Meet the New Boss

Tattered finances, broken schools, rampant crime—Rahm Emanuel is taking on an entrenched bureaucracy and a legacy of corruption to fix the problems that American voters care about most deeply. Can the mayor of Chicago make the city that works work?
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Tim Klein

I was walking around my sister’s Near North neighborhood in Chicago recently and came upon a small patch of green called Bauler Park. Paddy Bauler was the rollicking tavern owner and 43rd Ward alderman who in 1955 famously shouted, upon hearing of the election of Richard J. Daley as mayor: “Chicago ain’t ready for reform!”

More than half a century later, the man who not long ago represented Bauler’s neighborhood in Congress insists that Chicago is finally ready. Rahm Emanuel, who succeeded old man Daley’s son Rich as mayor last May, has to be careful not to repudiate the Daleys, who helped nurture his rise. And “The Missile,” as the Chicago journalist James Warren dubbed him, is hardly a good-government “goo goo.” “Taking the politics out of politics is like taking the money out of capitalism,” Emanuel told me during his mayoral campaign. But in locking on to his three high-value targets—the city’s tattered finances, a murder rate twice that of New York, and schools that aren’t preparing Chicago’s future workforce—Rahm (as he’s known everywhere) is bent on wholesale reform of “the Chicago Way.”

Ever since the film The Untouchables popularized the term, there’s been some misunderstanding about what the Chicago Way means. In the movie, Sean Connery’s Irish cop describes to Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness how to get Al Capone: “He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue! That’s the Chicago Way!” And that will be Rahm’s way, at least some of the time. But in practice, this vague urban modus operandi is less about vengeance than venality—payoffs, kickbacks, and ghost-hiring, not to mention the destructive if perfectly legal tradition of cozy union contracts and the newer “pinstripe patronage” of sketchy bond deals and privatized city functions. In its mid-century heyday, the Chicago “machine” often delivered services along with the corruption, but the parts got rusty. In the decade following the first Mayor Daley’s death, in 1976, the city’s political structure broke into warring factions, which beginning in 1989 were brought into a surprisingly sturdy alliance by his son, who developed strong ties to the black and Latino communities.

Richard M. Daley has a lot to show for his 22 years in office. He built the spectacular Millennium Park, began school reform in a system that in the 1980s was considered the worst in urban America, and helped revitalize fading neighborhoods that had long been the backbone of Chicago. But he did much of it on borrowed money, and by 2010 his profligate spending, a declining population, and the economic downturn combined to send the city $637 million into the red. Low-income kids were still getting shot every day; the schools were still a mess; and grumbling grew louder about the mayor using half a billion a year in economic-development money like a piggy bank for pet projects. With the failed bid for the 2016 Olympics, a sense of ennui set in, something Rahm recalls as “the most dangerous thing … the sense of capacity being scaled back and questioned, second-guessed.” Daley announced in September of 2010 that he wouldn’t seek reelection, and Rahm jumped into the race.

For months, Rahm waited for a final ruling on his eligibility, which was challenged on the dubious grounds that he wasn’t really a Chicago resident. But his decision to descend on Chicago from his perch in Washington had its advantages. His loyalty to President Obama gave him immediate street cred with African Americans, who make up 40 percent of the vote. And his stature as a national figure helped him prevail without the support of the usual party hacks, plugged-in local contractors, and intransigent unions. (Much of his campaign money was raised in big donations—just before the law changed to limit them—from local CEOs, out-of-town hedge-fund managers, and Hollywood moguls.) A tactical thinker known for advocating small-bore or symbolic initiatives in both the Clinton and Obama White Houses (for instance, he begged Obama to back incremental, not large-scale, health-care reform), Rahm is more strategic nowadays, and intensely focused on his sweeping vision for the future of Chicago. He knows that to achieve it, he must extinguish many of the old ways of doing business.

I grew up near Wrigley Field, amused by the lore of machine precinct captains reminding residents to “vote early and often.” I skipped school every Election Day to canvass for earnest reform candidates, but loved the roguish charm of the city’s politics and inhaled books with titles like Clout, Boss, and Don’t Make No Waves, Don’t Back No Losers. Younger generations of Chicagoans are not so enamored. “They’re cynical about City Hall, post-Blago,” Rahm tells me, referring to the recent sentencing of Rod Blagojevich, who is the second Illinois governor now behind bars (George Ryan is the other) and the fourth in 40 years. The best-known charges against Blagojevich involved his efforts to win favors in exchange for naming someone to fill Barack Obama’s Senate seat after Obama became president. Rahm spoke often on the phone with the governor in that period, and grew so suspicious that the FBI was wiretapping the calls that, as he later bragged, “I didn’t drop the fucking ‘f bomb’ once!” (Rahm was never implicated in any wrongdoing.)

For all the attention given to Obama’s Senate seat, most of the rap against Blagojevich involved depressingly routine “pay to play” shakedowns, in which the governor was nailed for being unsubtle in the way he demanded campaign contributions from those aiming for state contracts. The same thing had gone on less brazenly at the city level under Rich Daley, who was untouched by scandal personally but, like his father, often turned a blind eye to the influence-peddling around him.

Rahm quotes an iconic Chicago line to make his point on reform: “We don’t want nobody nobody sent.” His aim, he says, is to build a Chicago where everybody is a somebody, even if nobody sent ’em. The mayor’s office says that it has recorded more than 6.4 million total visits to the city’s new Web site, which, among other new transparency measures, posts all government salaries. During the debate over last year’s budget, more than 40,000 Chicagoans commented online about where to make cuts. Paddy Bauler is cursing Twitter from the grave.

