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Mayor Emanuel after 1st year: 'I'm impatient to get things done'

Mayor Rahm Emanuel talks to reporter Fran Spielman about his first year in office. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has raced through his first year in office at such a frenzied pace, it might be time to install one of those speed cameras outside the mayor’s office.

He’s in such a hurry to write a scripted Chicago story of financial turnaround and urban and education renewal – and so shamelessly focused on self-promotion – there’s speculation he wants to sell that Chicago story on a bigger stage, perhaps by running for governor in 2014 or president in 2016.

Emanuel, 52, has an answer for those who believe he has one foot on the next rung of the political ladder as he approaches the May 16 anniversary of his first year in office.

In an interview in the conference room next door to the mayor’s City Hall office, Emanuel grabbed the pen and legal pad out from under a Chicago Sun-Times reporter and wrote a handwritten promise: “I, Rahm Emanuel, will not run for another office – EVER.” Then, he signed it.

“I was born impatient. … I’m not impatient to get things done to run for another office. … I’m impatient to get things done so this city is the most livable city for the families and the most productive city for its businesses creating jobs,” he said.

“You see frenzy. I see solving problems. Maybe it’s tiring for you [watching]. I’m energized by it.”

Time will tell whether or not the mayor’s political promissory note is worth the paper it’s written on. But, one thing is certain: Chicago has changed since May 16, 2011 when Richard M. Daley passed the torch to his political protégé.

“He’s a very energetic mayor. You get the sense that he’s done ten things before he’s even gotten out of bed,” said Cindi Canary, former director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform now chairing Emanuel’s Ethics Reform Commission.

Former White House colleague David Axelrod, calls his friend of 30 years a hyper-kinetic “idea factory.”

“My only criticism of Rahm is what it’s always been: He wants to do everything yesterday, and you can’t,” Axelrod said.

In just one year, Emanuel has: championed ethics reform, but fallen short of his own promises; laid off more than 600 city employees; moved to reduce skyrocketing health care costs; raised taxes, fines and fees by $400 million for the city and schools; reassigned more than 1,000 police officers to beat patrol; overhauled the taxicab industry; laid the groundwork for a longer school day and year and offered new high school alternatives to keep middle-class families from fleeing to the suburbs.

While relentlessly pursuing private sector jobs, he has also: convinced private investors to help rebuild Chicago’s crumbling infrastructure; launched a career-driven makeover at City Colleges; won legislative approval for a Chicago casino the governor won’t approve; fought and collaborated with organized labor and taken on political sacred cows by proposing controversial pension reforms, closing police stations, eliminating free water for churches and non-profits and changing garbage collection from a ward-by-ward to a grid system.

And that’s just the Cliff Notes version of the slick “First Year Progress Report” the mayor’s office has been distributing to tout Emanuel’s accomplishments.

The obvious political setbacks have been a 52 percent surge in Chicago’s homicide rate, political flaps over speed cameras and First Amendment rights, a nasty battle with the Chicago Teachers Union and President Barack Obama’s surprise decision to move the G-8 summit from Chicago to Camp David.

The embarrassing G-8 snub could turn out to be a blessing if it keeps anarchists bent on destruction away from the city during next week’s NATO summit at McCormick Place.

In the interview looking back on his first year in office, Emanuel was asked whether he is as worried about trouble during the NATO summit as the rest of Chicago seems to be.

“Worry is not a strategy. I prepare. I make sure the people responsible are as focused as they need to be. We talk about it. We’re focused. They’ve been training. They know what they need to do,” he said.

The NATO summit is an event the rookie mayor characteristically lobbied for behind the scenes, sprung on Chicago without warning and has spent months defending as the city battens down the hatches and braces for the worst.

“The Green Line was shut down for two years. How long has Congress [Parkway] been under work? How long has Wacker [Drive] been under construction? … This is two days vs. five years. Can you spell the word perspective?” he said, days before the U.S. Secret Service disclosed plans to close parts of three expressways, scores of local streets and lakefront museums to protect world leaders.

“I’m sensitive to this. I want to be sensitive to this. … For businesses and residents in certain parts, it will have its challenges. But, I want people to remember, it’s two days.”

Ald. Joe Moore (49th) gives Emanuel an A-minus after a “tremendously successful year” that included “near unanimous” City Council approval of “just about all” of the mayor’s initiatives.

Emanuel’s first budget passed by a vote of 50 to 0. The Infrastructure Trust that will require user fees to guarantee a return for the financiers who filled Emanuel’s campaign coffers attracted just seven dissenting votes. There were 13 no votes on speed cameras.

