By Bill Ruthhart
Often criticized for perpetuating a city of haves and have-nots, Mayor Rahm Emanuel fired back Saturday with his own tale of two cities -- the old Chicago and new Chicago -- as he kicked off his campaign for a second term.
Though he stuck with his practice of not mentioning Richard M. Daley by name, the heart of Emanuel's re-election speech slammed the way Chicago was run under his predecessor to try to make the case that he has reformed City Hall and delivered progress in his first term.
"There is a real choice in this race -- whether we go back to the old Chicago that only worked for some, or continue forward building a new Chicago that works for everyone," Emanuel told hundreds of supporters in a large room at the Cinespace Chicago Film Studios on the West Side.
"In the old Chicago, you got a job based on who you know. In the new Chicago, you get a job based on what you know," Emanuel said. "In the old Chicago, a government job meant a credit card, a car or free parking. In the new Chicago, we've cut those perks and put taxpayers first."
Emanuel carried that old Chicago/new Chicago theme to five other areas he portrayed as successes: an improved city budget, citywide recycling, expanded full-day kindergarten, an increased graduation rate and more police officers on the street instead of behind desks.
What the mayor didn't talk about, however, loomed as large as what he did address.
Emanuel made no mention of the nearly 50 schools he shuttered, the weeklong teachers strike on his watch, the spike in violent crime and shootings in the midst of his first term, the reductions he's made to retirees' health benefits or the city's pension funding crisis that has yet to be solved.
While the mayor portrayed the city as having made "steady progress" during his tenure, he acknowledged it hasn't been enough. He used that idea as justification for why he deserves another four years.
"Our progress means little if it doesn't live up to our common aspirations, if the benefits do not extend to every corner of the city, to every family and every child who calls Chicago home," Emanuel said. "I'm running for another term as mayor, because our job is not done -- our job to make sure that every child and every family in our city, no matter where they live, has the chance to succeed."
The remark is a way for Emanuel to try to counter the criticism of his detractors, who have painted the mayor as a cold, calculating politician who can't relate to the city's disadvantaged and is more comfortable corralling cash from Wall Street executives. It's a construction that has led critics, including a handful who picketed outside his speech Saturday dressed as $100 bills, to dub Emanuel "Mayor 1 Percent."
That message first gained momentum during the 2012 teachers strike led by Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who was preparing to challenge Emanuel until she underwent emergency surgery for a brain tumor in October.
Mayoral challengers Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia and Ald. Bob Fioretti have picked up on Lewis' themes and railed against the school closings, bashed Emanuel's handling of the police department and accused the mayor of turning his back on the city's neighborhoods.
In voting against Emanuel's budget, Fioretti said the mayor's spending plan continued Chicago's tale of two cities, where the wealthy downtown and North Side excel and neighborhoods on the city's South and West sides struggle. The 2nd Ward alderman continued that line of attack Saturday.
"The mayor's policies have created two Chicagos, and no amount of campaign cash or TV ads can change that fact," Fioretti said in a statement after the mayor's speech. "Chicagoans want a new direction and are ready for a vision of safe streets and strong neighborhoods. I am the candidate with the backbone to make that happen."
Emanuel has tried to deflect such criticism, not by engaging with his opponents, but by turning to his own achievements, such as expanding full-day kindergarten at CPS.
"Four years ago, the have-and-have-not approach started with the fact that half of our kids used to get a full day of kindergarten and half our kids used to get two hours a day," Emanuel said recently. "If you want to know where the tale of two cities begins, it begins in kindergarten and early childhood."
Emanuel enters his re-election bid with a virtually insurmountable advantage in campaign cash and facing a field of far lesser-known candidates. As a result, the Feb. 24 city election amounts largely to a referendum on Emanuel's piloting of City Hall.
A veteran politician and political operative well-versed in campaign messaging, Emanuel has made the calculation that his campaign should be less about him and more about what he's done.
The top half of his campaign website's home page doesn't feature photos of him, but an interactive Chicago map of city improvements. His campaign website has been rebranded from Chicago for Rahm to Chicago Together. And his first three TV ads haven't included him uttering a single word, but instead supporters lauding his specific accomplishments.
Emanuel has good reason to try to shape the mayor's race as more about what he's done than his personality: His approval rating has plummeted. A Tribune poll in August found his approval rating was down to 35 percent, with every major demographic in the city now unsatisfied with his job performance.
Speaking before Emanuel at Saturday's rally, City Clerk Susana Mendoza sought to address the mayor's likability problem.
"Now, some of you might have heard that Rahm Emanuel might not be known as a warm and fuzzy, try-to-please-everyone, super likable kind of guy," said Mendoza, a co-chair of the mayor's campaign. "That's OK. Here's what he is: He's a walk-it-like-he-talks-it, hard-charging with a purpose, visionary leader who is a decisive doer. I'll take that in a mayor any day over warm and fuzzy."
That line drew one of the loudest rounds of applause and a smirk from Emanuel, who unlike four years ago, had much of the Democratic establishment on hand with him. In 2011, when the recently departed White House chief of staff returned to Chicago to run for mayor, he battled questions about his residency and faced a more splintered field.
On Saturday, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White and Senate President John Cullerton were there to show their support along with at least 14 aldermen and several state elected officials, business and labor leaders and clergy. Two men who worked against Emanuel last time attended: powerful 14th Ward Ald. Ed Burke and Democratic U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez. Both supported Gery Chico in 2011.
"Four years ago, I did not stand with Rahm Emanuel when he ran for mayor," said Gutierrez, the other co-chair of Emanuel's campaign. "But during the last four years he has earned my respect, earned my endorsement, and no one will work harder to see his re-election that Congressman Luis Gutierrez."
Emanuel's campaign has sought to steer the spotlight away from the city's problems that have contributed to the mayor's unpopularity with some Chicagoans to focus on what it describes as tangible improvements in people's lives, from the closing of coal plants and opening of a grocery store to the launch of Divvy bikes and rebuilding elevated train lines.
The mayor's speech mirrored that strategy, focusing on specific ideas and concrete accomplishments. And while Emanuel didn't call out his opponents, the speech had the effect of drawing a contrast to the lack of policy proposals from the Fioretti and Garcia campaigns, said Ald. Joe Moore, 49th.
"You know why they haven't offered any ideas? Because there aren't any easy solutions," Moore said of Fioretti and Garcia. "The choices these days are between bad and worse, but my hope is that the voters are going to say, 'OK, opponents of Mayor Emanuel, show us your plan. How will you solve the pension crisis and move Chicago forward?' So far, there has been a hell of a lot of platitudes and not a whole lot of specifics."
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