“We are known as ‘the city that works,’” Rahm says. “You gotta make sure it works for everybody and not just a few.” He insists that the deeply entrenched system is already beginning to change: “One mother having difficulty with CPS [Chicago Public Schools] posts something on Facebook about schools. She got called that day by CPS. When the fuck did that ever happen around here? Another person tweeted about a pothole on her street and the Chicago Department of Transportation was at the pothole the next day, filling it!”

Sitting in his cavernous office on the fifth floor of City Hall, Rahm lowers his outstretched, empty palms, then raises them above his waist. “If you have your hands above the table, you can’t deal from the bottom of the deck,” he says. When he sees that this gets a smile out of me, he warms to his new metaphor.

“Stop putting your hands below the table!” he exclaims, as if addressing the ghosts of boodlers and ward heelers past, the ones who in the 1960s led the great columnist Mike Royko to propose changing the motto on the seal of Chicago from Urbs in Horto (“City in a Garden”) to Ubi Est Mea (“Where’s Mine?”). To encourage better table manners, the mayor has required the posting of all no-bid contracts (“The no-bidders know: don’t fuck with this”) and launched innovative “reverse auctions,” wherein bidders bid down the cost of construction projects and the city saves money. “Rather than sealed bids,” Rahm explains, “Jonathan Alter Inc. will post his bid online, and now Chris Mather LLC [his communications chief at the time, sitting nearby] will say, ‘Okay, I can beat Jonathan; here’s mine online.’”

Reverse auctions are but one of a hundred Missile launches since Rahm took office.

Rahm may have been a risky purchase, but Chicagoans are lining up to buy him. Last summer, his approval ratings from his private polls (leaked by him) hit 79 percent, and his polls show him down only about 10 points since then. So far, almost everyone—except members of the Chicago Teachers Union, the Amalgamated Transit Union, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and their backers—likes Rahm’s performance.

“Rahm is what the city needs. You gotta have a tough manager,” former Illinois Governor Jim Thompson, a moderate Republican, tells me, expressing a representative view of the downtown business community. Steve Chapman, a conservative Chicago Tribune columnist who lambasted Rahm when he was White House chief of staff, wrote a column last fall saying that so far there was little reason to criticize the mayor. I found this perspective common among my liberal friends, too. Don Rose, a longtime voice of progressive Chicago and a tough man to please, is concerned that Rahm has no major anti-poverty plan yet, but says he’s doing a good job modernizing “slovenly government functions.”

The good feeling will fade with various flaps, feuds, and freak-outs to come. It always does. In May, the city will host the NATO summit, and protesters from around the world have promised a “Chicago Spring.”* Rahm has already had to back off his tough new ordinances that would have increased fines for resisting arrest, a sign that he might lack the finesse to get through the summit without ugly clashes. Sooner or later, he’ll face bruising strikes and have his rocky innings with Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and power brokers like Michael Madigan, speaker of the Illinois House, and Ed Burke, the Chicago City Council’s finance-committee chairman, who plotted against him during the campaign. He is already at odds with Joe Ferguson, the city’s inspector general, over whether a mayor obsessed with accountability for others should apply it to himself and let the IG be independent (Rahm argues the position falls under the mayor’s office).

The Tribune believes that for all the promises of transparency, “the mayor’s office is opaque” and doesn’t let the public see how decisions are made, as the hard-charging reporter David Kidwell told Rahm in a confrontational and sarcastic (on both sides) February interview. The Tribune, suspicious that the city was expanding the use of speed cameras at traffic intersections more to raise revenue than to increase safety, asked for 165 internal e-mails on the issue and received only 25, none of them from the mayor. (He views e-mails as comparable to private phone conversations and staff meetings and thus sees no need to make them all public.) To win support for the cameras, Rahm had claimed publicly that Chicago was among the worst big cities for pedestrian fatalities, when in fact it’s among the best. The newspaper, for its part, virtually ignored a study showing that cameras had cut fatalities by 60 percent in the areas where they’d been tried. He got the better of this argument, but because he can be as petulant as Rich Daley, he will offend plenty of people before long. They will lie in wait until his popularity wanes, then pounce.

And yet, I can’t help holding out hope that Rahm’s success in his first year gives him a fighting chance to have not just a good run as mayor but a historic one. He has established useful precedents for dealing successfully with Springfield, where he helped lobby through a model school-reform bill, and with the City Council, where against all expectations—including Rahm’s—his first “austerity budget” was approved 50–0. And his relentlessness about measuring success and staying connected to voters (he takes the “L” to work a couple days a week, to chat with commuters) will serve him well.

While raising expectations can breed disappointment, as President Obama has found, it can also build momentum for even more-ambitious change. More than a year ago, I stood in a union hall on the Near West Side and heard Rahm give his Election Night victory speech. After the platitudes and self-congratulation, he turned unusually serious. “We have not won anything until kids can go to school thinking of their studies and not their safety,” he told the crowd. Then he repeated it for emphasis: “We have not won anything.” Rahm knew that gangs terrorize kids every day across broad swaths of the South and West Sides. He was aiming high and daring Chicago to remember.

Rahm Israel Emanuel was born in 1959, two years after me, and as Chicago Jews immersed in politics, we have superficially similar backgrounds. But he returned to the city to work on campaigns after getting his degree from Sarah Lawrence, then gravitated home after stints in Washington. I go back mostly to visit family.

