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.