There was something missing as Mayor Rahm Emanuel spoke on the Far Northwest Side in March to offer an explanation on what City Hall was doing about the roads after a winter that "left nothing but potholes and pockmarks throughout the city of Chicago."
A pothole crew was on hand. So was the city's new transportation commissioner. The stretch of Bryn Mawr Avenue, however, was unblemished.
What the street lacked in visuals, it made up for in its location near O'Hare International Airport. As TV camera crews headed off with city laborers to find an actual pothole that needed filling, the mayor's security detail was able to quickly drive him to O'Hare. He caught a flight to Austin, Texas, where he raised thousands of dollars for his re-election fund and promoted Chicago to tech entrepreneurs.
That day illustrates the balancing act Emanuel navigates as he tries to keep up with the day-to-day running of city government and attracting businesses to Chicago while positioning himself to win another term and maintaining his national profile.
As he ends his third year in office Friday, the mayor has no major challenger, but faces no shortage of challenges. A budget crisis looms. Street violence remains a concern. The public school system remains troubled.
To be sure, Emanuel had his share of wins. He oversaw the rebuilding of the Red Line on the South Side. The Divvy bike rental program took off. He landed a new digital manufacturing institute on Goose Island. He marshaled forces to ensure that children attending new schools got there safely. And he scored a partial city worker pension fix from state lawmakers, though he still needs the governor's signature on that one.
In year three, Chicagoans also learned that the sense of momentum the mayor conveys on some issues doesn't always match the reality of what has been accomplished. And as Emanuel continued a string of coast-to-coast appearances and a daily dose of local stops around the city, a fuller understanding of the nation's most recognizable mayor emerged: He is comfortable in the national spotlight but at times awkward interacting with everyday people.
Now he's preparing to ask voters for a second term next year, sitting on a large campaign fund that gives potential foes 7 million reasons to think twice about taking him on. Not normally one to pass up a chance to frame the narrative of his time as mayor, Emanuel declined an interview for this story, a departure from his first two years in office. He did, however, offer some thoughts about the state of his first term during a weekly news conference.
"There's ups and downs. So, what you do is you stay true to your principles. You stay true to who you are, and you don't change," he said. "You stay committed to making sure there are results, and you stay true to what you believe in, because the moment you decide that you're going to blow with the wind, folks are smart and they'll smell it."
Running the nation's third-largest city during a time of transition is bound to bring periods of progress and struggle.
"Rahm Emanuel unfortunately gets to be mayor at a period when Chicago gets to eat its peas. It's nothing but broccoli servings," said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. "There are tough decisions that have to be made, and mayors and governors all over the country are making them, and most of them have job approval problems."
Stadium, transit wins
The mayor gained some momentum as he tries to rebuild Chicago, opening his third year last May by announcing a new DePaul University arena and hotel near McCormick Place. The stadium plan has advanced in fits and starts amid criticism from residents wondering why the cash-strapped city is helping pay for a building to be used by a private university.
Another splash came in February as Chicago was picked for a federally funded high-tech manufacturing center. The mayor retains deep ties to President Barack Obama's administration and makes frequent trips to the capital, and the deal was quintessential Emanuel: It featured a Beltway component in the form of a $70 million Defense Department grant, plus another $250 million in private money from Illinois corporations whose CEOs the mayor courts.
Emanuel predicts the hub will rejuvenate Chicago's manufacturing base, but the tech center won't house many jobs on its own, instead counting on private industry to flourish thanks to its nearby research expertise. The city also is on the hook for up to $10 million, and the mayor has refused to rule out more public money down the road.
Last fall, Chicago's "transit mayor" was able to complete the $425 million renovation of the southern section of the Red Line on time and on budget, which was key after Emanuel convinced African-American aldermen and community leaders from the neighborhoods served by the line that it made sense to shut it down for several months instead of spreading out the work over years.
Emanuel also returned to his penchant for the Big Deal, unveiling a flashy $320 million proposal to build a "Brown Line flyover" to unclog a CTA train bottleneck north of the Belmont station and cut commute times on the busy Red Line. The plan upset some Lakeview residents who question whether it's worth it to tear down as many as 19 buildings to shorten rides by just a few minutes.