My parents met Rahm before I did, and disagreed with each other about him. My mother, the late Joanne Alter, was a feminist reformer who went to the first Mayor Daley in 1972 and told him that it was the 20th century and he must let women into the Democratic Party. Daley, clever about neutralizing opposition, slated her for a position near the bottom of the ticket, commissioner of the Water Reclamation District, and she became the first woman elected to public office in Cook County. Later, she turned down a young Rahm Emanuel for a job on one of her campaigns because she thought he was arrogant and obnoxious, the kind of guy, she said, who was always looking over your shoulder to see if someone more important was in the room (although she would have loved his present-day focus on cleaning up the riverbanks of the Chicago River, one of her pet causes). My father, Jim Alter, a retired Chicago businessman, has long admired Rahm’s political skills. He was impressed that his congressman managed to both offer outstanding constituent services and rise in just four years to the House leadership. It didn’t hurt when Rahm arranged for a local documentary to be made about World War II veterans in his district that featured my father’s exploits as a combat aviator.

I’ve been writing about Rahm periodically since 1992, when he broke national Democratic Party records as a fund-raiser for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign. He was notorious that year for threatening millionaires twice his age that they’d be screwed if they didn’t max out now, a threat that, even when unspoken, should keep his campaign coffers overstuffed in the years ahead. After impressing Clinton with his management of the inauguration, Rahm proved so annoying in the White House that Hillary Clinton tried to fire him. He simply refused to go, rehabilitated himself by shepherding the 1994 crime bill and other Clinton initiatives through Congress, and proved that he was one of only a handful of people in Washington who could actually get something done.

Chicagoans like having a rich mayor; it gives them one less thing to worry about. Rahm made his bundle (more than $18 million) in two and a half years in the Chicago office of Wasserstein Perella, largely because he was lucky enough to be there when the investment bank was sold. Against the odds, he got himself elected to the House of Representatives in 2002, with the help of Daley and his own better-than-expected common touch. His legend grew in 2006, after he won control of the House back for the Democrats as head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and he set his sights on being the first Jewish speaker. When, just before the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama asked him to be chief of staff if he won, Rahm hesitated, confiding to anyone within earshot how hard it was to give up the autonomy of elected office. Inside the White House, he helped Obama avoid another depression and amass the most extensive legislative record since Lyndon Johnson, but the job left him exhausted and unfulfilled. Almost from the moment he arrived, he told me and other reporters that he would run for mayor of Chicago in a heartbeat if Rich Daley decided not to seek reelection in 2011.

Rahm knows I find him able and impressively hyperactive, but when I asked him last fall whether he’s too combative to wear well with the public, he proved my point by getting testy. “Don’t stereotype me for how you knew me when I was 24, when now I’m 51 and I’m a different person and I’m a more mature person. Okay? Don’t write within your stereotypes. Okay? I’m smarter about the pitches I have to swing at. When I grew up, I had to swing at them all.” He cites several examples to prove he knows that, as Ted Kennedy liked to say, “Honey works as well as vinegar,” from courtesy calls to labor leaders who opposed him, to what he says is the first-ever reception hosted by a Chicago mayor in honor of Springfield legislators. And instead of trying to strip Alderman Burke of his widely resented 24-hour, four-man security detail, Rahm negotiated a reduction of the detail to two retired police officers. “He’s always known when to step on the gas, but he’s developed the ability to throttle down and work circuitously rather than running through walls,” says David Axelrod, another Chicagoan and now the chief strategist of Obama’s reelection campaign, who remains a close friend. Rahm’s trying to be less profane (at least in public) and is no longer thrilled to be called “Rahmbo,” after the Sylvester Stallone character who invades North Vietnam by himself.

No one ever becomes “a different person,” but greater maturity is always possible. Rahm’s older brother, Ezekiel, an oncologist and medical ethicist who worked in the Obama White House and is writing a book titled Growing Up Emanuel (the third brother, Ari, runs a large Hollywood talent agency), says he hasn’t seen Rahm so content in more than 20 years. “I know the world finds it hard to believe, but he’s calmer now, maybe because of his family. And he’s more articulate about his own thoughts and more willing to break down for others what he knows intuitively. On the other hand, you’ve got eternal truths—he’s impatient, and the most important quality for him is execution. That’s inherited genetically from my dad [a pediatrician who fought in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948]. He was always saying, ‘Get on with it. Get it done.’”

Rahm does seem much happier than he did a couple years ago, when I interviewed him at the White House. After he took office last spring, he joked to his predecessor: “Rich, you lied to me. You said this is a good job. It’s actually a great job. If I’d known how great, I would have primaried you.” These are the kinds of stories that generate affection. Bruce Reed, currently Vice President Biden’s chief of staff and a co-author with Emanuel of the 2006 book The Plan: Big Ideas for America, likes to say that those who don’t hate Rahm love him a lot. Even his intensity can be endearing. “Lunch with Rahm is like speed dating,” Dick Durbin, the senior senator from Illinois, told me. “He’ll bring up 30 items in an hour, and if you’re late, he’ll squeeze the 30 into 30 minutes.”

The mayor’s claims that he has mellowed ring a little hollow, given his track record. He said the same thing when he went to Congress and then when he reached the Obama White House, before the leaks of hair-raising accounts that made him seem like the same old rude guy. But the abuse he delivers has a way of inspiring loyalty. Several former aides compare him to a coach whose tough-love attitude is appreciated only in retrospect. One fed-up White House official told me a couple of years ago that Rahm “treats us all like we’re Lloyd,” a reference to the Asian American secretary on the HBO show Entourage, who is endlessly abused by Ari Gold, the over-caffeinated character based on Ari Emanuel. But the same official later admitted that she missed Rahm’s insult-rich Jewish humor and preferred it to the insular, corporate approach of Bill Daley, who got his job as chief of staff in part because Rahm pushed Obama to hire him.

