Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, ruler of the murder capital of the United States, would often open his news conferences with a wisecrack:
"Do you have questions for my answers?"
But these days, with South and West siders afraid for their lives in the bloody gang wars, and a $1 billion deficit facing the underperforming Chicago Public Schools, questions are being asked about him.
They come privately, quietly, from the business community and from alley guys who know how the city really works:
Is he losing it?
Can he run the city?
Is Emanuel a better political operative in Washington than a manager in Chicago? And has his mouth written a check that he can't cash?
"He's great at handling the press," one business leader told me. "He can manipulate you (media) guys well. But can he manage? That's what we're worrying about."
The government-by-press release critique isn't fiction. It's the way he runs things. Emanuel relentlessly manages the information, but crafting mythology isn't leadership.
And though I poke fun at him and call him endearing nicknames, from Mayor Rahmfather to Mayor Rahmplestiltskin, I've never doubted his concern for Chicago or for the office.
For all his talk of change, he settled in as Mayor Stability, to run a city that had been mismanaged for decades by the spendthrift and corrupt Daley administration. He made noise like he'd change things, but then he kept old faces around, like Daley's aviation boss Rosie Andolino running the airports.
You don't need a billboard to know that some things haven't changed. All you need to know is that Rosie still reigns at O'Hare.
Still, Emanuel brought a swagger and a chip on his shoulder, as a fellow who'd happily serve his revenge up hot or cold.
But the city was already cratering when he grabbed at the job, and now he wears the jacket.
He was absolutely rolled by the Chicago Teachers Union in the strike, and his capitulation cost him credibility with business leaders. His closing of some four dozen schools cost him with African-American voters. Emanuel still found $17 million last week in extra funds for an elite Near North magnet school, while out in the Northwest Side bungalow belt, Ald. Nicholas Sposato, 36th, ran a "toilet paper" drive to help his neighborhood schools provide basic necessities to the children of taxpayers.
And that $1 billion school deficit?
Perhaps the only way out is to declare Chicago Public Schools bankrupt and use that as a vehicle to reorganize the congenitally underperforming system. A city can declare bankruptcy, so why not the schools?
You'll probably hear more about that in the weeks ahead. Mayor Rahmfather is famous for saying that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. But does he have the resolve to take advantage as he approaches re-election?
That's in the future. What about the other day?
Thirteen people on the South Side, including a 3-year-old boy, were shot down in a park in the Back of the Yards neighborhood.
But the mayor wasn't in Chicago. He was in Washington raising political cash and planned to grab some more national media face time in the New Jersey Senate campaign of Democrat Cory Booker.
So with blood on the streets of Chicago, and that 3-year-old shot in the face, Emanuel wasn't in town to hold the news conference. Instead, police Superintendent Garry McCarthy held the news conference, spinning the news by demanding the feds do more.
"Illegal guns, illegal guns, illegal guns drive violence," McCarthy said. "A military-grade weapon on the streets of Chicago is simply unacceptable."
It sounds good, but the problem is that the cops aren't buying it, especially the cops in Englewood and other war zones. They're exhausted. They need more officers, but the city says it doesn't have the money to hire them.
I asked a respected veteran cop what he'd do about the gang wars. He said this:
Increase hiring, bring back the citywide units, like the mobile strike force, to overwhelm the gangs. And demand that judges and prosecutors lock up the thugs, and demand that the state prisons don't release the thugs early.
The mantra of Emanuel and McCarthy has been to criticize the people in the neighborhoods for not cooperating with the cops. But the people know the truth of things. The bad guys get out early. And when they're lectured by politicians, they become even more resentful.
They want to feel safe on their streets and in their parks. They don't need promises of a gourmet food store. And they don't much care how the mayor does on Letterman or how great he'll do in the Robert Redford documentary about how hard he works.
Emanuel is a skilled and often-brilliant political street fighter. Yet he thinks like an operative. Too often, he acts as his own chief of staff. He acts as his own press secretary.
And he doesn't have people around him who can tell him, "No."
Every mayor needs people who can say "no" to him. Even Richard M. Daley had that. And when Daley lost the people who said "no," Daley began to lose it.
With the gang wars raging and Chicago murders in national headlines, with the schools on shaky ground, with his re-election approaching, Mayor Rahmfather might want to ask himself some more questions:
Where is Chicago going? And what is he going to do about it?