The troubled rollout of the new Ventra CTA fare cards, on the other hand, turned into a drawn-out mess for the mayor and his CTA chief. When riders complained about not receiving the cards, hidden fees and getting overcharged when they used them, Emanuel largely put responsibility for ironing out the kinks on CTA President Forrest Claypool. The CTA expects to fully transition to the Ventra cards by July, nearly seven months after the original deadline for the switch.
The Divvy bike rental system came into its own during Emanuel's third year, especially in the densely populated lakefront neighborhoods and tourist-heavy areas near train lines where the racks of blue two-wheelers were installed. Vast swaths of the South, West and Northwest sides still won't have the rental kiosks even after a planned expansion.
That's the kind of geographic disparity that rankles South Side Ald. Roderick Sawyer, who expressed frustration with the mayor's focus on certain parts of the city.
Divvy "means nothing to me, absolutely nothing," Sawyer said. "It's cool to see downtown, but that's about it. People in my neighborhood would like to be able to rent those bikes too, but there's nowhere to get them, and nowhere to drop them off unless you're going to take a really long ride."
Sawyer said he watches the mayor unveil plans to renovate North Side train stations or dedicate tax increment financing money to school and transit projects in other areas and wonders why he can't get Emanuel to pitch in for improvements along his 6th Ward shopping districts on Cottage Grove Avenue and 75th Street that "look like they did 20 years ago."
Challenges remain with schools, crime and the budget — the same large-scale, institutional problems that plagued his predecessor, Richard M. Daley.
Chicago Public Schools shuttered 49 elementary schools and a high school program, displacing thousands of students and drawing protests from people from the predominantly African-American South and West side neighborhoods where most of the closings took place. The complaints have continued as the school board approved more charter schools, and administrators at many public schools saw their budgets cut.
The educational restructuring led the mayor to unveil a Safe Passage program to protect children traveling longer distances through tough neighborhoods to new schools by posting firefighters and other public employees to keep watch alongside workers paid $10 an hour to man street corners and try to stop trouble from brewing. Despite the daunting nature of the task, there have been no reported instances of students hurt on the routes to and from school.
Murders have fallen since they spiked during a particularly warm 2012, which comes as Emanuel continues to pay tens of millions of dollars in extra police overtime to tamp down the violence that has dogged his administration and become synonymous with Chicago across the country. But high-profile shootings during Emanuel's third year in office drew attention to the fact that large areas of the city remain dangerous, even as Emanuel and police Superintendent Garry McCarthy try new tactics.
The city's finances remain in crisis, as the bills are coming due for years of widespread borrowing and failure to pay enough money into government worker pension systems. Emanuel persuaded state lawmakers to pass a measure that would reduce benefits for members of the laborers and municipal pension systems, though it's unclear whether a re-election-seeking Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn will sign it into law. Even if the governor does, the mayor still needs to persuade at least 26 aldermen to vote for a $250 million city property tax increase to help fund the retirement systems.
The pension fix is only partial because it does not deal with the teacher pension system and leaves unresolved a $600 million increase in what the city must spend on police and firefighter pensions next year. The figure amounts to one-fifth of the city's operating budget.
Amid the ebbs and flows, in several cases the mayor's talk about his bold plans did not match the results.
Emanuel campaigned on a pledge to cut in half the nearly 450,000 Chicagoans who lived in so-called food deserts — areas without access to fresh foods. Last year, the Tribune found that many of Emanuel's initiatives to bring more food options never materialized. Days after the story, Emanuel announced he had persuaded Whole Foods to open a store in the Englewood neighborhood, but not until 2016.
His Chicago Infrastructure Trust, envisioned as a "breakout strategy" to rebuild the city using private money during tight financial times, has completed one small project involving energy efficiency two years into the experiment.