Any new maturity comes from Rahm’s almost maniacal discipline. But it is frequently tested, as when during the mayoral campaign he faced a grueling all-day public hearing over whether he should be allowed to stay on the ballot. I’d asked him at the time how he kept his legendary impatience in check through several hours of personal invective and conspiracy theories flung at him by a Star Wars–cantina collection of Chicagoans. Rahm says he looked at a picture of his wife, Amy Rule, and their three children that he kept on the hearing-room table and remembered how his family teased his youngest child, Leah, about memorizing a Thomas Paine speech while wearing her retainer. “I kept looking at the picture and hearing my inner voice,” Rahm says. “‘These are the thimes that thiy men’s thouls.’”

After that experience, no one was surprised that Rahm abandoned Rich Daley’s practice of taking town-hall questions directly from voters in favor of questions e-mailed in or submitted on Facebook. His staff says that he interacts daily with average Chicagoans, so why waste time on there’s-a-dog-on-my-lawn complaints? But screening many of the questions plays into the impression of the mayor as a man obsessed with orchestrating events and cultivating his public image. He doesn’t seem to have noticed that even the president of the United States takes questions from all comers at town-hall events.

This doesn’t quite make Rahm the control freak of popular imagination. “He wants to do the right thing, desperately,” says Garry McCarthy, his superintendent of police. “People like that are sometimes prone toward micromanagement. He does not micromanage me. He tells me what he needs, [but] doesn’t tell me how to do it.” McCarthy is learning how Rahm—in Congress, the White House, or City Hall—often practices government-through-newspapers. “He’ll read something in the paper and call me up and say, ‘What is this? I didn’t know about it.’” His M.O. illuminates how crucial a vigorous press is to problem-solving in the public sector. It’s the positive side of his obsession with publicity.

As his brother suggested, Rahm’s quick mind can sometimes be obscured by his tangled tongue. This verbal awkwardness in public (“We have a high unemployment,” and “the Wall Street” bears the blame, he said on Meet the Press) is a trait he inexplicably shares with all recent Chicago mayors except Harold Washington. Otherwise, he represents a major stylistic departure from his predecessors. Nearly every 20th-century mayor was pudgy and from the wards. Rahm is a trim yoga devotee and former ballet dancer raised in well-to-do suburban Wilmette. This somehow fits the new Chicago. As you pass all the hip new restaurants and gleaming downtown office buildings, it’s Rahm who seems to personify the city that Rich Daley built, where the children of ethnics who fled integration in the 1960s are returning from white suburbs to live in some of the same neighborhoods where their grandparents did, only now they’re made up less of immigrants from Poland and Mexico than of young professionals from Northbrook and River Forest.

Traveling around the city, I see Apple stores, J.Crews, and Whole Foods on avenues I remember containing slag heaps, warehouses, and taverns. The rebirth of Wicker Park and Bucktown is old news, but in recent years neighborhoods like Bronzeville (largely African American) and Logan Square (largely Hispanic) are also looking better.

There are still plenty of ethnics—Latinos make up more than 20 percent of the city’s population—but downtown and the North Side have much more of a Manhattan feel than when I was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s. In those days, the world of reformist “lakefront liberals” extended only a few blocks west of Lake Michigan and made up no more than three or four wards on the North Side and one—the 5th Ward, at the University of Chicago—on the South Side.

Now the political map has flipped, and the remaining ward bosses Rahm reels off (“Burke, Cullerton, John Daley …”) number fewer than half a dozen out of 50 wards. “You can count them on one hand, and I’m doing it with my half finger,” he says, making light of when he sliced himself while working at an Arby’s in high school and almost died from an infection that cost him half a digit. He adds that a third of the City Council is new, which gives him a large group with whom to use his legislative skills to build coalitions.

But running the city is harder than it used to be. The dismantlement of the machine began in 1969, with a lawsuit brought by a reformer named Michael Shakman. While the resulting “Shakman Decrees,” which eventually restricted most patronage, have hardly ended hiring and firing based on political connections, a series of rulings has left room for only about 1,000 political appointees out of a city workforce of 33,000. That means far fewer workers like Fraser Robinson, a foot soldier in the first Mayor Daley’s organization whose work as a precinct captain helped him get promoted to pump operator in the Water Department. His daughter grew up to be Michelle Obama.

When I ask about precinct captains like the president’s late father-in-law, Rahm says they don’t even exist anymore. Elections in Chicago are now more like those in the rest of the country, where block organizations are in eclipse. “So when you say ‘Where’s the precinct?,’ it’s at a TV station, okay?”

Rahm is up at 5:15 every morning to swim, bike, or run. (He finished ninth out of 80 in his age group in a triathlon last August.) The fifth-floor staff uses a football metaphor when describing an average day with the mayor. He’s constantly calling audibles, they say, jumping out of the car unexpectedly for a brisk walk amid surprised pedestrians; stopping unannounced at schools, police precincts, and fire stations; jamming a new meeting into an already overstuffed schedule.

One day I go with him to the Peter Cooper Dual Language Academy, an elementary school housed in a 127-year-old building in Pilsen. He touches base with the Latina principal, a good source of information about the neighborhood, before heading into a couple of classrooms with his daughter Leah in tow (her private school was out of session that day). The first-graders tell him they’ve been reading a book called Llama, Llama, Red Pajama, and the mayor recalls, “I used to love feety pajamas. If you ran really good, you could slide a little on a long wood floor.” Informed that a quiz is coming, he twists his neck and squeaks awkwardly, “A quiz today? A quiz!” I feel like I’m watching Kindergarten Cop, except the Arnold Schwarzenegger character is only 5 feet 7 inches and 150 pounds.

Later, Rahm is nearly as playful with bankers from China’s sovereign-wealth funds. He addresses them at breakfast, then scoots over to Citicorp on short notice at midday for a little more schmoozing. The mayor tells these Chinese Masters of the Universe, who help manage funds worth more than $800 billion, that he cannot let outside companies lease and operate city services but that he welcomes foreign investment in things like high-tech water meters and the 1,000 miles of new water pipes that will be needed soon in Chicago, where a fifth of the pipes are at least a century old and many of them regularly burst. “You do the right investment, I’m gonna name a [Chicago deep-dish] pizza after you,” he promises the Chinese visitors.

