Emanuel brings his independent mindset to Chicago

AP News
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Posted: May 12, 2011 4:38 PM
Emanuel brings his independent mindset to Chicago

Several weeks after Rahm Emanuel was elected mayor of Chicago, a union official complained that a hiring freeze had forced the city to transfer workers from rat control to garbage collection. About the same time, the mayor-elect learned that as many as a third of streets-and-sanitation workers were not showing up.

Emanuel _ who could just imagine being asked why the nation's third-largest city was allowing rats to breed like, well, rats _ fired off a letter to the union official, telling him there were plenty of employees on the payroll if only they would do their jobs.

Rather than ask for the union's help or engage in backroom negotiations, Emanuel made his position plain: Picking between rats and garbage "is a choice I refuse to make," he wrote. Get your people to work.

The private letter obtained by The Associated Press reflects how Emanuel is challenging the status quo and bringing his own independent mindset to the mayor's office. Even before his inauguration Monday, he has talked tough to city workers, hired a schools chief known for confronting teachers and made a subtle threat to aldermen when he questioned whether as many as half of their 50 seats are necessary.

Like outgoing Mayor Richard Daley, Emanuel will be a Democratic mayor in a Democratic town that relied heavily on Democratic workers when the Daley political machine was in full swing.

But by raising more than $14 million for his campaign, relying on his own supporters and playing to a public in no mood to coddle public employees, Emanuel has more room to work around the political figures who always expected to trade favors for a piece of the city pie.

Emanuel "is an outsider from the traditional organization and machine ... and that allows him some freedoms," said Alan Gitelson, a Loyola University political scientist.

Not that his work will be easy. The departing Daley administration says the city's budget gap is getting smaller, but an official familiar with the transition, said Emanuel has found the city in worse financial shape than he expected, with the tab still climbing. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because Emanuel's assessment of the budget problems has not been made public.

The mayor's office will be Emanuel's first job as an elected executive after years of serving as White House chief of staff, a political fundraiser and one of 435 congressmen.

He has also walked a tightrope, as he tries to brace constituents for changes in a way that doesn't appear to be critical of the retiring Daley, a powerful figure who has been an ally and whose influence Emanuel will still need in this city of 3 million.

"Thank God I had some ballet training," Emanuel joked this week with reporters, referring to dance lessons he took as a youth. He said criticizing Daley doesn't serve any purpose.

Throughout it all, Emanuel has kept his cool in public _ though occasional glimpses of him gesticulating in his car lead to inevitable speculation about whether the other, famously profane Emanuel comes out in private.

That he's moving so quickly to put his mark on City Hall doesn't surprise Paul Begala, a political commentator, former aide to President Bill Clinton and longtime friend of Emanuel _ though Begala noted that Emanuel's refined demeanor is more of a shift.

Twenty years ago, he said, that letter to the union "would have ended with, `I'm going to get you,'" Begala said. Emanuel is "impatient. He wants things done yesterday. He's driven, and he drives his people.

"Washington is full of people with impressive titles who don't actually do anything (but) Rahm is `Don't try to impress me with a title. Get something done."`

Emanuel, who fought to avoid the outsider label when he quit his White House job to run for mayor, is in the process of building his own machine. While keeping some people with strong ties to Daley _ including Daley's daughter, who will sit on an advisory board _ he's bringing with him a small army of outsiders to help run the city.

That includes a new police superintendent from Newark, whom Emanuel chose over two veteran Chicago commanders.

And he's made a few other moves reminiscent of his Washington days. A renowned fundraiser who once worked at the Clinton White House when major donors were rewarded with stays in the Lincoln bedroom, Emanuel asked private foundations to help pick up the tab for his transition operation, then gave some of their top brass plum assignments in city government.

He also has asked political donors to kick in as much as $50,000 for his inauguration, saying he wanted to save taxpayers money.

"A lot of people ought to be paying attention to how he's funding this stuff," said David Morrison, deputy director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

At the same time, Emanuel is scrambling to learn more about Chicago. With his wife, Amy Rule, and their children still in Washington, his day begins in the gym at 5 a.m. and lasts until about 9 p.m. The parade of meetings has included pretty much every alderman.

"He's trying to get familiar with the city," said Alderman Anthony Beale, who said he literally gave Emanuel a tour of his ward using a map Emanuel had in his office.

When Emanuel heaped public praise on Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, the comments sparked wide speculation that Ramsey, a one-time deputy police superintendent in Chicago, had the inside track to be the city's new top cop. But Ramsey soon announced that he was staying put.

A person close to Emanuel said the mayor-elect decided against Ramsey after learning he was insisting on a salary significantly above that of the the last police chief. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the negotiations were private.

"He didn't lose his mind or go nuts; he just said this is not happening," said another official familiar with the transition.

As he builds support, Emanuel appears to be maneuvering in other ways that recall Obama and Clinton.

Unlike Daley, who liked unanimous votes from a city council that often acted as a rubber stamp, Emanuel has told aldermen he will understand if a `no' vote gives them political cover back in their wards.

On the other hand, he created a whole new council committee to make sure he could push through his initiatives if problems develop with veteran aldermen who could emerge as rivals.

And, while he's still sometimes sought help from organized labor, something union leaders say Daley has not done in years, Emanuel has not shied away from dealing with unions head-on, with his reputation accompanying him wherever he goes.

"Rahm is trying to put out that we can do this the right way and work it out, or we can go down the path of other jurisdictions (such as Wisconsin) where it is getting nasty and not many unions are winning these things," the official said.

With the letter about the rats and garbage, Emanuel "took a story about how the city was not going to go after rats and he said, `No, no, I'm not going to have this blamed on the city," the official said. "We're going to have this blamed on the union."