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That was once thought to be impossible. Given the large (six-candidate) field, and the deep ethnic fragmentation of America's third largest city, insiders doubted that anybody could pull more than 50% to win outright. The bookmakers expected a runoff between a white candidate and a black or Latino contender. Yet here in one of the nation's most segregated cities, not one African-American shopper or worker during this morning's supermarket swing privately voices a preference for the leading black candidate, former U.S. Senator Carol Moseley Braun. No matter that in 1992 Chicago catapulted her to the U.S. Senate the body's first and only African-American female. To these voters, a sense that Emanuel has the power and prowess to deliver results matters more: "He could pull strings to do the city good," says Lucas Redmond, 69, a retired refrigeration engineer who voted for Braun back then but associates her with wasted opportunity. Chimes in a dairy-department employee: "I voted for her, but it seems when we go with race, it doesn't do us any good. He's better qualified."
City hall has been run since 1989 by Richard M. Daley, the king of American mayors. Daley leaves Chicago having overseen the city's transformation from declining Rust Belt bastion to world-class metropolis, with a flourishing arts scene, innovative financial markets and commerce-fueling transport services. With its dazzling sculpture and architecture, the 24.5-acre (10 hectare) Millennium Park, opened in 2004, not only anchors downtown but makes it one of the great public spaces anywhere.
Chicago's problems, however, are also daunting. There's the city's $500 million deficit, which amounts to nearly 10% of its annual budget. Several pension funds face the prospect of going under, with little help likely from a state whose own financial predicament is precarious at best. The city's basic infrastructure, especially mass transit, is in rapid decline. The school system is in crisis, with a high school dropout rate that exceeds 50%. Only the cities of Detroit, Milwaukee and Newark, N.J., are more segregated. According to a recent analysis of economic growth in 150 metropolitan areas worldwide by the Brookings Institution and the London School of Economics, Chicago placed a listless 82nd. Chicago's substantial black population in particular endures crushing unemployment and persistent crime. "You can have a world-class ballet and opera," says Emanuel (a former ballet dancer). "But if half your kids aren't graduating, you can't be a world-class city."
Which brings us to the obvious question: Why? Why leave the grand arena of national governance for a circus of pothole fixing, tree trimming, water-main repair, subway-line extensions and fights over which alleys drivers can use as thoroughfares? Why subject yourself to a city-hall press corps whose cynicism can make its White House counterpart look decorous and fawning? "I loved the White House. I loved working for both President Obama for two years and for President Clinton for six years," Emanuel tells me after somehow arriving just five minutes late to a downtown diner in a blizzard that has paralyzed the city. "But I love with a greater amount of emotion and strength also being the mayor of the city of Chicago, a city I grew up in and I would want my kids to call home. I think it's facing some serious challenges... Every city faces these challenges. I want to be the first to solve them." In other words, Emanuel is a gut-level kind of guy with a gut-level passion for Chicago. He loves it for the grit and grandiosity that has produced everything from Saul Bellow's greatest novels to Michael Jordan's six NBA titles to the epic Daley-family political machine. "I give you Chicago," wrote the newsman-essayist H.L. Mencken. "It is not London and Harvard. It is not Paris and buttermilk. It is American in every chitlin and sparerib. It is alive from snout to tail." Emanuel's vision is less lyrical but just as devout. "It's the most livable big city," he says, "with all the potentials of a big city and the management of a smaller town. This is what makes it, from a lifestyle question, unique. It's the only inland city with an international economic focus."