The key word is invest—not sell or lease. Rich Daley was a big privatizer and had some early success in selling off the Chicago Skyway bridge and other assets. But the most unpopular decision of his entire tenure was to lease the city’s parking meters for 75 years to a consortium organized by Morgan Stanley in exchange for nearly $1.2 billion. Chicagoans were outraged to be saddled with expensive, inconvenient box meters that reminded them of what they loathe about New York. (Rahm’s own more palatable parking gambit is an added-on $2-a-day congestion fee for using downtown garages and public lots during the week.) Looking forward, Rahm has to figure out how to maintain city management of city assets but find new revenue streams. The idea is to “monetize, not privatize,” he says. “I don’t have to sell something as the only way to monetize its value.”

Take the Port of Chicago, a hub of international trade. “You know what the Chicago port does for its major revenue?,” Rahm asks sharply. “Runs the best 18-hole golf course on the South Side. That’s the absolute truth.” He’s sure there must be a way to squeeze the port for more revenue, but he hasn’t found it yet.

The model is the Water Department. Thanks to Lake Michigan, Chicago is the Saudi Arabia of clean water, but the Water Department keeps more than half of the water it pumps in the city and peddles the rest to other jurisdictions for much less than it could. So to help pay for the new water pipes, Rahm will nearly double water rates, to $3.82 per 1,000 gallons, and he is ending a long-standing tradition whereby every religious institution and nonprofit in the city (6,668 organizations in all) got water for free. When churches yelped, Rahm showed his flexibility by letting the new rates phase in over three years and giving discounts for small institutions.

He also defied his steamroller image by modifying his plans to shorten library hours and raise motor-vehicle fees. But even low-hanging fruit in the budget couldn’t be picked without confronting the old Chicago Way. For decades, garbage collection and street cleaning were the responsibility not just of City Hall but of 50 ward aldermen who each commanded his or her own trucks and street sweepers. Workers were picked up each day at ward offices, and the trucks literally turned around at the ward borders. Just by reorganizing these functions on a rational grid system, Rahm says, he will save the city $60 million a year. Tree trimming is next on his agenda.

Rahm wants to end patronage not because it offends his conscience but because it is costly and inefficient. All departments are moving to performance pay, and managers will be held accountable for bloat. In his first budget, Rahm eliminated 500 middle- and senior-management positions.

The mayor sees Darwinian public-private contests as a way to drive efficiencies. He is staging a highly publicized “managed competition” between Chicago’s Department of Streets and Sanitation and private but unionized firms like Waste Management, to determine which does a better job picking up paper, plastic, and glass for recycling. Rahm was delighted that the city recycling workers, anxious to keep their jobs, suddenly experienced nearly zero absenteeism and sharply improved productivity. This performance competition for contracts will be replicated in other areas soon. To the consternation of labor, the mayor refuses to pay what he calls a “public-employment premium,” by which he means he won’t pay higher than market rates for services that happen to be performed by government employees.

So far, Rahm’s bigger budget hurdle is the state of Illinois. His brainstorm last year was a city-owned casino, which could eventually generate several hundred million dollars in revenue. It’s cheesy, but the logic is appealing. Why lose all that money to suburban and Indiana-based casinos? The project has been slowed by squabbling with Governor Quinn, who objects to the part of the deal (included for the benefit of downstate legislators) that would allow slot machines inside those temples of rectitude known as racetracks.

One day at a firehouse (I agreed not to disclose which one), Rahm gets into a vigorous discussion of pensions, the most burdensome issue for cities and states across the country. The firemen are upset that they’ve paid in all these years and the city hasn’t fulfilled its promises.

“If I were you, I’d be as pissed off as you. We signed not one, not two, but multiple contracts all reasserting the same thing,” Rahm says, implicitly damning the bargains Daley made.

But then, hands on hips, he looks them in the eye and says, “Here’s the deal.” He reminds the firemen that, as he said straight-up during the campaign, he would have to raise property taxes by 90 percent just to cover police and fire pensions, and there’s no way he’ll do that. So Chicago, like other cities, should begin to shift toward a system where everyone on the public payroll can choose to stay in the pension plan with a higher employee contribution or move to a 401(k) with a more generous employer match than offered in the private sector.

“If this was Chicago Tool and they didn’t pay into their pension, I bet there’d be a whole lot of people in the federal penitentiary,” says one fireman.

Rahm tells them that’s wrong. “A lot of companies go bankrupt, and it’s a forced reduction, mandated by the judge. I’m actually trying to negotiate it, okay?” He urges them to support a deal now, when they have leverage. “I believe these are life decisions,” he says calmly.

The fireman who has been giving him the hardest time says: “Whether I agree or disagree, everyone appreciates you coming here.”

On explosive issues like pensions, Rahm hopes he’s found a third way between solidarity with labor and war against it. “You’ve noticed I don’t have any of Ohio’s or Wisconsin’s problems,” Rahm says to me, referring to backlashes in those states against conservative governors who took on organized labor. “I stuck to my knitting about reform in government. I didn’t try to do what they were trying to do on [ending] collective bargaining.”

