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Is Rahm Emanuel too much of a lightweight to be mayor of Chicago?
October 14, 2010

Dear Cecil:

So, no thoughts about Rahm Emanuel yet? I thought you'd be all over this, but I guess not.

I must admit to being torn at the thought of Rahm as Da Mare. I actually kinda like what I hear about the guy, although I don't think I'd want to work for him. But the City Council could use some butt-kicking.

Still, as a Chicagoan, I don't appreciate the "done deal" assumption of this. Like Rahm is just gonna waltz in from Washington and all of Chicago will be at his feet
— at least that's what the media talk sounds like. I think the next mayoral election is going to be one down and dirty fight, and no way does Rahm have an automatic lock on this. Sure, he's a Chicagoan, but he's more an outsider than any of the others considering a run.

I just don't like it when national types take Chicago's acquiescence for granted. I mean, Marshall Field's? Fuck you, it's Macy's now. I gotta say though, a great poster slogan for Rahm would be "Vote for me or go fuck yourself."

— Two Many Cats, via the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board

Cecil Adams replies:

No doubt about it, this is going to be an interesting race.

I'll admit to having a slightly different take on the idea of Rahm as mayor from most people's, although I think my initial reaction was pretty much the same, namely: Rahm? Mayor? There's something inherently implausible about it. For starters:

He's too thin. I was hoping there'd be some kind of online depth chart that would tell me exactly what Rahm weighs, but apparently the White House doesn't publish one. No matter. I met the man briefly when he ran for Congress, and he's undeniably on the slim side, as befits someone who in his youth trained in ballet. That's to his credit, of course. Lightweights live longer, and I for one want no more mayors dying before their time. However, it puts him in the minority among Chicago political leaders, who as a class are known for their bearlike physiques. Richie Daley, though not tall, is a hefty fellow, as was his father. So was Harold Washington. My impression, gleaned entirely from photos, is that Gene Sawyer was solidly built. Jane Byrne wasn't, but she was a special case. Michael Bilandic was at the thinner end of the Chicago spectrum, but you know how well his term in office turned out. David Orr likewise is on the small side, but he was mayor for a week.

My point is that Chicagoans expect their mayors to be physically formidable, partly out of a sense that at some point on the job they may have to duke it out. "Big Bill" Thompson once famously threatened to punch the Prince of Wales in the nose if he ever came to Chicago. (The prince wasn't tempted, as far as I know.) Richie Daley, while still state's attorney, got into a wrestling match with an unhappy city worker in 1983. Aldermen, meanwhile, have been mixing it up for years.  This is the sort of thing, I realize, that makes Chicago seem like a throwback, but the town is what it is. I'm not saying Rahm can't transcend the question of bulk;  one hears he's scrappy in other respects. The onus in any case is really on us. We got used to the idea of a woman mayor and, admittedly not without a struggle, an African-American mayor. I'm sure we can warm up to a skinny one, too.

The job would be a step down. Let's be honest about this. Here's a fellow who has spent the better part of his career in Washington, been an advisor to Presidents, and dealt on a regular basis with the great issues of our time.  Now he wants to be mayor of Chicago, where his days would be spent dedicating playgrounds, reading budgets, and listening to aldermen drone. I'm not saying the job doesn't have its satisfactions. Rahm's alternative career goal at one time was Speaker of the House, where at best on your retirement you get an office building named after you. A city offers a more expansive canvas on which to make your mark, if you've got the patience for it. The question is whether Rahm has the patience, which brings me to my next point.

He's not the type. If, in the manner of Mr. Potato Head, you were to assemble the ideal candidate for mayor of of this town, I doubt you'd wind up with Rahm Emanuel. To cite the obvious, he's quick and articulate, which historically haven't been requirements for public office in Chicago. I'm not one of those who think Richie Daley is a complete idiot, notwithstanding his having failed the bar exam a couple times. However, his paramount quality has been doggedness, not the first term that springs to mind when you think of Rahm.

I don't mean to suggest the man isn't stubborn or can't get things done; clearly the opposite is true. However, to date he's shown little appetite for the long slog, which in Chicago has been what being mayor is all about. He spent five years in the Clinton White House, four years as an investment banker, six years in Congress, and now two years as Obama's chief of staff. These are cool jobs, and from most accounts he's done well at them. However, they suggest a certain restlessness — not what you look for in a Chicago mayor.  Schools, crime, the urban economy … these aren't issues you're going to resolve in five years.

Then again, having one guy hammer away at them for twenty-two years maybe wasn't such a hot idea either. Here's where Rahm offers an advantage I haven't seen anyone else mention yet: he surely wouldn't be mayor for life. There are two reasons for this. First, he'd get bored. Second, he'd get too many people pissed off.

Granted we take a chance here. You don't want the guy to crash and burn before his first term is out. His record offers no assurances in this respect. Up till now, and I mean this kindly, Rahm has mostly been a henchman, working at high-pressure jobs where nobody lasted long and somebody else figured out the grand strategy. As mayor he'd be the boss. OK, nobody ever claimed Daleys I and II made the Hall a nurturing environment. But you don't want everyone in the place to bolt.

Let's assume, however, that Rahm has mellowed sufficiently to avoid a mass exodus, at any rate long enough to last a couple terms. As mayor he'd offer several advantages. First, from what we know so far, he's the smartest guy out there. That doesn't guarantee he'll have an easy time of it — look at Obama — but it couldn't hurt. Second, he knows a couple people in Washington. Third, as you say, he seems well qualified to kick some City Council butt. Fourth, he didn't come up through the wards.

I realize I part company with a lot of people on this last point. When he first ran for Congress from the 5th District, Rahm got some grief for having grown up in — horrors! — Wilmette, and even worse having gone to New Trier, making him not just an outsider, but a snotty suburban outsider. Well, many of us have had to overcome unfortunate backgrounds, and the insider methodology is what got us Todd Stroger. Not to go all Tea Party on you, but to the limited extent Rahm is an outsider, that's a plus.

Equally to the point, Rahm's legislative experience has all been in the U.S. Congress. I realize that institution isn't held in high regard, but here in Chicago we have one of the few legislative bodies that's held in less. The House at least has debates and stuff. I'm not confident about what can be accomplished locally in that regard; an intelligent debate requires intelligent debaters. However, Rahm at least has some familiarity with the concept, which can't be said of anyone who's spent his entire career in Chicago (or for that matter in Illinois). And Rahm himself is quite capable of explaining things, if anyone has the wit to ask. So that's a start.

Best of all, from a certain perspective, chances are after eight years he'll be gone, which is how it works in most places, and others will jockey to replace him — in other words, the normal political processes will take root. Will a two-party system emerge? Let's not get delusional. But it beats the situation of the past 50 years, where by and large the only way to reach the mayor's office was through intrigue, inheritance, natural disaster, or death.

I say all this recognizing that Rahm has yet to formally declare his candidacy and has had little to say about what he hopes to accomplish. I can see him as mayor, sure. But the question still needs to be put to him: Why do you want this job?

— Cecil Adams

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