And other Chicago players
Feb 21, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 22 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
In Chicago elections one’s antipathies are always nicely divided. The division is usually between idealistic incompetence and corrupt quasi-competence. Corrupt quasi-competence, the way of the Daley dynasty, père et fils, for better and worse generally wins the day. The result has been that the city kept humming along, with all its messiness pushed under an ample carpet: horrible public schools, heavy debt, lots of street-gang murder in slum neighborhoods to go around. But beautiful trees were planted everywhere, and the snow got shoveled off the main thoroughfares. Chicago, the city that works—that is, if you don’t look too closely.
The reinvented Rahm Emanuel, cool and serene, walks the streets of Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood last October.
For a brief patch, 1983-87, Chicago voters went for idealistic incompetence, and elected a black mayor, Harold Washington, who died in office. It wasn’t, I think it fair to say, quite worth it. This was the period in Chicago known as the Council Wars, in which the 50 aldermen of the City Council, a group that makes Ali Baba’s 40 thieves look like l’Académie française, was divided down the line between black and white, with ugly racial feeling right out in the open. Like an unsuccessful movie, the Council Wars left no one to root for, with scoundrels on both sides of the divide. Black or white, when a Chicago alderman speaks on television, one mentally crayons in the eye-patch, the hooped earring, the parrot on his shoulder.
Mayor Richard M. Daley—Richie as opposed to his father Dick—came into office in 1989 and put an end to the Council Wars. He did so, one assumes, by assuring the aldermen that the spoils of big-city local government, in patronage and other emoluments, were plentiful enough to go around for everybody, and that war only got in the way of plundering. Richie has served six terms and been, on balance, a good mayor; not as good as Rudy Giuliani, who truly saved a city, but by Chicago lights, which is to say—yo, Benito!—he made the trains run on time.
Richie Daley is 68, he has a wife with cancer, his crest of popularity is now on the slide—enough, he must have concluded, is enough. He was a man of limited ambition, never wishing to rise to governor or U.S. senator, but content, like his father, with controlling his rich satrapy of Chicago. But the Chicago sky just now is darkening with chickens coming home to roost, with a billion-dollar budget deficit and an impressive $15 billion pension shortfall.
To help pay off some of the city’s debt, Richie entered into a billion-dollar parking-meter contract with a private firm that has substantially raised the cost of street parking in Chicago and has everyone grumbling. Parking on Chicago streets now feels less like a convenience and more like a punishment. Cars in Chicago are towed at the drop of a snowflake. Cameras have been installed at traffic lights on busy intersections allowing the city to collect $100 fines for people crossing on yellow lights. With more and more major industry leaving Chicago, it now sometimes seems that the city’s main source of revenue is traffic and parking fines.
So Daley will not leave office covered with glory but rather, one suspects, with the feeling that he is escaping just in time. Looking upon his exhausted face, one has a sense of a man awaiting a strong organic substance to hit a rudimentary air-conditioning device. Feets, one senses a voice within him crying, get me out of here!
Players ready to take Richie Daley’s place have long been on the field. And a grim lot they are, giving diversity its usual good name for fairness and bad name for mediocrity: a black woman, two men of Hispanic ancestry, and a fellow, as my black basic-training sergeant Andrew Atherton used to say, of the Hebrew persuasion of well-publicized disputed residency riding in from the nation’s capital.
Ladies first. Carol Moseley Braun, the lady in question, is the politician who, perhaps more than any other in recent years, blew it on a field of the greatest magnitude. She is the first black woman elected to the U.S. Senate. That fact alone ought to have made her statue-worthy, the subject of a rich PBS profile cranked up every year during Black History Month, along with those on Rosa Parks and Althea Gibson.
Instead, it’s hard to find a mistake Moseley Braun didn’t make when a senator. She paid a gentleman friend campaign manager $15,000 monthly out of campaign funds; she several times visited and supported a Nigerian dictator (Sani Abacha) who was executing dissidents; and she lost a reelection campaign to a weak Republican candidate named Peter Fitzgerald after being accused of various improprieties, among them abusing Medicaid for her ill mother, misappropriating campaign funds, comparing George Will to a Ku Klux Klansman, and other fine deeds. “Most imprudent,” said a friend of mine, who was one of Moseley Braun’s teachers at the University of Chicago Law School, “especially for a hack.”