Rahm’s third way worked at McCormick Place, the country’s largest convention center. The stories about the unions there are legion. My father used to own an air-conditioning and refrigeration wholesaling business, and he recalls a trade show in the 1950s at the original McCormick Place (destroyed by fire), where he saw a loose screw on one of the refrigerator panels in his exhibition. When he took out a dime to tighten it, a union rep scolded him that if he didn’t stop, the unions would shut down the entire trade show. For decades, nothing changed. Tiny exhibitors weren’t even allowed to move their own mom-and-pop booths out of their station wagons without paying a union member to stand around and watch. In the 1990s, Chicago lost its historic place as the No. 1 city for conventions, slipping behind Las Vegas and later Orlando. An activity that brings 66,000 jobs and $8 billion into the local economy—Chicago’s biggest single commercial engine outside its airports—was in serious jeopardy.

The situation came to a head in 2010, when the managers of McCormick Place won legislation in Springfield for new rules that were likely illegal under federal labor law but increased the pressure for progress toward a settlement. At a press conference at McCormick Place last fall, I watched Rahm bask in the glow of the deal: “This is the worst news for Orlando and Las Vegas! McCormick Place is open for business!” It’s not clear how much convention business Chicago can recoup, but at least some rationality has been restored. The settlement allows trucks to be unloaded by two unionized workers instead of three; small vehicles to be unloaded without union “help”; and less overtime.

The confluence of events and an impending court battle made a deal doable without Rahm, but John Coli, the head of the Teamsters local, tells me that his relationship with the mayor helped immensely. When I ask Rahm about the settlement, he chuckles that the Teamsters’ endorsement of his candidacy—the only major union backing he received—came on the lowest day of the campaign last winter, when a state appellate court temporarily ruled Rahm ineligible for the ballot. “John’s very pragmatic,” Rahm says. “The guy shows balls.”

Sometimes it’s wiser not to show them. One evening, Rahm dashes out to flip the switch on new festive lights that will adorn State Street downtown. The event is interrupted by a few dozen Occupy Chicago hecklers whose message is unintelligible, but the mayor shortens his remarks to a couple of sentences and beats a hasty retreat, avoiding even a hint of confrontation. His policy has been to treat the demonstrators as gingerly as possible, and he is planning a “First Amendment zone” for the G8 and NATO summits. Afterward, he is almost cavalier: “We don’t have [an Occupy Wall Street] problem. You don’t see an Oakland here. You don’t see New York here. You don’t see Atlanta here. You don’t see Denver here.” His choppy cadence reminds me of the defensive way the first Mayor Daley talked just before the disturbances at the 1968 Democratic Convention, when police clubbed demonstrators on the very spot in Grant Park where 40 years later Barack Obama would give his Election Night victory speech.

Rahm has known all along that to be seen as successful, he must reform the Chicago Police Department. So it was no surprise that for his new police superintendent, he chose Garry McCarthy, a hard-charging Bronx native with a national reputation. Even as he takes flak for closing three station houses and rearranging assignments to get more officers on the street—and for blindsiding Rahm with the announcement—McCarthy is focused on the big stain on Chicago. He told me his three top goals for Chicago police are: “lower the shooting rate, lower the shooting rate, lower the shooting rate.”

For seven years, McCarthy perfected the CompStat information system and other innovative strategies as deputy commissioner in New York, where crime plummeted below even the most optimistic expectations. In 2006, Newark Mayor Cory Booker hired McCarthy as his police chief. One day, early in his tenure, he was examining reports on a cluster of gang-related shootings in Newark and asked what the police gang unit’s activity was like on Saturdays. “The response was, ‘The gang unit doesn’t work on Saturday,’” McCarthy remembers. “To which I naturally responded, ‘Do the gang members work on Saturday?’” Violent crime in Newark went down 9.3 percent in McCarthy’s time there.

Chicago largely missed the crime-fighting revolution. Like other city police forces, CPD has technically used CompStat for years, but has never mastered the accountability standards that make it work. “The system here is different,” McCarthy tells me diplomatically. “More about giving out information about crime than asking [commanders] what they were doing about it.” He learned to his dismay that the department had no system for tracking intelligence reports about suspicious locations—crack houses, gambling dens, and the like. To make matters worse, the tearing-down of most of Chicago’s wretched housing projects has had the unintended consequence of spreading violence into a wider area.

By the time I left City Hall or Police HQ at the end of a day of reporting this story, I was a little sick of hearing the term accountable. Has it become just another buzzword? Maybe so, but in Chicago, officials are determined to extend the concept all the way down to kids on the street. The city’s anti-gang-violence strategy, already under way when McCarthy arrived, involves bringing in 10 to 15 kids who are on probation and confronting them with representatives of the Chicago Police, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the FBI, and the Cook County Sheriff’s Office. McCarthy says the adults tell the kids, “Here’s your message: ‘The next time someone in your group is identified as committing a murder, we’re going to bring you guys to the top of the pile, and all of the resources we have are going to be focused on taking out your organization.’ We explain to them ‘group accountability’—that every single member becomes responsible for the actions of one.” While the kids are there, they hear a second message, about the availability of job training, GED preparation, and other social services. McCarthy says the most powerful moment of these sit-downs comes when the kids hear tearful accounts from the mothers of murdered children, who explain to them face-to-face what the gangs are doing to their families.

The chief says the key is the follow-up: “The first time we can identify a murderer that’s linked to one of these groups, we try to take the [murderer] down within 60 days, then we reconvene the group and say, ‘Look, we told you what we were going to do if this happened. Well, it happened, and if you notice, the guy who was sitting there [with you] is not sitting there now, because we took him out.’”

All of this is a long way from producing New York–style results in a city still racked by more than 400 murders a year. In search of more tools, Rahm moved up the weeknight curfew to 8:30—one of the earliest in the country—for kids younger than 12. (For minors ages 12 to 16, it’s 10 p.m.) And he has boosted enforcement and raised citation fees, which now cost parents at least $500.

