US & Canada

Chicago mayor race: Softer Rahm Emanuel bids for hard task

Rahm Emanuel chats with diners during a campaign stop at Mac Arthur"s restaurant
Image caption Rahm Emanuel was nicknamed "Rahmbo" while he was White House chief of staff

Former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is the favourite to win Tuesday's vote in the Chicago Mayoral election. But the man who was known as President Obama's enforcer faces a tough challenge if he's picked as the man to turn around the fortunes of the Windy City.

In Macarthur's restaurant on Chicago's west side, Rahm Emanuel is working the tables.

The crowd here is African-American, dressed up after Sunday church. On the tables, corn bread teeters on the side of plates piled high with fried chicken and gravy.

For the Washington-watchers, proximity to the former White House Chief of Staff is a cause for some jitters.

Rahm Emanuel is a political operative so tough that he was nicknamed "Rahmbo"; a man who, in one well-worn but still-worth-repeating tale, sent a dead fish to a pollster that had let him down; who on the night of Bill Clinton's presidential victory, pronounced the names of the new president's enemies and declared them "dead…dead…dead" whilst repeatedly stabbing the table with a steak knife.

Rahmbo or Bahmbi?

But today, in the cloying warmth of Macarthur's he is diffident, taking care to spend time chatting to voters, making eye contact, apologising for interrupting their meal, even coming across as a little shy. Could it be that Rahmbo has become Bahmbi?

After pressing the flesh Mr Emanuel and his young son do battle with a huge plate of chicken, greens, and macaroni cheese; lesser politicians would have strode out without eating. But Rahm Emanuel is nothing if not a pro.

"It is so disciplined," says Cindy Canary, executive director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, of the Emanuel campaign, "so disciplined."

"It really is an amazing campaign," she adds, "It reminds me of the professionalism and scope of a presidential, of a national scale campaign, superimposed on a municipality.

"It is very sophisticated in terms of communications, technology, the messaging, the discipline and control that the candidate has shown.

"He is very well funded but he has also spent this money very wisely."

Name recognition

Twenty minutes drive from Macarthur's and families are whiling away the cold wet Chicago afternoon at Circle Lanes bowling alley.

Rahm Emanuel has amongst voters here that precious commodity, name recognition. It may push him over the 50% that he requires to avoid a run-off election in April, though observers in the last few days have been voicing their doubts.

But in among the gloomy bowling lanes there is concern over the economy and the state of the city. Lounging in a corner of the hall, Reggie Scogins, 28, complains about the city's government.

"Where is our tax money going?" he asks, "there's not enough police, you don't really feel safe in the city anymore, the property taxes are steadily going up, it's ridiculous."

Image caption There will be an April run-off between the top two vote-getters unless a candidate polls more than 50%

The bad news for Reggie, and for all Chicagoans, is that the city is not just on the edge of a financial precipice, but has leapt off it and is only saved from plummeting by flailing limbs and a refusal to look down.

A recent report on the city's finances by the independent Civic Federation laid it out in brutal detail.

The annual budget deficit has exploded in nine years, from $58.3m in 2002 to $654.8m in 2011; reserves from city sell-offs were being raided even before revenues shrank with the recession; unless huge sums are poured into underfunded pension schemes, the police and fire funds will be exhausted in a decade, the municipal and labourers' funds by 2030.

And just to add to the bad news the credit ratings agencies are getting nervous, downgrading Chicago's debt in 2010 and making its borrowing more expensive.

Difficult challenges

"These are horrifically difficult political as well as financial challenges facing the city of Chicago," says the Federation's President Laurence Msall, "that's going to require both a reduction of the current employees future benefits…and either significant tax increases or dramatic reductions in other types of services, but probably a combination of all three."

Which you'd have thought would have made for pretty lively debate in this mayoral election campaign, the first one in many people's memories to be anything than a coronation for six-times mayor Richard M Daley.

Not so, says NBC Chicago's political editor Carole Marin.

"They have all been purposefully vague whilst they have told you they've been extraordinarily specific. We really don't know how the pensions crisis will be addressed, how benefits for public workers will be addressed. They are towering issues and, no, we don't really know their specifics, any of them."

Perhaps Rahm Emmanuel should savour not just his chicken and greens, but also these times of relatively high popularity. There's no doubt he is tough guy.

But there are extraordinarily tough times ahead for this tough city. And success will be measured in deeds, not handshakes and ruthless discipline on the campaign trail.

More on this story