ARUN RATH, HOST:
From NPR West, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Arun Rath.
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RATH: This joyful scene was only two years ago.
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RATH: But today, Chicago's mayor faces sobering challenges common to most of America's biggest cities.
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RATH: That man is Rahm Emanuel. Chicago's homicide rate spiked last year at 516 murders, the highest in 10 years. Unemployment is 9 percent. And Chicago's deficit is looming near the $1 billion mark. And that's just the short list of urgent problems. That's our cover story today: Chicago's midterm report card for Rahm Emanuel.
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RATH: Talk to Chicagoans at lunchtime on a workday downtown, and you'll hear mixed reviews on Rahm Emanuel.
DAVID HOOL: Oh, man.
CRUZ TOLVER: I honestly can't say that I - that he's doing anything well. I really hope that he's not re-elected again.
HOOL: I think he's doing a great job. I think it's very difficult to be a mayor of a major city these days and have everybody like him. It's impossible.
RATH: Cruz Tolver and David Hool were pretty clear about how they feel. Others are on the fence.
JULIETA CAMPOS: My name is Julieta Campos(ph), and I'm a bartender. I was very impressed when he stepped out of Obama's Cabinet to come to Chicago. He's a fancy man. He lives up north, and that's great. The South Side, though, is still not where it should be.
ROB WASHINGTON: My name is Rob Washington. I'm from the South Side of Chicago. He's been a competent mayor. No one seems to like him, but say what you want to about Rahm Emanuel is really no one trying to oppose him right now.
JIM GOLDEN: My name is Jim Golden from New Lenox, Illinois. I am a union insulator. He needs to stop pretending he's being transparent and start really being transparent.
RATH: The city's problems are very real, and everyone seems familiar with them. Rahm Emanuel ran for mayor as a hometown boy, but he was never a part of the political dynasties that have defined Chicago. He'd left his position as White House chief of staff to govern a city controlled for more than 50 years by the Daley family. Richard J. took office in 1955. He passed the power to a few Democratic protÃ©gÃ©s, and then his son, Richard M. Daley, who served six terms before stepping aside in 2011. It looked like the Daley dynasty was done.
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RATH: And Rahm Emanuel's new-guard Democratic credentials were solid: The three-term congressman had served five years as an adviser to President Clinton and then spent two years with President Barack Obama as his chief of staff.
John Kass has been chronicling the Chicago scene for the Chicago Tribune for over 20 years, first as a reporter and now as a columnist. He was not a fan of the Daleys, and he has his doubts about Rahm Emanuel, who he says is more of a creature of his Washington years than a genuine Chicagoan.
JOHN KASS: Rahm's issue is that he's trying to offer leadership in a very difficult situation. But he's actually more an operative than a manager. His problem is he's his own chief of staff. He is his own press secretary. You know, he's a control freak that way. He's just got to really step back a little bit.
RATH: But he concedes that Rahm Emanuel inherited a very troubled city.
KASS: There are problems. The city's out of money. So in some sense, Rahm is kind of like, you know, those lumberjacks that are on a log. And they're rolling their feet, you know, they're tapping their feet very quickly to stay dry, because if you stop tapping, you'll fall in.
RATH: And, John Kass says, part of what Rahm Emanuel inherited is the seemingly indestructible Democratic Party infrastructure that has outlasted the Daley dynasty and still provides the framework for how Chicago works, or doesn't.
KASS: This is a Democratic, blue state with Democratic bosses basically controlling it. Daleys controlled the city for, what, 50 years? Michael Madigan is the speaker of the House. Madigan's controlled the state legislature for about 30. And they're both South Side Irish guys who know how to play. Rahm comes in - remember, he came in as sort of the caretaker to the Daley regime.
RATH: Kass says appreciating the context for Chicago's problems is critical. And when the international media piles on, the real story is often missed. He says the murder of 15-year-old high school student Hadiya Pendleton on January 29th of this year hit the already suffering city like a cruel insult. The South Side teenager was shot to death while standing with friends in a park. Two weeks earlier, Pendleton performed at Barack Obama's second inauguration.
