What if Rahm Emanuel doesn't want to be another mayor for life?



The fifth-floor door of the Mayors office

We switched on WBEZ last Saturday and came upon All Things Considered considering Rahm Emanuel a little more than halfway through Emanuel's first term as Chicago's mayor.

The NPR program and the local authorities it had rounded up—John Kass and Laura Washington among them—reported that Emanuel is up to his ears in problems (crime, schools, finances) but almost certain to be reelected in 2015 if he wants to be. He's got no apparent challengers, he's got $5 million in his reelection bank account, and Washington said she expects him to triple that by the time the campaign starts.

However, what if he makes other plans?

The report began with mention of the era from 1955 to 2011—more than half a century—when City Hall was dominated by Daleys, father and son, each elected mayor six times. It was what they aspired to; it was all they wanted.

But Emanuel might be different.

"One of the things that I think disturbs some voters here is that they feel that Rahm Emanuel's always got one foot in and one foot out," Washington was saying. "Some people think he has presidential aspirations, which he's denied repeatedly, but I think people are a little bit wary of whether he's going to be around for the long haul."

The long haul! Each of the Daleys was around for the long haul, and the result is a city with a monarchical—or papal—concept of the mayoralty. If a Chicago mayor isn't prepared to hold the job until he dies, well, then maybe he's made of the wrong stuff to have it at all. People have the sense that mayor of Chicago isn't the last job Emanuel wants in his life; and if that perception would be par for the course in New York or LA, it does him no favors here.

I asked Washington what she meant by "long haul." She said she meant a couple of terms, though she can't imagine Emanuel considering a race for president in 2016 unless Hillary Clinton doesn't run, something Washington considers unlikely. Yet she understood what I was getting at.

"I do agree that in general, Chicagoans think of our politics in royal terms," she e-mailed me. "We think parochially in many ways, and we don't (with the exception of Barack Obama) resonate with politicians who strive for the national stage. Perhaps we feel betrayed, or perhaps it's because we take our politics so personally."

With the possible exception of Obama, I'd say. When he ran for Congress against Bobby Rush in 2000 he was clobbered. Obama was clearly striving that time, and Chicago cut him down. But after his speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention made him a national figure, Obama was, in many, many eyes, striving no more; he was answering the call of history.

Chicago can put up with that.

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