After trailing along with Chicago mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel on a Sunday morning last month, I got a chance to talk to him when we stopped at Bagel on Damen, a small coffee shop in Wicker Park that features fresh bagels and Stumptown coffee. Emanuel had just visited a church, a South Side restaurant, and a North Avenue bicycle store, at which he proposed going the Daley administration one better by adding 25 rather than eight miles a year to the city’s dedicated bike lanes. He was wearing a dark blue suit and starched white shirt, and he had taken off his tie before his appearance at the bicycle shop; but, instead of appearing hip among the store’s cyclists, he looked like an aging rabbinical student.
Sipping our coffee, I asked him what he thought about Richard M. Daley’s legacy. “One thing you just saw,” he said, referring to his press conference at the bicycle store. “He did eight miles, and I want to do twenty-five. He is a landmark mayor who has done a very good job in helping the city transition from where it was in 1989 to where it is today. He didn’t do it by himself, but he guided the city.” Still, Emanuel added, “he would be the first to acknowledge it’s time for new energy, new leadership to take it to the next phase.”
When I listened to the whole interview later, I realized that I had missed something. In his response, and in the statements he made along the campaign trail on Sunday and on two other days I followed him, he had never actually referred to Chicago’s mayor by name. Instead, he had referred to Daley as “he” or had talked about what “the city” had done. Was it out of pique because the mayor, for whom he had once worked as a fund-raiser, has not endorsed him? Or was it because he harbors misgivings about Daley but doesn’t want to air them for fear of alienating the mayor’s supporters? Or was it because he sees himself as fundamentally similar to Daley but doesn’t want to run, or govern, in the current mayor’s shadow?
The matter of where Emanuel stands vis-à-vis Daley is not an idle one. Emanuel is almost certain to be Chicago’s next mayor: If he does not get more than 50 percent of the vote—needed to win outright—in the February 22 nonpartisan election, then he is a virtual lock to win the runoff in April. Meanwhile, Daley is leaving behind a remarkable legacy in the city, having presided over what may be recent history’s most dramatic urban renaissance. Emanuel’s tenure, in other words, might ultimately be defined by a single question: Does he represent a continuation of the Daley administration or a break with it?
I was born in Chicago, left while a teenager, and then returned in 1976-auspiciously, on the same day Richard J. Daley, the current mayor’s father, dropped dead in his doctor’s office. I came to work on a new weekly, In These Times, and I stayed for six years, through the sorry mayoral terms of Michael Bilandic and Jane Byrne. I loved the town, but I was happy to leave it. I wanted my children to grow up in a place that wasn’t falling apart.
The Chicago of the late ’70s was a city of boarded-up factories, littered parks, and, apart from the fashionable Lakefront, rows of darkened houses, empty lots, and streets dotted with potholes. From our third-floor apartment, we used to hear hubcaps clatter when a car blundered into one of these asphalt gulches. And then, of course, there was the dysfunctional political system, which was still based on the machine the elder Daley had built, even as it was being ripped apart by racial and ethnic strife.
I made a few trips back to Chicago over the next decade, but I didn’t really get a good look at the city until I spent two weeks there during the Democratic convention in 1996. What I found then, and in subsequent trips over the last 15 years, astounded me. The tree-lined Lakefront has spread steadily west. Wicker Park, the desolate area where In These Times had its office on the second floor of an otherwise empty building, now features tony boutiques, restaurants, coffee shops (like Bagel on Damen), music clubs, townhouses, and artists’ lofts. The downtown loop is bustling again, and, to its west and south, new neighborhoods have sprouted—some of them on the route of the Chicago River, along which raw sewage once flowed but which now sports Venetian gondolas. Grant Park, where demonstrators congregated in 1968, has expanded into Millennium Park. Lake Shore Drive has been diverted so that pedestrians can walk from one of Chicago’s museums to another. In The Third City, urbanist Larry Bennett describes this new Chicago as an “amenitiesrich neo-romantic metropolis.”
The change in Chicago’s appearance has been matched by a change in what Chicagoans do for a living. In the years since I left, Chicago has made the transition from old, decaying industrial town to diversified, post-industrial city that primarily produces ideas and services rather than goods. Its growth industries in the 1990s were professional and business services, entertainment, education and health services, and tourism. Chicago actually gained 112,000 new residents in the 1990s—the first time the city had grown since the 1950s.
The city still has rough stretches on the South and West Sides that look very much like the Chicago of old. If you keep driving west from the loop, you run into expanses of derelict houses, abandoned cars, and forlorn black men pushing grocery carts full of their belongings down the street. Chicago, like other cities, has also suffered during the Great Recession and is facing a nearly $700 million deficit. Still, few other U.S. urban centers, and none in the Midwest except for Minneapolis, can boast the kind of growth that Chicago enjoyed over the last two decades. Nor have any received the kind of glowing attention from city planners and urbanists that the “new Chicago” has.
