100 days in, Chicago mayor touting his connections

AP News
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Posted: Aug 22, 2011 1:58 PM
100 days in, Chicago mayor touting his connections

When the White House announced Chicago would be the first American city outside Washington to host the NATO and G-8 summits, word got out that new Mayor Rahm Emanuel had lobbied Vice President Joe Biden for it when he attended Emanuel's inauguration in May.

But Emanuel, in an interview marking his 100th day at City Hall on Tuesday, boasted that his access is better than that.

"I had already talked to the president about it, and Billy," said Emanuel, referring to William Daley, his successor as chief of staff at the White House and the brother of retired Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. "I buy insurance and then an umbrella policy," he joked.

Touting his personal and professional contacts as a boon for the city has been a central theme of Emanuel's opening months as Chicago's new mayor, the city's first new leader in more than two decades after Daley's surprise retirement.

Emanuel has bragged about pulling strings to land prestigious events, to get new jobs and business expansions, to entice influential people to serve in city roles and to get philanthropists to pony up money for education.

The talk comes naturally for a man with 7,000 names in his digital contacts list, according to his staff, from his days as a White House aide, congressman and investment banker. It also has a clear political purpose, giving his administration achievements to point to while it's still trying to put its agenda in place. The name-dropping has added public relations sizzle to an office that had a more low-key approach under more reserved Daley, who was supremely well-connected but less inclined to talk about it.

But inevitable questions can arise about how many of Chicago's recent coups really came from Emanuel's personal clout.

For example, the NATO and G-8 summits, and Emanuel's role: "I wouldn't overstate it," said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser at the White House, referring to how much the mayor's White House contacts affected the site decision.

The administration, Rhodes said, was in the market for a host city outside the nation's capital that had an international bent, a diverse population and the capacity to host a high-profile event, all of which pointed to Chicago. The city was even more attractive because it's Obama's hometown, Rhodes said. But Rhodes said Emanuel certainly was an energetic advocate for the choice.

Emanuel's administration is absorbed in the grittier problems of a city facing a $635 million-plus deficit next year, serious crime in some neighborhoods and a stubborn 9.9 percent metropolitan unemployment rate in July. The new mayor has slashed budgets, shaken up agencies and taken on powerful unions, but has only scratched the surface.

"He has picked all the low hanging fruit exceedingly well," said Andy Shaw, head of the Better Government Association in Chicago. "He's done all the obvious things to start balancing the budget, start restoring faith in government, start ending the culture of corruption, promoting transparency and accountability and restoring the economic health of the city."

But, for now, dialing and dishing can provide opportunities for a mayor steeped in White House-style political message control and self-promotion.

"Rahm never wastes time so he is on the phone all day long specifically asking people to do things," Shaw said.

Emanuel likes to boast that companies have announced 4,000 new jobs in Chicago since he took office _ and that it's no coincidence.

"This is the third CEO who is changing their cell number, their email," he said, according to local news reports, when Schaumburg-based Motorola Solutions CEO Greg Brown announced 400 Chicago jobs.

Emanuel has touted other job announcements from Walgreen Co., JP Morgan Chase & Co., GE Capital, United and Allscripts.

Comcast Executive Vice President David Cohen, who has known Emanuel for 25 years since his days working as a political consultant, said Chicago was an easy choice to launch a program to sell discounted computers to low-income families and provide them Internet service at a reduced rate. He said his company was in discussions with other cities, but Emanuel made the fastest decision about wanting it in Chicago.

"You don't have to dilly-dally with Rahm," said Cohen, a former chief of staff to Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell when he was the mayor of Philadelphia.

But, despite having the president's phone number, Emanuel's juice can't deliver everything. Unlike in the days of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley and the late former U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, Chicago can't count on a dump of federal money to solve its money troubles.

"This isn't like the old days," said Dick Durbin, Illinois's senior senator and a fellow Democrat, referring to the changed budget and political environment. Still, Durbin said, Chicago has a good shot at what money is available because Emanuel knows the players in Washington.

The Chicago Convention & Tourism Bureau is counting on a boost from the NATO and G-8 summits next spring, although they don't have an estimate yet of what the financial impact might be. "The global exposure itself, you can't put a price on that," said spokesman Meghan Risch.

Rhodes said having Emanuel as mayor will make the "heavy lift" of pulling off the summits smoother.

"I think a lot of the impact of his being mayor will also help to ensure successful summits because we'll have very good lines of communication," he said.