As a kid, I loathed the old 11 p.m. curfew, which had been imposed to help quell riots following the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and was never lifted. It felt selective, even political, in its application. In 1973, when I was 15, I was twice picked up for curfew violations while putting up campaign posters late at night a few days before an election. “Who are they for?” a cop asked me when I was halfway up a lamp pole. I answered with the name of an anti-machine reform candidate. “Get down and get in the back of the car,” the cop told me. Jane Byrne, who later became Chicago’s first female mayor, dug up the incident from police files and twisted it to try to discredit my mother for raising a son arrested for “ripping down Daley posters.”

Of course, my little brush with the law was nothing next to those of many Chicagoans, especially blacks and Hispanics. Before any real progress on crime can be made, police-civilian relations must improve. McCarthy says he has been particularly influenced in recent years by the work of Tom Tyler, a psychologist at NYU, and Tracey Meares, a law professor at Yale. “It turns out that the reason people comply with the law isn’t because they’re afraid of going to jail,” he says. “A large body of evidence shows that people comply with the law because of police legitimacy.”

McCarthy’s strategy for improving that legitimacy can make him sound like a social worker. He favors the establishment of “catchment centers,” in churches and nonprofit offices, where police can bring kids picked up after curfew. “So if we bring in Little Johnny, [a social-service provider] can say, ‘Why aren’t you at home? Did you eat today? Who do you live with? Mom and Dad? Grandma? Great-Grandma?’”

Such thinking is less a reflection of liberal idealism than of the mayor’s and police chief’s hardheaded assessment of the need to get kids off the streets in order to reduce crime. Rank-and-file police officers know that the superintendent is right about the broader dimensions of the job, and his message penetrates better because he’s a burly Irish cop in a city whose political structure and police and fire departments have been dominated for generations by Irish Americans.

Inside the Obama White House, Rahm was a passionate advocate for education reform. So upon taking office as mayor, of course he lobbied feverishly for legislation in Springfield to give him more power to remake the sprawling Chicago Public Schools system. Among other things, the new law, hailed as a national model, allows districts to fire bad teachers more easily (in recent years, only about three tenured Chicago teachers out of 30,000 were terminated annually), to implement tenure reform, and to allow for performance pay. It also gives CPS the leeway to lengthen the school day to seven and a half hours and the school year to 180 days starting in the 2012–13 school year.

During the campaign, Rahm seized on Chicago’s school day, the shortest used by any big city in the nation. He shocked audiences by describing a system where the typical school day was less than six hours and some kids left as early as 1:45 p.m.—this in a city where the starting salary for teachers ($50,000 a year) was $5,000 higher than in New York. At City Hall last summer, he pushed schools to voluntarily extend the school day in fall 2011, a year ahead of schedule, in exchange for a 2 percent pay increase for teachers, which was half of what they were owed but had not yet received under an earlier contract. Rahm is still steaming about the contracts negotiated by Daley and Arne Duncan—who was then running CPS and is now the nation’s education secretary—which gave teachers hefty pay increases and a shorter school year. “I know what the teachers got, and I know what the politicians got,” he says, meaning no strike. “But I don’t know what the kids got.”

Since January, only 50 of the city’s 675 schools have voluntarily agreed to the extra time (compliance among charter schools was higher). Critics who should have known better cited Japan as an example of a country that produces high test scores while having a short school day. (They forgot to mention that Japanese students routinely spend afternoons and evenings at “cram schools,” preparing for tests.) Rahm’s view is that a longer school day and year are necessary without being anywhere near sufficient. “If it were up to me, we’d have year-round schools. I wouldn’t have a summer break for children. I think it’s nuts,” he tells me. “We lose basically half of the academic year in the summer.”

The mayor’s main adversary on education is Karen Lewis, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union and a vice president of the American Federation of Teachers. Lewis is probably best known for a salty YouTube video that shows her addressing a 2011 convention as if she were opening for a Chris Rock Comedy Central special. She makes fun of her own girth, jokes about drug use, and goes after Arne Duncan: “Now, you know he went to private school, because if he’d gone to public school, he’d have had that lisp fixed.” (She later apologized.)

In August, Rahm met privately with Lewis, who derided the longer day as “babysitting and warehousing,” though Rahm had specifically said he was seeking the extra time for instruction in math and reading. They exchanged harsh words. Three weeks after the meeting, Lewis told the press that Rahm had stuck his finger in her face and shouted, “Fuck you, Lewis!” She went on: “He’s dirty. He’s low-down. He’s a street fighter.” When that story broke, Rahm mildly told reporters that it had been a good meeting that ended with a hug. Privately, he was furious that his media team hadn’t given him a better heads-up that the press had learned about the profane exchange.

The energy expended on the length of the school day has obscured coverage of other Emanuel initiatives, like alerting parents about the availability of subsidized preschool, expanding full-day kindergarten access to 6,000 new kids, and adopting better-designed standardized tests. Perhaps most important, CPS and a consortium sponsored by the University of Chicago’s Urban Education Institute unveiled a sophisticated online tool that lets parents and administrators learn which of Chicago’s public schools are working. Each detailed report card goes far beyond test scores to determine whether teachers collaborate and classes are demanding and engaging; the ratings are based on answers to student and teacher questionnaires.

“We’ve spent $300 million in this country on teacher-effectiveness research, and what turns out to be the best predictor?” asks Timothy Knowles, who runs the Urban Education Institute and headed up Rahm’s transition team on education. Knowles offers me a pleasantly contemptuous “Hmmm” and answers, “It’s students.” Their evaluations of teacher quality are surprisingly accurate when correlated with other measurements. Standardized tests, he says, “have been gamed so mercilessly by many states that they’re of limited use.” Responding to the report cards was voluntary this year. Rahm has ordered that compliance be mandatory for Chicago schools in 2012–13, which means that every school in the city will for the first time be thoroughly evaluated.

