Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks at a press conference about the extreme weather conditions that are currently hindering Chicagoans ability to travel.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel stepped off the plane Monday morning from a family vacation in Indonesia into a city blanketed in a winter freeze and quickly addressed the optics of his absence from Chicago in the run-up to some of the nastiest weather the area has seen in years.

First up, the mayor made a morning stop at a city Streets and Sanitation garage to thank workers for plowing the snow that fell all day Sunday. The mayor then gathered more than a dozen city officials for a news conference to tout efforts to deal with the dangerous cold. Later, Emanuel headed to an afternoon photo-op with residents at a city warming center.

In a city where mayoral careers have been measured by the response to snow on the ground, Emanuel was publicly getting out in front of the situation after he landed.

But with many side streets still unplowed, temperatures at historic lows and schools closed, the sight of Emanuel at the microphone after returning from a trip to a warm country on the other side of the world could become fodder for critics who contend he’s out of touch with regular Chicagoans.

The mayor, who vacationed in the equatorial Asian archipelago over the holidays with his wife and three children, shrugged when asked whether opponents who have dubbed him “Mayor 1%” for his wealth and pro-business policies will make political hay out of his absence. “Whether it’s the weather or not, I’m sure people will always find reasons to raise some questions,” he said.

Asked why he didn’t return to Chicago sooner in light of the harsh forecast, the mayor told reporters his Indonesian trip wasn’t all nature hikes and family fun. “I think every one of the commissioners know and would report I’ve been in contact with them on a regular basis, and with my chief of staff multiple times on a daily basis,” he said. “Communication equipment, be that text, cell phone, e-mail, allows you to stay in contact on a regular basis. My family would think that I wasn’t much on vacation, given all the communication I was in with them.”

Emanuel also was asked why Chicago Public Schools officials said Friday that schools would stay open Monday, only to reverse course Sunday afternoon and announce they would be closed. District CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said she made recommendations to the mayor about closing the schools after monitoring the situation.

“It may have seemed at the last minute, but it wasn’t,” Byrd-Bennett said. “We were being pro-active all along.”

But Ald. Proco “Joe” Moreno, 1st, wondered why school officials took their initial stance so early, saying the district should have waited to see how bad things got over the weekend before making any announcement. “I think they probably made the right decision (to close the schools), but they handled it badly,” Moreno said in an interview.

Unlike the winter blizzard that buried Chicago under about 20 inches of snow in 2011 in the waning months of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration, Emanuel doesn’t have to contend with a signature image like the hundreds of cars that got trapped on Lake Shore Drive during that deluge.

Emanuel does have to contend with a perception in some quarters that he can’t relate to the struggles of many of his constituents. A Tribune/WGN-TV poll in May found 53 percent of voters said Emanuel is not in touch with people like them.

Ald. Howard Brookins Jr., 21st, chairman of the City Council black caucus, said Emanuel has the right to take a vacation. And Brookins said his office had received few complaints about the city’s snow removal efforts. But the alderman also said he expects opponents to beat the drum during Emanuel’s upcoming re-election campaign over the Indonesia trip.

“They’re always trying to find any chink in his armor, so I would guess they would try to use this,” Brookins said. “But I would also expect cooler heads to prevail and for people to realize it’s OK for him to take a vacation.”

Vacations already have caused the mayor some political grief.

Last March, Emanuel was on a family ski trip in Utah when his administration released the list of dozens of public schools targeted for closure. That trip, timed to coincide with the Emanuel children’s spring break from the University of Chicago Lab Schools, drew rebukes from Chicago Teachers Union officials who said the mayor should have been in Chicago to answer for the closings.

Tribune reporter Bill Ruthhart contributed.

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