TOPICS > Politics

After 100 Days as Chicago’s Mayor, How Is Rahm Emanuel Faring?

September 26, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Late last year, Rahm Emanuel left his post at the White House to launch his successful bid for mayor of Chicago. WTTW's Eddie Arruza profiles the Windy City's new mayor after 100 days on the job.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Now, a portrait of the mayor in progress.

Rahm Emanuel was a senior adviser to President Clinton, served three terms in the House of Representatives, and then was White House chief of staff to President Obama. But late last year, he left the White House and Washington to launch a successful bid for mayor of Chicago.

Eddie Arruza of public station WTTW prepared this update.

EDDIE ARRUZA, WTTW: In his first 100 days as mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel lived up to his reputation, that of being tireless, demanding, and in control. He’s taken on the Chicago public school system.

RAHM EMANUEL, (D) mayor of Chicago: Teachers will be on a performance-pay system. Principals will be on a performance-pay system.

EDDIE ARRUZA: Ordered Chicago cops on desk duty to hit the streets.

RAHM EMANUEL: We do that to bring a level of safety to our communities that have not had it.

EDDIE ARRUZA: And put city workers on notice.

RAHM EMANUEL: The effort here is to make sure that everybody knows who we work for and who we’re accountable to, which is the residents of the city of Chicago and the taxpayers.

EDDIE ARRUZA: By his 99th day in office, the mayor was boasting of having completed or set in motion dozens of initiatives, everything from posting the city budget online to making bike lanes safer. Even some independent-minded Chicago City Council members acknowledge that the new mayor is, if nothing else, determined.

RICARDO MUNOZ, Chicago alderman: He’s got great stamina and staying power in terms of just staying on top of things and dealing with emergencies.

EDDIE ARRUZA: But everyone who is keeping a close eye on Chicago’s new mayor agrees on one thing. His far more difficult 100 days are ahead.

Like most other big-city mayors, Emanuel is facing a looming budget deficit, in his case $650 million. The challenge he confronts is how to reduce it without violating his campaign pledge not to raise taxes or resort to one-time-only fixes.

Laurence Msall is president of the Civic Federation, a fiscal watchdog group that monitors both the city and state budgets. He says the financial decisions confronting Emanuel are daunting.

LAURENCE MSALL, Civic Federation of Chicago: It is not going to be an easy 60 to 90 days. It’s not going to be an easy two to three years of this administration. However, if he doesn’t get a handle on the city’s finances, if he isn’t able to show that he can manage in this very difficult situation, it’s unlikely that his priorities of education and public safety will be able to be met in the future.

EDDIE ARRUZA: Rahm Emanuel has had a lot of practice in making tough decisions, or at least in advising others about tough decisions. When former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley announced last year he wouldn’t run for re-election, Emanuel left the White House to pursue what he said was his political dream.

He had the money, the backing, and the determination to surmount a tough challenge to his residency. Under Mayor Richard Daley, the City Council was often criticized as a rubber stamp. The new mayor says he wants the all-Democrat 50-member council, one-third of whom came into office with him, to be partners in decision-making.

Alderman Scott Waguespack has been an independent and sometimes opposition voice in the City Council. He says he’s not ready to say if the new mayor is on the right track.

SCOTT WAGUESPACK, Chicago alderman: You know, you can’t come in and change everything overnight. And 100 days is virtually nothing. I mean, I would like to see, you know, a year from now, what serious changes have been made.

In 100 days, you can do a lot of small things to kind of get the ship in what we would consider the right direction. And I think that they’re slowly turning it in a way that is good.

EDDIE ARRUZA: Moving Chicago in the right direction is Mayor Emanuel’s stated goal, but he has another less overt objective, that of making Chicago a national example for how to transform big-city government in the 21st century. He’s doing that by making the public sector look more like the private sector. And he’s pushing unions to change long-accepted work rules.

In July, the city sent layoff notices to 625 workers after unions failed to make concessions the new mayor wanted. It was a blow to the Chicago Federation of Labor, an umbrella group for dozens of unions. But the Federation’s president is not giving up on a good relationship with the new mayor.

JORGE RAMIREZ, Chicago Federation of Labor: Look, I have to believe that he is going to work with us and partner with us, because it’s what he’s told us. And until he proves otherwise, I think we have to go and push as hard as we can into that belief to make sure that hopefully something will come of it. And that’s what we’re trying to do now.

EDDIE ARRUZA: But the new mayor is firm that unions must make changes.

RAHM EMANUEL: I don’t think people should be paid double time for overtime, rather than time-and-a-half. These are industry standards, or 40 hours, rather than 35 hours, as if it’s 40 hours. That would save a little over $3 million, and 200 people wouldn’t get the pink slip.

I think making those reforms are the right choices for the taxpayers and the workers. And I would like organized labor and their leadership to be a partner in that.

EDDIE ARRUZA: Emanuel’s choice to be Chicago’s top cop is Garry McCarthy, the former Newark, N.J., police chief who is credited for carrying out a major overhaul of that force. The new mayor wants him to do the same in the Windy City, although the challenges may be greater.

LAURENCE MSALL: The Chicago Police Department has more layers of management than the city of New York’s police department. It has more layers of management than the city of Houston’s police department. That’s an area that the city can attack the management side, the added cost and the layering that occurs in large bureaucracies, and not impact the number of policemen on the street. We think there are many areas of that in government that can be addressed.

EDDIE ARRUZA: The new head of the beleaguered Chicago public schools is another outsider, Jean-Claude Brizard. He was superintendent of the Rochester, N.Y., school system, where he had a rocky tenure.

Brizard and his newly appointed school board have already approved a property tax increase to try to close a $700 million school budget shortfall. And he and the new mayor are pushing for, among other things, longer school days and some concessions from teachers that’s led to an ongoing standoff with their union.

Craig Dellimore is the political reporter for News Radio 780 in Chicago.

CRAIG DELLIMORE, WBBM News Radio: He is making moves that the former mayor didn’t make to the same degree, of going up against the labor unions and in some cases trying to work out partnerships with them, but in the case of the teachers union, definitely, that’s an adversarial relationship, at least at this point.

EDDIE ARRUZA: But whether Mayor Rahm Emanuel is a breath of fresh air or a continuation of the Chicago political machine is up for debate.

The mayor could face a lot more pushback from the City Council when he unveils his first budget around mid-October. It will likely contain extensive cuts. And how the aldermen respond could determine whether Emanuel’s ambitious agenda will move ahead quickly or at all.