If Carol Moseley Braun was wretched in office, she’s an even worse campaigner. She claims that she’s the one to break the city’s horrendous parking contract, which everyone else agrees is ironclad, with no word about where the billion dollars to repay the private vendor is to come from; she claimed to have advanced degrees from Harvard (oops—she doesn’t); she blamed Rahm Emanuel, the front-runner in the mayoral campaign, for cutting and running after helping Barack Obama engineer the greatest midterm election debacle in history.
After being defeated for reelection to the Senate, Moseley Braun, when asked if she would seek political office again, told the press, “Read my lips. Not. Never. Nein. Nyet.” Of her 1990 campaign, she said: “If I lose I’m going to retire from politics, practice law, and wear bright leather pants.” A case, apparently, of growing too big for those britches. With a mournful looking Jesse Jackson hovering behind her as she makes her sometimes inchoate announcements to the press, Moseley Braun is running a campaign purely about race. Still, it is always amusing to see Jesse Jackson on yet another losing horse, crying, no doubt, wildfire.
Miguel del Valle, currently the city clerk, was the first candidate to announce for mayor when Richie Daley decided not to run. His early start has not helped him in any obvious way; so far as I know, no poll has shown him with more than 8 percent of the vote, and many with less. A professional politician—he was in the Illinois state senate for two decades—del Valle is a less than inspiring candidate: You have to imagine a Puerto Rican Mr. Peepers. He is for all the standard things: better schools, less crime, more transparency. (Will we ever again have a candidate who is happy with the current opacity?) And yet one feels that he speaks from the heart when he talks about the poor in Chicago feeling oppressed by their government. And it is true that a Chicagoan without clout or money is increasingly caught between the greed of the politicians and the rigid stupidity of the bureaucrats.
Gery Chico, son of a Mexican-American father and a Greek-Lithuanian mother and the candidate closest on the trail of Rahm Emanuel, has been politician and bureaucrat both. He has been president of Chicago Public Schools, president of the Chicago Park District, chairman of Chicago City Colleges, and from 1992 to 1995 was Richie Daley’s chief of staff. His campaign has been chiefly about attacking Rahm Emanuel’s ideas on tax cuts, but without great success. Chico is a political insider, with a law firm in which several members are registered as city hall lobbyists. The aldermen, one feels confident, could live very comfortably with him. And why not? Gery Chico is a company man in a company town.
Here, perhaps, we come to the crux of the matter. Rahm Emanuel, though scarcely an outsider to politics, may be too large a figure for the Chicago aldermen. For a good while there has been whispering that the aldermen, chief among them a Southwest side figure named Edward Burke, have been behind the move to disqualify Emanuel from the mayoral race owing to his not meeting the residency requirement. Ed Burke, Irish, from a political family, wearing bespoke suits and fancying hundred-dollar haircuts and designer glasses, has been on the Chicago City Council since shortly after the reign of Julian the Apostate. Burke’s candidate in the mayoral election—no surprise here—is Gery Chico.
One of the delights of this mayoral campaign is watching the performance of what one assumes is the currently highly self-suppressed Rahm Emanuel. The volatile pol, famous for his temper and foul mouth—“feisty,” I believe, is the favored euphemism—has been coming across cool and serene, positively rabbinical. (At a roast of Emanuel, Barack Obama recounted that, working at a delicatessen as a boy, Rahm had lost a good part of the middle finger of his right hand, which “rendered him practically mute.”) In commercials he speaks of his sadness at viewing poor children going off to Chicago public schools with “no hope in their eyes,” and how he is intent upon changing that. During what must have been the infuriating legal battle over his residency status, he appeared, with impressive sangfroid, before the Chicago election board committee and the screeching questions of the local press as if he were auditioning for the part of Father Flanagan.