Some of the credit for Chicago’s success goes to its civic leaders—names like Pritzker, Crown, Field, Blackwell, Wrigley—who have remained committed to their hometown. When Millennium Park looked like it would founder because of cost overruns, Chicago’s elites kicked in about $200 million to see it through. But a great deal of credit also goes to Daley, who became mayor in 1989.
Here’s something that is important to know about Richard M. Daley: After his father’s death, he ran for state’s attorney in 1980 against Byrne’s handpicked machine candidate, Alderman Ed Burke. He was the outsider and reformer, and defeated Burke thanks partly to the kind of Lakefront liberal support that his father had received grudgingly, if at all. He was not simply another version of his father.
In 1983, he ran for mayor, but lost to African American Congressman Harold Washington when he and Byrne split the white vote. Washington’s four and a half years in office—he died in 1987—were marked by acrimony between the mayor and the machine majority on the council; but, in his 1987 reelection bid, Washington set an important political precedent. By drawing together the city’s African Americans with Chicago’s rising Hispanic population and a share of Lakefront liberals, he was able to win the election without the old white, ethnic wards. In 1989, Daley, following Washington’s lead, built a coalition of Lakefront liberals and Hispanics, as well as white ethnics. Later, he added African Americans. In 2007, he was reelected with more than 70 percent of the vote. Running against two African Americans, he carried all 20 predominately black wards.
Daley wielded power as effectively and pugnaciously as his father—he lost three council votes in 22 years; two were non-binding resolutions on international affairs, and the third he successfully vetoed—but his political outlook was very different. He adapted to post-1960s Chicago. As newly elected mayor, he rode in a convertible at the head of the Gay Pride Parade. He courted environmentalists and championed their causes. He encouraged the planting of over 600,000 trees in the city and demolished the giant, segregated public-housing projects that his father and the federal government had built, replacing them with mixed-income dwellings. Bennett describes Daley as “a self-taught [Jane] Jacobsian whose greatest contribution to contemporary Chicago has been his administration’s restoration of the city’s physical fabric.”
Daley is not without his critics, especially on the left. At a South Side candidate forum last month, co-organizer La Toya Dixon complained that “pressing issues have too long been glossed over in the form of beautiful parks, cutting-edge art, a vibrant downtown district, massive condo conversions, and high-end housing developments.” Pressing issues do remain: The test scores of public school students continue to rise, but more than 40 percent of high school students fail to graduate, and the plan to move residents from public-housing high-rises into mixed-income housing has been crippled by the recession. Many neighborhoods on the South and West Sides, dubbed “food deserts,” lack grocery stores.
But critics fail to grasp what the transition to a post-industrial city has meant for Chicago. Without Daley’s initiatives, it’s unlikely that Chicago would have the resources to deal with any of its shortcomings. The mayor’s parks and rooftop arbor gardens are essential to attracting new kinds of industry to Chicago. The new Wicker Park, for instance, is a magnet for what Richard Florida has called the “creative class.”
On a deeper level, Daley’s efforts have changed the older, utilitarian, work-based idea of urban life. They symbolize, urbanist Terry Nichols Clark writes, “a broader effort to recognize the interdependence of the human and natural environment, to elevate aesthetic and consumption concerns to a par, or better, with those of making a living, and to redirect political vision away from exchanges between self-interested individuals toward the public good.”
Daley’s critics also point to continuing corruption in the city. And, indeed, there have been scandals under Daley. But today’s corruption pales before that of the old Chicago machine—or the corruption that continues in plenty of major cities. All in all, if Daley’s achievements in Chicago are weighed in comparison with those of other mayors in other urban centers, he emerges as an exemplary mayor—perhaps the best of the post-World War II era. And so, his pending retirement has left a vacuum at the center of Chicago politics. What no one knows is whether his likely successor is up to the task of filling it.
Among the reasons that Emanuel is likely to win is that he faces a weak field of candidates. There are only really two who could force him into a runoff: Gery Chico, who was Daley’s chief of staff and president of the Chicago Public Schools, and former Senator Carol Moseley Braun. Chico comes off as a bespectacled technocrat. While he is Latino, he doesn’t speak Spanish and doesn’t seem to have cornered the Latino vote. Braun, who is black, could force a runoff by winning a significant percentage of the city’s African American vote—which makes up about 33 percent of the electorate. But she commands little support outside the black community and is controversial within it. She was dogged by scandal during her undistinguished term in the Senate—at one point, making a private trip to Nigeria to meet with dictator Sani Abacha, for whom a former campaign aide and fiancé was lobbying. “There is a core of black folks really angry with her,” says wvon talk-show host Salim Muwakkil.
Emanuel isn’t just benefiting from a weak field, though; he also appears to be benefiting from his reputation as difficult, arrogant, profane, and abrasive. He owes that reputation partly to his time in Washington; but many Chicagoans have experienced Emanuel’s wrath as well. City Clerk Miguel del Valle, who is the mayoral candidate of Chicago’s left, told me how, at a Christmas party for one of the aldermen, Emanuel, upon arriving and being asked by the host whether he cared that del Valle was already there, exclaimed loudly enough for a del Valle volunteer to hear, “Who gives a fuck?” (The volunteer confirmed the story.) An official of Illinois Citizen Action—the successor to Illinois Public Action, where Emanuel got his start in politics in the early ’80s—recounted how, during a meeting sponsored by the organization last month, Emanuel berated a young timekeeper for holding up a warning sign. “Put that sign away,” he thundered. “What I have to say is more important.”
