Former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel said Saturday that tackling Chicago's reputation for sweetheart deals and patronage head-on is first on his to-do list if he's elected to be the city's next mayor.
Emanuel told The Associated Press in an interview that he would sign an executive order barring his appointees from lobbying the city for two years after leaving his administration. He also talked about improving the city's hiring practices which for years were marred by illegal political patronage.
"I want people's time in city government to be about public service," he said.
Emanuel, who is vying to replace longtime Mayor Richard M. Daley, is the front-runner in Chicago's first mayoral race in more than 20 years without Daley on the ballot. But he's had anything but an easy campaign: To get on the ballot, he had to beat back a legal challenge from voters who claimed he wasn't eligible to run because he'd recently lived in Washington -- not Chicago -- working for President Barack Obama.
Casually dressed in a leather jacket and no tie, Emanuel said he's campaigning harder than ever in the days leading up to the Feb. 22 election and not taking anything for granted. He said he's doubled up on his visits to city public transit stops to meet voters as the race nears. Polls show Emanuel nearing the more than 50 percent of the vote he needs to win the race in the first round and avoid an April runoff.
He's also feeling the effects of a hectic campaign, saying he has lost eight or 9 pounds and is down to 148 pounds on his 5-foot-8 1/2 inch frame.
"I said to my staff, 'Don't anybody spike the ball on the 20-yard line.' I'm going to work," he said.
A recent Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll showed Emanuel with 49 percent support compared to 19 percent for his closest rival, former Chicago schools president Gery Chico. The two other major candidates, former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun and City Clerk Miguel del Valle, had 10 percent and 8 percent, respectively.
Chico isn't conceding any ground as he goes up against "Goliath" and believes there will be a runoff, said spokeswoman Brooke Anderson.
"From day one we've been the underdog in this race and we're going to fight for every vote in every part of this city," she said. Chico's campaign said he picked up the endorsements of some African-American ministers on Saturday.
Emanuel isn't alone in his pledges to clean up City Hall. Chico has similarly proposed ending conflicts of interest by banning any employee, appointee or elected official paid by the city from doing business with the city during their service and for two years after they leave. The same goes for companies they might have a financial interest in.
Like many politicians, Emanuel has benefited from his connections, including a lucrative appointment to the board of mortgage giant Freddie Mac, something his rivals in the campaign have taken him to task over. Opponent Chico has called it a "parting gift" from President Bill Clinton. In 2002, then-congressional candidate Emanuel and other candidates also received some campaign help from city workers, though Emanuel was accused of no wrongdoing.
Emanuel said he also is out to make sure the city continues to clean up and professionalize its hiring. That means an independent human resources person at the top and using an outside for civil service hiring, according to Emanuel's campaign website. The city has operated under a federal decree banning political patronage that started with a landmark lawsuit filed in 1969 by crusading lawyer Michael Shakman to try to decimate the city's entrenched system of awarding jobs in exchange for political favors.
"It's cheaper now to just do it the right way and it's better for the city government," Emanuel said.
He said his mantra is that "the taxpayers are the boss," and he took a swipe at anyone who doesn't believe that in a recent campaign commercial. In the commercial, he proclaimed that delivering city services meant "making sure everybody that works for the city government knows that they're actually a public servant" and that city government was not an "employment agency." That raised the hackles of some unions. The unions said they were offended by the ad because city workers had recently worked hard to help the city confront its third-worst blizzard.
"(The commercial) was about elected officials and middle management who came to public service without the notion of public service. That they saw government and time in public service as lining their pockets and enriching themselves and that's not what it's about," he said.