Emanuel Vows to Emerge as Humbler Chicago Mayor in Next Term

A thankful Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel presented himself to bleary-eyed South Side commuters today, embodying the humble, sweater-wearing politician who told voters in television ads that sometimes he rubs people the wrong way.

“The Second City gave a second term and a second chance,” Emanuel said at the 95th Street El stop, the morning after defeating Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, a Cook County commissioner. “I went through the paces, and I think I’ll be a better mayor for it.”

A coffee-toting Emanuel shook hands, back-slapped dozens of commuters, most of them black, and thanked them for a majority that gives him four more years to try to unite this racially divided city. Exit polls showed most Hispanics voted for Garcia while Emanuel won a majority of black support.

The 55-year-old mayor, best known as a profane enforcer in Chicago and Washington, presented his softer side in campaign advertisements in which he wore a dark V-neck sweater as he talked contritely to viewers.

U.S. voters have rarely rewarded such shows of sartorial humility. Former Democratic President Jimmy Carter is remembered for wearing a sweater during an energy-conservation address to the nation. It fed the perception he was weak and helped drum him out of office after one term.

Tough Choices

If Emanuel is to be self-effacing, it will be a departure. He has touted the need for difficult choices on schools, crime and finances, regardless of consequences.

Chicago’s mayoral campaign, the first runoff since the city switched to nonpartisan elections in 1999, was shadowed by the prospect of insolvency. With a burden of $20 billion of unfunded pension debts, Emanuel has scant opportunity to celebrate.

“We have a lot of work to go, and a lot of work to do going forward,” Emanuel told reporters at an early childhood learning center on the West Side. “But I do believe doing it together, we are going to get where we need to go as one, as a city, a lot faster.”

He also gave a nod to how his sometimes-imperious demeanor had complicated his ability to govern.

“The challenges we have are hard,” he said. “They don’t need to be made harder if I have a stylistic issue.”

Softer Side

Even if voters like the mayor’s softer presentation, they may not appreciate his choices in the new term. The financial crisis means that Emanuel will have to work to raise taxes and cut spending, said Ralph Martire, executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, a Chicago-based research group that tracks government spending.

“Whatever patience the re-elected mayor has will be severely tried by the fiscal challenges confronting both the city and the Chicago public-school system,” Martire said. “People, meaning voters and taxpayers, need to hear what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.”

During the six-week campaign, the candidates offered few specifics about how they’d resolve the crisis. Under state law, Chicago is required to pay an additional $600 million next year into pension funds. The source of that payment is unknown.

Emanuel and Garcia each endorsed broadening the sales tax to include some services, and the incumbent backed the construction of a casino with revenue dedicated to pension debts. Both those plans would require legislative approval. Neither man committed to raising property taxes, the levy the city directly controls.

‘Unattractive Answers’

“There’s going to have to be tough decisions, which means politically unattractive answers to financial problems,” said Laurence Msall, president of the Civic Federation, a Chicago-based nonprofit research group that follows the city’s finances.

Emanuel’s challenge is to “overcome this idea that he didn’t listen to people,” Msall said. “Making sure that the public feels that he’s both listening and on their side is essential to gaining the political support he needs to go forward.”

Voter dissatisfaction with persistent crime and the closing of 50 public schools, both in mostly minority neighborhoods, led to the runoff. Chicago Public School teachers and staff went on strike in 2012, the first such walkout in the city in 25 years.

New Contract

Shortly after taking office in 2011, Emanuel clashed with Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union. Lewis persuaded Garcia, a little-known county commissioner, to run after she was diagnosed with cancer.

Negotiations have begun on a new teacher contract, with the district facing a projected $1 billion deficit in next year’s budget, along with $9 billion in unfunded pension liabilities. Moody’s Investors Service and Fitch Ratings cut the district’s rank March 31 to one step above junk.

The labor talks represent an immediate challenge for Emanuel, said Linda Lenz, publisher of Catalyst Chicago, a magazine that covers efforts to bolster the schools.

“I think Rahm would be more effective if he did connect better with people,” Lenz said. “I mean, we’re not asking somebody to go out there and be a wimp.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.
LEARN MORE