Chicago, It's Rahm Emanuel, Your Next F#@*ing Mayor

On his best behavior, Rahm Emanuel looks to trade running the White House for running a great U.S. city

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Callie Shell for TIME

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Most fortuitous of all was the strange battle over the basic question of whether Emanuel was, in fact, a Chicago resident eligible to run for mayor. A lawsuit, whose source of funding remains mysterious, argued that he'd lived in D.C. too long to call himself a Chicagoan. Weeks of legal wrangling culminated on Dec. 14 in nearly 12 consecutive hours of testimony from Emanuel that included a discussion of items stored in his Chicago basement (including his wife's wedding dress). After an appeals court ruled against Emanuel, the Illinois Supreme Court unanimously decreed him a legal resident. A saga that threatened to embarrass not only gave him endless free publicity but, thanks to his uncharacteristic self-restraint in the face of goading by a pack of hostile citizens, softened the caricature of volcanic Rahmbo. It made him out to be the victim and underscored an implicit campaign theme: Emanuel as patriot who left his post in Congress to serve his President and now longed to return home. Especially in the African-American community, the notion of a powerful white man sacrificing for a black man is potent.

Training for a Tough Job
Much credit surely goes to the candidate himself, a paragon of fitness and energy. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays he starts at 5:45 a.m. by swimming a mile at the elite, perfect-for-networking East Bank Club. On Tuesdays and Thursdays he does 25 minutes on a stationary bike ("Level 14," he says), 15 minutes on an elliptical trainer, 100 sit-ups and weights. On Saturdays he hikes 20 miles (32 km) or runs 4 miles (6.5 km), and on Sundays he has private yoga instruction. Then it's off to daylong, mostly unpublicized, appearances, including meet and greets at 100 El stops so far and hours spent feeding his inner wonk by studying the intricacies of school policy, transit, community policing, planning, airports, homelessness, garbage collection, health care and public housing. There are detailed papers on saving health care dollars via wellness programs, semiprivatizing trash pickup, persuading retailers to put supermarkets in the city's many "food deserts" and creating a sprawling, Google-like campus for high-tech innovators and venture capitalists. A serial cell-phone user, he's constantly dialing donors, prospective hires and legislators, like Illinois senate president John Cullerton, who says Emanuel has been the only mayoral hopeful to call.

The hardest part might be when Emanuel ventures into a lion's den: Chicago's firehouses. Few groups are as clannish as the city's firefighters, many of whom have the time to work second jobs. A strong case can be made that there are far too many, especially given the sharp drop in the number of fires (thanks in part to modern construction standards). Emanuel has hinted that this system must change. When he took his message to a North Side firehouse this month, one firefighter (who wouldn't give his name) offered his verdict: "The guys aren't too happy."

For Chicago to survive and flourish, however, hard choices lie ahead. A city with 30,000 employees groans under $12.4 billion in unfunded pension liabilities. Borrowing $245 million for anticipated police and firefighter raises, Chicago shares a fiscal predicament with cities nationwide. Though the school system has become a national laboratory for change, overall progress is incremental, and test scores are uninspiring. Teachers are well paid but work the shortest school day of the nation's 50 largest districts, teacher recruitment and performance evaluation are awful, and principals are not well trained.

That's why Emanuel's critique of city workers in a TV ad titled "Service" infuriates union leaders but seems to resonate with voters. "City government is not an employment agency," he says. "That means making sure everybody that works for the city government knows that they're actually a public servant representing and helping the people that pay them." Unionists may be outraged, but a popular suspicion is that too many have had it too good for too long. Emanuel is proposing various savings of $500 million, although he is withholding some key, politically charged details, like whether he'll go after pension benefits of existing workers.

It is a sign, however, that Emanuel is not interested in merely being a caretaker of the city he loves. Every city in America faces similar problems with its schools, budget and public-employee pensions. But Chicago's example will be especially important. As he has been throughout his career, Emanuel is prepared to make some enemies to achieve his goals. He insists that the story is bigger than one man. "It's about governing, not about me," he says. "The day of reckoning has come. Denial is not a long-term strategy."

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