KASS: And she was what I called the perfect victim - young, innocent, people identified with her. She became symbolic. Unfortunately, in Chicago, there are what I call imperfect victims. You have high-profile cases that get attention. But every day, there are kids like Nazia Banks, you know, and other little young boys that I've written about and he falls through the media cracks, he's not beloved or made into an icon for political purposes. He's just forgotten.
RATH: The real story of Chicago is nuanced, and evaluations of the mayor's tenure vary accordingly.
LAURA WASHINGTON: People ask me all the time, how's Rahm doing? What do you think of his administration so far? And my answer is you have to ask how Chicago is doing, and you have to decide which Chicago you want to ask.
RATH: Longtime political analyst and Chicago Sun-Times columnist Laura Washington.
WASHINGTON: You ask the downtown corporate power brokers, they're very happy with the directions the city's going. But there's another Chicago, and that tends to be among communities of color, that feel their voices have not been heard.
RATH: Laura Washington says Chicagoans appreciate Emanuel's trademark aggressive style, but he needs more than that approach.
WASHINGTON: We love a good fight in Chicago, and we love to get down and dirty. I think that the problem is, is that he doesn't leave room for dissension, and he doesn't tolerate back talk.
RATH: Another big source of negative attention has been what's happened with the schools. Fifty schools were closed this year in a move to help balance the budget. Can you talk about how that played out in the communities?
WASHINGTON: Well, his reasoning for closing the schools goes back to his basic philosophy: You have to run an efficient responsive government. The schools were closed in areas that had lost significant population over the last 10 years. There were a number of public discussions about it. There was a lot of debate. And in the end, he shut down 50 schools, most of them in communities of color, low-income communities. And folks representing those communities, from the teachers to the parents to the students, felt betrayed.
RATH: And what about - have there been issues with other unions or public workers?
WASHINGTON: He's picked fights with the police union, he's picked fights with the firefighters, he's picked fights with the teachers' union, and he's perceived as being a very much pro-corporate, very much pro-privatization. And so that has made folks, especially in the union community, very, very hostile to him.
RATH: Do you feel like people's expectations have shifted dramatically?
WASHINGTON: No. I think that they expected a strong mayor, a tough, single-minded, controlling mayor, and they got that. I think that they're a little disappointed that change hasn't come as quickly as they'd like to see it. And the violence thing is very disturbing, I think, to a lot of folks because there's no clear, obvious reasons why Chicago's violence feels so out of control. So I think people are disappointed in that.
RATH: The problems in Chicago are big enough and stubborn enough that some significant issues linger on the margins of the mayor's agenda. Lake Michigan and the Chicago River are polluted, and the city faces many energy and environmental justice issues.
Just yesterday, the Chicago Tribune reported huge piles of sulfur and carbon waste sitting in piles on the southeast side of Chicago, sending clouds of black dust into the surrounding neighborhoods.
But shortly after Rahm Emanuel took office, he dismantled the city's Department of Environment, citing budget constraints. Some staffers were cut, others were moved to different city departments.
Henry Henderson is the Midwest director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. He was Chicago's commissioner of the environment under Mayor Daley from 1991 till 1998. Unlike Daley, Henderson says, Emanuel does not see the environment as an organizing principle. And he says the mayor is legitimately squeezed when it comes to the environment.
HENRY HENDERSON: Clearly, fiscal responsibility, economic development, significant problems with schools and violence are pervasive. How to integrate energy, water quality, air quality within a central part of the initiatives of the city, remain questions.
RATH: But the biggest question of all may be, will Rahm Emanuel try for a second term? With no significant challengers on the horizon, he's reported to already have raised $5 million for a re-election campaign. Sun-Times columnist Laura Washington.
WASHINGTON: Five million bucks is a lot of money, but the election is 15, 16 months out, so I suspect he can - he will at least triple that by the time the election comes up in 2015. I think he's looking really tough to beat right now.
RATH: Washington says the mixed results on the issues and the mixed reviews from Chicagoans don't mean Emanuel can't win a second term, if he wants it.
WASHINGTON: One of the things I think that disturbs some voters here is that they feel that Rahm Emanuel's always got one foot in and one foot out. 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.