This reputation does not thrill some of Chicago’s other politicians (“When I talk to aldermen,” says political scientist and Chicago expert Paul Green, “some of the old guys tremble, because they think he’ll make Daley look like a pushover”); but many Chicago voters seem to view Emanuel as someone who can prevent the kind of political turmoil that occurred during the period between the two Daleys—known as the “interregnum.” Says Chicago Tribune contributing columnist John McCarron, “Older people remember the interregnum ... you saw the chaos. ... Everything stopped except for the respiratory functions of the city. A real strong hand at the tiller would be vital.” As Don Rose, the dean of Chicago’s independent political consultants, puts it, “Chicago voters like Rahm not in spite of but because they think he is an asshole.”
The ability to dominate a parochial city government through strength of personality may be Emanuel’s most important continuity with Daley. But, like the current mayor, Emanuel also seems committed to modulating this dictatorial side, even as he deploys it strategically. He has made a clear distinction between the way he deals privately with other politicians and the press (“My three kids ... they’re sometimes better behaved,” he admonished reporters eager to question him), and the way he appears before voters. He has been anything but abrasive in his public appearances, including his agonizing testimony about his residency before Chicago’s election board, where he had to face daffy questions about the whereabouts of his wife’s wedding dress or the clothes his children wore home from the hospital after they were born. “He sat through the inquisition,” says Green. “He lasted twelve hours and never broke stride.”
As Daley has done in his campaigns, Emanuel has also tried to bridge the gap between Chicago’s diverse constituencies. During our interview, most of what he said was campaign boilerplate, but, as we stood up to part at the end, he pulled me aside, out of the range of my tape recorder, and asked, “Did you enjoy yourself?” I had no idea what he was talking about. “What did you think?” he asked. “About what?” I replied. He wanted to know what I thought of his two campaign events that morning. I told him that he did fine, but that’s not what he wanted to hear. It finally dawned on me that he was asking whether I thought he had appeared equally genuine in greeting and talking to the African American diners at Chicago’s Home of Chicken and Waffles and the white hipoisie at the Rapid Transit Cycleshop. He wanted to know how he did, he explained, “on both sides of the town.” As a matter of fact, he had done very well. At the Home of Chicken and Waffles, one young woman, after hearing him explain his program on education, asked if she could volunteer for his campaign.
Emanuel’s ideological worldview is not identical to Daley’s, but it has plenty in common with the current mayor’s outlook. In a column, Rose described Emanuel as being an “expedient” rather than a “pragmatist,” writing that he lacks a “moral center” and will do “anything to win.” I often heard this said of Bill Clinton when he was president and didn’t believe it of him any more than I believe it of Emanuel. If you look at Emanuel’s political history, what becomes readily apparent is that he is a species of centrist Democrat or, in Chicago terms, a Lakefront liberal—to the left on social and environmental issues but not necessarily on fiscal or labor matters. (In his campaign, he has obtained the endorsement of the Teamsters and the building trade unions but shunned the public employees—which probably foreshadows budget-cutting at their expense.) Emanuel was close to the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) and in 2006 co-authored a book, The Plan, with DLC President Bruce Reed, who is now Joe Biden’s chief of staff. Emanuel and Reed advocated a new “Responsibility Era” in which parents would take more responsibility for their children and businesses for their workers. The underlying philosophy was communitarianism—an outlook that is quite consistent with Daley’s reimagining of Chicago, especially his emphasis on parks and other large-scale public projects.
Emanuel clearly has many of the requisites to carry on Daley’s legacy; but does he share the special dedication to Chicago itself that animated his predecessor? Mayors often do best over the long haul rather than in their first 100 days or first term. If Daley had only stayed for eight years, Chicago would not have had Millennium Park. But Daley, like his father, never wanted to be anything but mayor of Chicago. Is Emanuel equally committed to the city? When I posed the question to him, he held his hand over my pen to prevent me from writing. “I have worked for two presidents,” he said. “I have been elected to Congress. I have no desire to do anything else.” He said it again: “I have no desire to do anything else.”
Is Emanuel telling the truth, or does he even know his own mind? Will he be tempted by the Senate or the governor’s mansion or even the presidency? The answers to these questions will go a long way toward determining whether Emanuel can live up to the legacy of his predecessor. For now, though, Chicagoans already seem to be treating him like an heir to the Daley regime. After Emanuel and his press aide left, I tried to pay for the coffees, but the owner of Bagel on Damen wouldn’t take my money. In a city that has been ruled like a benevolent monarchy for more than two decades, when a mayor, or a future mayor, stops by for coffee, it’s on the house.
John B. Judis is a senior editor for The New Republic and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. This article ran in the March 3, 2011, issue of the magazine.