As the city installed speed cameras to write tickets of up to $100, Emanuel told Chicagoans the proceeds would go into a "children's fund." The city budget didn't include the fund, however, with the expected $70 million in revenue instead going straight into the city's general fund to be spent as the mayor and City Council see fit.
In year three, Emanuel became the nation's best-known mayor after the end of Michael Bloomberg's tenure running New York City. As such, he was in demand on the nighttime talk shows. In September, Emanuel held his own as a guest on "The Late Show" as host David Letterman asked about Chicago's nationwide reputation for violence. In November, Emanuel got into a Twitter fight with Comedy Central's Jon Stewart over the merits of Chicago-style pizza, with City Hall sending an anchovy-topped deep dish to the "Daily Show" host. In March, the mayor jumped into an icy Lake Michigan with Jimmy Fallon of "The Tonight Show" to raise money for charity.
For a politician who seems comfortable publicly exchanging barbs with celebrity funnymen, Emanuel sometimes comes across as stilted when chatting with regular people.
Last fall, before a ceremony to honor heroic police and firefighters, the mayor approached McCarthy and several of the Police Department's honorees, who were trading jokes in a conference room next to City Council chambers.
Emanuel shook some hands, then the group of about 15 officers fell quiet until one commented that he had to go pick up his child from school after the event wrapped up. Emanuel immediately launched into a rote recitation of the work he had done to provide Chicago students with a longer school day and school year, like he would if he were appearing on a Sunday morning TV show to talk about his record.
Another glimpse aired during CNN's eight-part "Chicagoland," a documentary series in which producers worked with mayoral aides to, as a show runner said in one email, showcase the mayor "as the star that he really is."
In one scene, Emanuel toured a South Side organic farm with Whole Foods CEO Walter Robb and got the executive to pledge $100,000 to help the venture.
Emanuel then walked over to two women who work at the farm and delivered the good news: "Take your $100,000 and get the f--- outta here," he told them, flipping a tomato in the air and catching it. One of the women thanked the mayor, who gave her a high-five.
The mayor's visibility around Chicago coupled with ubiquitous smartphones has made it impossible for him to always control how he's portrayed online. At times, the results have been unkind.
On Sunday night, the mayor took in a hockey playoff game in a seat just behind the glass at the United Center. He wore an unbuttoned denim-colored shirt over a tucked-in Blackhawks T-shirt, and when he was shown on camera after a goal by the home team, his sartorial choices became fodder for the online chattering classes. "Everyone hates Rahm Emanuel's denim shirt," remarked one woman on Twitter, summing up the mocking missives.
Emanuel enters the final year of his term with $7 million in campaign cash and so far no serious challenger on the horizon.
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has not ruled out a run, though she hasn't been out aggressively fundraising like Emanuel. If she opts for a quick-strike mayoral campaign after getting re-elected to her county post Nov. 4, Preckwinkle could tap into the dissatisfaction among some voters about the city's gun violence and Emanuel's school closings. Tribune polling has shown the mayor's support lagging among African-American voters since he was first elected.
Preckwinkle's successor as 4th Ward alderman, Will Burns, said Emanuel doesn't get enough credit for his work to improve predominantly black wards.
"I think part of it is that the messages that have been hitting the African-American community about the mayor ... have been overwhelmingly negative. They have been overwhelmingly critical," Burns said. "And the voices that talk about how the administration has worked cooperatively with aldermen like me and (3rd Ward Ald.) Pat Dowell to bring the kind of amenities that people in our community have wanted for years and years and years, that message often gets overshadowed by those who have something negative to say."
While foes like the Chicago Teachers Union lament Emanuel as Chicago's "Mayor 1 Percent" and hope for a grass-roots groundswell to eject him from the mayor's seat next year, that opposition has yet to find a standard-bearer.
"The first rule of politics is you can't beat somebody with nobody, and he doesn't run against his job approval rating. He runs against other candidates with pluses and minuses and warts of their own," said Yepsen, the SIU politics expert. "So, who they got? It's one thing to talk in the abstract, but it doesn't seem like there is anyone who is serious that is trying to put together a campaign."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun