CHICAGO (Reuters) - The NATO summit this weekend will severely test Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel who lobbied hard to win the meeting of some 60 leaders, including heads of the 28 countries in the alliance.
Will he deliver a well managed stage on which his friend and former boss President Barack Obama can act as international statesman?
It will be no easy task for Emanuel, who said when he was inaugurated exactly one year ago on Wednesday: “I am not a patient man. I will not be a patient mayor.”
Patience is exactly what Emanuel may need in order to walk the fine line between allowing protesters to demonstrate peacefully, restraining his police from responding to provocations and making sure world leaders, and Chicago residents, can operate.
Emanuel, 52 and a Chicago native, is speculated by the media to harbor the dream of one day stepping into Obama’s shoes as the president who represents the United States at world gatherings such as NATO. When asked about the rumors, his staff neither deny nor confirm he holds presidential ambitions.
During the summit, the mayor will meet and welcome foreign leaders, and he is likely to be hands-on all weekend to make sure the city’s logistics run smoothly.
A successful summit that showcases to the world Chicago’s gleaming downtown office towers and beautiful green space along Lake Michigan could be a crowning achievement for him.
A positive glow from the summit would also help Chicago shake off the 2009 embarrassment of being eliminated on the first ballot in the bidding for the 2016 Olympics, despite the personal lobbying of Obama.
Emanuel is not taking any chances with the NATO summit. He pushed through the City Council in January restrictions on public demonstrations. They include tight parade rules, increased fines for violators, and require organizers to get a $1 million insurance policy. The curbs will not end when the world’s political leaders leave town.
A talented fundraiser who became a White House adviser in the administration of President Bill Clinton while still in his early 30s, many in Washington wondered why Emanuel resigned as Obama’s chief of staff in 2010 to run a city known for corruption and intractable problems.
A centrist Democrat, he ran on a platform to stabilize the city’s troubled finances, fix the public schools, and cut the crime rate. In a potentially messy six-way race, Emanuel walked away the convincing winner with 55 percent of the vote.
His record so far has been mixed. He has racked up some early successes, unilaterally imposing a longer day in the public schools, closing a $650 million budget deficit without significant layoffs or service cuts, and convening an ethics task force to begin cleaning up the city’s political culture.
“I think he’s had as good a first year as we could have hoped for,” said Michael Sacks, the chief executive of the Grosvenor Capital Management hedge fund and vice chairman of World Business Chicago.
But there have been major roadblocks as well. The city’s murder rate is up 54 percent this year, and Chicago has had far more murders than New York City, which has more than twice the population. While the overall crime rate is down, Emanuel has been unable to deliver on his promise to make the streets safer.
“Crime is still a very major problem,” said Dick Simpson, a former alderman who now runs the political science department at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The contract with the city’s 30,000 teachers expires next month and there is the growing possibility of the first teachers strike since 1987.
Emanuel has been forced to turn to the private sector to finance new infrastructure such as sewers and water pipes because of the partisan gridlock in Washington, and the mounting financial woes of the state of Illinois.
Emanuel’s approval rating of 52 percent, according to a Chicago Tribune and WGN survey published this week, is several percentage points higher than Obama’s battered national standing.
He has won the respect of a city that has had its share of mayors with big personalities including the legendary Richard J. Daley, his son Richard M. Daley, and the city’s first black mayor, Harold Washington.
Next up on Emanuel’s agenda are long-needed changes to the city’s pension system, which is so underfunded that Moody’s Investors Service last month lowered its outlook on Chicago’s main debt rating to negative from stable.
Emanuel responded by informing city workers and retirees that he plans to require them to make higher contributions and retire later to qualify.
“This is not a man who cares about Chicago,” said Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle, an organizer of a group called Southside Together Organizing for Power (STOP) who has been arrested several times in recent months protesting Emanuel’s money-saving closure of city-run mental health clinics.
“He has presidential ambitions and he’s showing he’s got executive ability and he’s a strong leader. He doesn’t give a damn who he leaves in his wake,” Ginsberg-Jaeckle said.
Emanuel has carefully distanced himself from his predecessor Richard M. Daley, but he has disappointed some who expected a wholesale cleansing at city hall.
He allowed the redrawing of election boundaries in the city to be done largely behind closed doors, in a throwback to the Chicago Democratic machine.
While Emanuel has kept his notorious temper largely in check during his first year in city hall, his dark side is legendary. During his years as an adviser in the Clinton administration, Emanuel once sent a rotting fish to a pollster who crossed him.
Even in a city known for its tough politics, Emanuel has not been able to shake this reputation as a bully.
“He tells citizens what he’s done for them. He doesn’t consult them,” said Simpson.
Editing by Greg McCune and Cynthia Osterman