Contrary to the claims of the unions and their allies, Rahm doesn’t view charter schools as a panacea. But he has been indiscriminate in his praise of them. “He’s too close to the UNO Charter Network, which has mixed results,” says Seth Lavin, who writes the blog Chicago Schools Wonks. “How can we trust the mayor to get tough on underperforming schools when the schools he puts on pedestals aren’t examples of strong performance?” But the vinegar is a bigger problem than the honey. Lavin isn’t the only person who thinks the mayor’s harsh tone on closing underperforming schools (hardly a new idea in Chicago) is helping to fuel a backlash against reform efforts even among parents with no union connections.

Rahm’s choice for CEO of Chicago Public Schools was Jean-Claude Brizard, a Haitian-born former high-school physics teacher and principal in Brooklyn who worked with Joel Klein, the reform-minded chancellor in New York City, before becoming superintendent in Rochester, New York. Brizard had already accepted an offer to run the Newark system, but once again Cory Booker found one of his people snatched away by Rahm, who also took it upon himself to handpick much of Brizard’s team. Karen Lewis, noting Brizard’s clash with the union in Rochester, said of the appointment: “It’s a nightmare on so many different levels. This is going to be a hot, buttery mess.”

Brizard manages to be soft-spoken without mincing words. “I’ve been surprised by the incoherence of reforms in Chicago,” he told me. Shortly after arriving, Brizard informed his principals, who every year had rated 99 percent of Chicago teachers “superior or outstanding,” that they must change performance standards faster. “We’re getting better. We moved from less than 1 percent to 1 percent ‘unsatisfactory,’” he told them wryly. He recommends that teachers read or watch the video of Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion, the bible for reformers who stress great teaching. Brizard understands that many charter schools fail, and that traditional schools cannot all adopt the crushing teacher workloads of the charters that succeed. “But what we have not done is learn great practices from outstanding charters like KIPP, Uncommon Schools, and Noble Street Schools,” he says. His four-year goals include raising Chicago’s 57 percent high-school graduation rate by at least 10 points and hiring 50 new top-flight principals.

Before achieving long-term goals, CPS must conclude hot, buttery contract talks this summer. For now, the mayor has the public behind him and is willing to weather a strike.

In his 2006 book, The Plan, Rahm proposed that all Americans go to school for at least 14 years. Like Presidents Clinton and Obama, he has long seen community colleges as crucial to preparing the American workforce for global competition and to saving young people who would otherwise be condemned to poverty. But Chicago’s city colleges have become dysfunctional, with graduation rates a pathetic 7 percent. (Nationally, only 15 out of 35 community-college systems graduate more than 50 percent.) “We have 9.4 percent unemployment, 100,000 job openings, and I’m spending a couple hundred million dollars on job training,” Rahm tells me. He pauses to let the absurdity of this sink in. “So we are going to reorganize it.”

Rahm fired almost all the college presidents, hired replacements after a national search, and decreed that six of the seven city-run colleges would have a special concentration. Corporations pledging to hire graduates will have a big hand in designing and implementing curricula. “You’re not going for four years, and you’re not going for a Nobel Prize or a research breakthrough,” he says. “This is about dealing with the nursing shortage, the lab-tech shortage. Hotels and restaurants will take over the curriculum for culinary and hospitality training.” Already AAR, a company that has 600 job openings for welders and mechanics, is partnering with Olive-Harvey College; Northwestern Memorial Hospital is designing job training in health care for Malcolm X College. Equally important, the city colleges are overhauling their inadequate guidance services and contacting the 15,000 students most likely to drop out. As of March, all 120,000 students are being tracked, and those in danger of slipping through the cracks will be counseled. Thinking big, Rahm wants Chicago to be the national model for rescuing the middle class.

Other ideas for the future pour out of the mayor all day: Consolidate services with Cook County, now also run by a reformer; launch a microlending initiative for small businesses; expand the use of surveillance cameras in front of schools and at “L” stations to deter crime; incentivize supermarkets to move into “food deserts” (poor neighborhoods without any place to shop); enforce wellness in the land of Polish sausage. If you smoke or have diabetes or are obese, and you work for the city, “you’re going to have to pay more [for health insurance] if you don’t take your medications,” Rahm says.

At the end of our last interview, in the mayor’s office, I was giving him a hard time for referring to a proposed Illinois tax credit for working families as “the earned-income tax credit.” The federal EITC is the most successful anti-poverty program of the past 40 years, but it bears such a boring name that few voters know of it. Rahm reminded me that in a bid for bipartisan support, he once introduced a bill in the U.S. House to rename it the “Ronald Reagan Tax Credit.” (Unlike more-recent Republicans, Reagan supported it.) “Don’t blame me,” he said.

But now he had the power to change the name, I pressed.

“I’m the mayor. I’m not the fucking governor,” he snapped.

Not yet, anyway. I originally thought Rahm might be a mayor-for-life type, but lately I’ve been hearing that he’ll likely serve two terms, then, in his early 60s, run for governor of Illinois. If he succeeds there, don’t bet against his trying to be the first Jewish president, though of course he denies any interest.

For now, Rahm’s restlessness is well channeled: “One of the reasons I take the ‘L,’ one of the reasons I go out and try to be accessible, is I want to make sure I never lose sight of my north stars: the safety of our streets, the strength of our schools, and the stability of our finances.” The mayor has established his metrics and is asking to be held accountable for them. And he will be.


Note: This article originally stated that Chicago will host the NATO and G-8 summits. After the April issue went to press, the White House announced that the G-8 summit will be held at Camp David.

Jonathan Alter, a columnist for Bloomberg View and an MSNBC analyst, is the author, most recently, of The Promise: President Obama, Year One.
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