When Emanuel appears in his often-shown television commercials, I think of him as the Rahmbomb, after the great 12th-century Jewish philosopher Maimonides, who, in an anagram of the initials of his name in Hebrew, was known as the Rambam. Rahmbomb because one is waiting for one of those famous f-bombs of Emanuel’s to explode on a tape or a microphone he might mistakenly have thought was turned off.
On the other hand, the one with the middle finger intact, there is no reason for Emanuel to explode. Once the residency business was out of the way, his campaign became smooth sailing, and on a luxurious yacht. With a campaign chest of $12 million, at last reporting, the Rahmbomb had three times more money to spend than all his opponents combined.
(Emanuel, taking a brief break from politics between 1999 and 2002, quickly accumulated a fortune of his own—estimated at $16 or $17 million—while working for an investment banking firm called Wasserstein Perella. Bill Daley, Richie’s younger brother, who has taken over Emanuel’s post as Obama’s chief of staff, before starting his new job had to divest himself of more than $7 million worth of stock from his days working for JPMorgan Chase. Amid all their high public service and good works, these boys always manage to connect for a little jackpot of $8 or $15 million of their own.)
With his vast campaign funds, with his pathetic field of competitors, does the Rahmbomb have anything special in mind for the city he desires to govern? If so, he has thus far pretty much kept it to himself. Like everyone else, he lisps in clichés: He is going to improve the schools, get crime off the streets, relieve the municipal debt. He claims to be able to accomplish that last by streamlining the city’s tax system and increasing efficiency among city workers. (Old joke: Why does it takes 14 Chicago Streets and Sanitation Workers to change a light bulb? Answer: Because 13 of them, after having someone sign in for them, are at work doing business with the city at their privately owned asphalt companies.)
Why does the Rahmbomb want to be mayor of Chicago? Naturally no mention is made of his enjoying power of the kind that being mayor of a Democratic stronghold like Chicago confers. Might sheer egotism backed by effrontery have anything to do with it? Not in his version. In his version he loves the city. (He actually grew up outside it, on the North Shore, and went to New Trier High School, one of the most academically competitive secondary schools in the country, where the students speak of their days as Preparation H: preparing, that is, for Harvard. Emanuel made it only to Sarah Lawrence.) He suffers from acute idealism, he tells us, learned from his pediatrician father and psychiatric social worker mother. The man wants to do good. His religion, he tells us, has reinforced this idealism.
Emanuel’s being Jewish is a question of genuine interest. Chicago isn’t a very Jewish city. With roughly a quarter million Jews, the city is only 3 percent or so Jewish. Apart from Jewish aldermen elected from the city’s two or three heavily Jewish wards, Jews have never taken an out-front position in local politics. Powerful Jewish pols such as Jacob Arvey, the man behind Adlai Stevenson’s career in Illinois politics, functioned as éminences grises. A Jewish mayor is something else again.
Chicago is a city of peasants, or, more precisely, people of peasant background: Poles, Italians, Irish, Greeks, blacks. Peasants, I think it fair to say, don’t get Jews. And the Rahmbomb is an anti-Semite’s dream. He is wealthy, aggressive, he even took ballet lessons, for God’s sake; all the anti-Semitic stereotypes are in place, except for his not being highly cerebral.
Jews, a character in the movie Barney’s Version says, are not more intelligent than anyone else; they are just more wary. Whether Chicago does or doesn’t elect Rahm Emanuel its mayor will, either way, constitute another little chapter in the history of anti-Semitism in America. American universities that once strictly enforced quotas against Jewish students have now all had Jewish presidents, almost all of whom, let it be said, have shown themselves quite as mediocre as their predecessors. Has the time come when the country is also able to support Jewish politicians quite as mediocre as their predecessors? Let us hope so.
To win the office, the Rahmbomb must get above 50 percent, or be forced into a runoff with the second leading vote-getter. As things stand at the moment, it appears that he will win in a canter, without having to break a sweat, and the chances are good, too, that he will be able to avoid a runoff. The sweati ng—the real schvitzing, to use the Yiddish word, which conveys so much more—will come only after he is elected and has to deal with plug-ugly backroom pols, recalcitrant union workers, and enormous budget deficits, at which point, expect many a bomb from the Rahm.
Joseph Epstein is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.
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