Rahm Emanuel's Task: The Reinvention of the Great American City

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CHICAGO -- As Rahm Emanuel basked in election night glory late Tuesday, the mayor-elect of Chicago didn't need to reprise Robert Redford's deer-in-the-headlights line in "The Candidate," when he turns to his strategist upon winning a U.S. Senate seat and asks, "What do we do now?"

While Redford's Bill McKay was a no-name neophyte in a seemingly unwinnable race, Emanuel is a celebrity with an A-list resume as politician-tactician-fundraiser who entered a race that was his to lose.

And, now, he clearly knows what must be done, or at least attempted; namely the reinvention of urban America.

"It is a time for tough choices," he said during an otherwise upbeat victory speech, surrounded by ebullient supporters -- including his robust, octogenarian parents -- at a plumbers union hall.

As he paid homage to the departing Mayor Richard M. Daley and spoke of his own craving to "make a great city even greater," I couldn't help but think back to sitting in a virtually empty downtown diner during the recent blizzard and asking him what the city needed most.

Without hesitation, he responded, "A level of strength and breadth of experience in taking on tough issues and trying to solve them."

It's why one should watch closely after he takes over May 16 from Daley, the retiring king of American mayors.

The health of our cities is critical to progress. They have been historically the magnets for people of creativity and energy. When cities are robust, human progress flows.

Daley revived the city over 22 years and helped it evolve into what some academics and global consultants assert is the fifth- or sixth most economically important city, after New York, London, Tokyo, Singapore and perhaps Paris. "He has earned a special place in our hearts and our history," said Emanuel, who had spoken by phone earlier to both the vacationing incumbent and President Obama.

Now, however, cities and states are troubled, with some on the verge of insolvency. There are predictions of defaults and bankruptcies amid staggering financial woes, with anger spreading vividly in Madison and Indianapolis, and more surely to come.

Chicago, too, has a huge budget deficit, an awful pension situation, a woefully inconsistent school system, high crime, persistent segregation and a declining mass transit system in need of capital investments. It thus offers a laboratory for dealing with all the great issues facing the country: education, housing, transit, infrastructure, jobs and health care.

Emanuel, 51 and the city's first Jewish mayor-to-be, has been immersed in all of them but mostly as a presidential consigliere and as a legislator while representing a Chicago district in Congress. None of those positions has placed him with the direct control that a mayor commands over the essential issues impacting our lives, giving him more direct power over his constituents than that possessed by the two presidents for whom he's worked, Bill Clinton and Obama.

He'll now have that cachet and the unavoidable challenge of both improving upon the striking progress Daley made in areas, including economic development, and also cleaning up messes left behind, notably the big deficit and unfunded pension liabilities.

Daley placed much stock -- too much, Emanuel said in one of his few campaign criticisms of a onetime mentor -- in winning the 2016 Summer Olympics, which Daley envisioned as catalyst for the next stage of city development, much like New York's Michael Bloomberg in his equally ignominious bid for the 2012 Summer Games.

An Energizer Bunny of a campaigner, Emanuel hit his 109th and 110th El platforms on Election Day, climaxing an impressively-disciplined campaign whose agenda was permeated with the vicissitudes of austerity. How do you solve all these problems, and re-imagine a great metropolis, absent the resources to think big?

Emanuel spoke confidently throughout of finding a total of $500 million in savings on areas as big and vexing as the health-care costs of the city workforce but also as seemingly pedestrian, but essential, as picking up garbage in alleys. He clearly took his extensive White House experience in studying the great policy issues of our time and melded it with due diligence on their local manifestations.

Time and again, I came across real experts on education, crime, transit and the other key civic topics who had been questioned privately by Emanuel in supposedly no-nonsense sessions. His generally detailed issue papers did not always reflect the urgings of those he interrogated -- in some cases, their recommendations were too expensive or politically-combustible for a campaign -- but it's clear he's attained as sophisticated a grasp of the alternatives.

He knows the stakes and the renown he can gain if he actually takes significant steps in solving matters like ballooning health-care costs and those out-of-control unfunded pension liabilities. The first former presidential chief of staff to run for a position more local than congressman, he made clear that he wants to be a big-city pacesetter.

He seems prepared to be tough; to do the hard things and cut costs while still maintaining political leverage over the 50-member City Council. Whether he can evolve, too, into someone who, like Daley, is perceived as deeply caring, even loving, toward the city, and yet not be perceived as weak, is another matter.

"Nobody has ever loved Chicago more," Emanuel said, and correctly so, about Daley during his victory party. It was a reminder that the intellect needs to be married to the heart.

In escaping an April 5 runoff, Emanuel, who raised more than $13 million, can presumably invest energy, and perhaps some dollars, into what will be the multiple runoffs for aldermanic seats prompted by Tuesday's results. He'll need allies, especially given the Balkanized power structure he faces at home and throughout Illinois, with the greatest City Council challenge presented by an obvious enemy, Edward Burke -- the long-powerful finance committee boss who backed the runner-up, Gery Chico.

As Daley himself noted in a recent speech, the city has been left for dead before, with a 1981 Chicago Tribune series calling it "an economic invalid." But he also reminded us of how, in 1883, Mark Twain wrote about the city's tendency to outgrow prophecies about its fate. "She is always a novelty; for she is never the Chicago you saw when you passed through the last time."

Curiously, there was virtually no sense on Election Day of the historical significance of the passing of the baton from the second Mayor Daley to someone else.

While Emanuel claimed the day's results a "vote of confidence in our future," turnout was mediocre (circa 40 percent) after a campaign in which his potential strongest white rival declined to run; his chief black rival, former U.S. senator Carol Moseley Braun, imploded early and often; and a legal fight over his eligibility to run only served to smooth his rough edges and cast him as a sympathetic victim who'd left town to serve one of Chicago's own, the first black president.

Indeed, in my precinct there was arguably more emotion invested in the race to replace our departing alderman. The only people leafleting outside my polling place were partisans of two aldermanic rivals, both Democrats. And, would you believe, the very nice lady pushing the insurgent candidate was none other than a daughter of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld?

As Marcy Rumsfeld and I spoke about her dad's appearance on "Late Show with David Letterman," and an upcoming one on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," I couldn't help but think about his notions of "known knowns," "known unknowns," and "unknown unknowns."

There are a lot of known knowns in urban America that Chicago's mayor-elect faces. Whether he can continue an impressive career by actually solving some of them is, well, a known unknown of ample consequence.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato

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James Warren is the Chicago editor of The Daily Beast and an MSNBC analyst. He is the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune.

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