols, such as podiums adorned with a “RAHM” placard. Instead of campaigning at neighborhood forums, he filmed expensive Internet ads.
Emanuel campaigned as a celebrity, and he wants to govern as a president. That federal attitude impressed the voters more than it will impress city employees. Every mayor would like to rule as an autocrat, but Emanuel wants to be more autocratic than most. Emanuel has already declared his intention to ignore the Chicago Teachers Union’s insistence on more pay for a longer school day.
Bet he compromises on that. To paraphrase his inaugural speech, over the next four years, Rahm Emanuel will learn to be a Chicagoan.
Buy this book! Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland's book, Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President , is available Amazon. Young Mr. Obama includes reporting on President Obama's earliest days in the Windy City, covering how a presumptuous young man transformed himself into presidential material. Buy it now!