Difficult, they say, to pass a family business on to the third generation. Proof of this assertion is the business known as the City of Chicago, run by the Daley family for two generations but now turned over to non-Irish carpetbaggers, with no future Daley in view. In the interregnum between Daley père (Richard J.) and Daley fils (Richard M.), a few interlopers ran the joint: Harold Washington, a machine hack named Michael Bilandic, and Jane Byrne, who got into office because of Bilandic’s failure to shovel the snow from the streets, thus conferring on the city’s only female mayor the quite appropriate title Snow Queen.
Rahm Emanuel, the current mayor, who is ensnared in a runoff election he ardently wanted to avoid, and who vastly overspent his four earlier rivals in seeking to do so, is in some ways symbolic of the new Chicago, at least of its white population. Emanuel grew up on the city’s prosperous North Shore, the son of a physician. After working for various Democratic party causes, then serving on the staff of Bill Clinton, he ducked briefly into finance. After four years (1998-2002) running the Chicago office of an investment firm called Wasserstein Perella, he removed himself from the financial wars. He did so having walked away with a personal profit of more than $16 million, which only goes to show that with the right political connections one need not waste two dullish years acquiring a silly MBA. Emanuel was on the board of directors of Freddie Mac during part of that time, a bad period for the agency, which was visited with scandal. Three quick terms in Congress preceded Emanuel’s hitch as Barack Obama’s chief of staff. Rumor had it that he left the White House because Obama family confidante Valerie Jarrett diminished his effectiveness. A more likely reason is that his own ambitions were too grand to be content with the job.
Now that Chicago has lost much of its industrial base, the city is less and less working class in character. Where Chicago isn’t preponderantly black or Hispanic, it tends to be youthful and prosperous. Young couples have moved into and refurbished drab working-class neighborhoods. The old notion of the city as a collection of ethnic neighborhoods, at any rate of neighborhoods lived in by white ethnics, is now obsolete. Demographically, Chicago isn’t even any longer predominantly white. Roughly 32 percent of the city is black, and another 31 percent Hispanic, along with 5 percent Asian.
In this runoff, Rahm Emanuel’s opponent is a man named Jesus “Chuy” Garcia. (Chuy is pronounced Chu-wee; Chu-wee Garcia sounds like nothing so much as a 10-cent cigar.) Garcia is a man in his late fifties who has been a state senator, a city alderman, and a Cook County commissioner, three great forcing houses of local corruption. A boy with whom I went to high school, after a long and undistinguished career in the Illinois state senate, for example, has been able to finagle himself an annual pension in excess of $170,000. Because of such antics, pervasive in if not part of the system, Illinois has fallen into deep debt, and USA Today has judged it “the worst run” state in the country—do I hear laughter coming out of Mississippi?—while Chicago’s bond rating, owing to $20 billion in unfunded pension obligations, has now fallen a mere two levels above junk bonds.
The Emanuel-Garcia runoff finds Chicago voters nicely divided. Chuy Garcia is no charmer, but in the charm category Emanuel suffers an even greater deficit. His act—a Jewish Jimmy Cagney, with profanity added—has not won him lots of extra friends. Appearing nightly on local television, he resembles nothing so much as that annoying student who is always raising his hand but never has convincing answers. What you see in Rahm Emanuel is what you get, and what you get is raw ambition. In his case you get the strong sense that he wants to succeed as mayor not so much for Chicago but for himself, so he can move on to the United States Senate, to a major cabinet post, to, who knows, keyn eynhore, the presidency. Rahm Emanuel, clearly, is in business for himself.
His campaign counselors recognize Rahm has a humility problem. (How can’t I be humble, he once responded, I live with teenagers and a wife?) In the expensive effort to combat this, a current television ad has him, in cashmere sweater and open-collar shirt, sparse gray hair nicely poofed and moussed, confessing that he knows he sometimes rubs people the wrong way, speaks too quickly rather than listens, comes off as overly aggressive. But, he goes on in the ad to say, he really can’t help it; if he is guilty of all these things, it is owing to his ardor to solve the problems of our fair city.