“He has a self-confidence about him that commands a certain amount of respect. He’s also surrounded himself with some excellent people,” Moore said.

“If there’s anything he may have been able to do better it’s that sometimes, his relationship with organized labor is unduly acrimonious. I’d like him to be able to sit down more and discuss his proposals before they’re announced.”

Former independent Ald. Dick Simpson (44th) said he is troubled by Emanuel’s now-familiar pattern of hatching plans without public input, then making minor tweaks to make it appear that he’s compromising.

“He’s not really good at democracy. … What Rahm prefers to do is announce what he’s done for us, rather than consulting with us on what ought to be done,” said Simpson, head of the political science department at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“If it’s just getting things done and moving the city in a different direction, he’s doing well. But long-term, if you don’t have debate and discussion, and you only have yes people around you, you’re likely to make some gigantic mistake” like the parking meter deal or the midnight destruction of Meigs Field under Daley.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. added, “He would benefit by having a broader circle of input. I hope that comes in time.”

Emanuel summarily rejects the notion that he is a modern-day version of the Daley-style dictator.

He argues that virtually every one of his ideas – including the wellness plan, the longer school day and a recent crackdown on liquor stores – stems from the earful he got from voters he met on the campaign trail.

“I’ve had parents who told me, ‘I drop my kids off and, before I get home, I’m back pickin’ ‘em up.’ Parents told me there’s no rhyme or reason to four-day weeks, which are half the school year,” he said.

“When I had my post-election meeting with the Chicago Federation of Labor, I said, ‘Let’s find a place where we can work together. The campaign’s over.’ They said wellness. Trust me. The last thing I wanted to do after leaving President Obama’s side was deal with health care again.”

He added, “I’m upfront about my suggestions. That comes with the responsibility of being mayor. [But] once I come up with it, I never stop listening.”

Pressed to second-guess his own performance, Emanuel talked about the “tone” of his early confrontation with organized labor over his demand for work rule changes to replace morale-killing furlough days. Labor leaders who did not support mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel stood their ground, forcing layoffs.

“We had some meetings. I could have let that process be more quiet here at this table,” the mayor said.

“We had to go through that. [But] you could argue that I could have done it different. Labor could have done it different. [But], I’m responsible for what I do.”

The strident tone of that early union stand-off gave way to collaboration – on wellness, McCormick Place reforms and on managed competition between city employees and private contractors that has already saved the city $2.2 million in recycling costs..

More recently, the union representing garbage collection workers agreed to cut the pay of new hires and cross-train them so they can be moved around, based on the city’s changing needs.

The rhetoric has even cooled from CTA unions once furious with the campaign against work-rule changes waged by CTA President Forrest Claypool. They need to cooperate – to the tune of $80 million in concessions this year – to avoid a CTA fare hike.

But, the acrimony between the mayor and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis is now personal and palpable, thanks, in part, to the heavy-handed manner in which the mayor closed schools and enticed a small group of schools to implement the longer day this year before calling a halt until next year.

The first teachers strike since 1987 remains a real and potentially devastating possibility, even though a strike vote now needs approval from 75 percent of union members.

And Emanuel’s proposed solution to the pension crisis threatens to renew past tensions with all unions – even those now playing ball with the new mayor.

Instead of honoring his promise to negotiate first with labor leaders, Emanuel went to Springfield for: a 10-year freeze in cost-of-living increases for retirees; a five-year increase in the retirement age; a five-percent increase in employee contributions and a two-tiered pension system for new and old employees.

Chicago Federation of Labor President Jorge Ramirez said he and the mayor were “starting to develop a mutual respect for one another” when Emanuel lowered the pension boom without consulting labor.

“It makes things very complicated and makes it very difficult to move forward. It strains the trust I thought we had developed,” he said.

“He extended his arm across the table and said, ‘I want to talk to you guys before I make any changes.’ That hasn’t happened yet. … If he plans on doing it, we better start doing it quickly.”

Four city employee pension funds will run out of money by 2030. Homeowners and businesses face a $550 million property tax increase in 2015 unless pension concessions are negotiated or another new revenue source is found.

With the clock ticking, the mayor is sticking his neck out.

“We will get pension legislation by year’s end,” Emanuel said.

Emanuel made no such promise about Chicago’s skyrocketing homicide rate. He knows better after prematurely trumpeting a 24-hour period without a single murder in January.

“It’s a constant battle. We have our work cut out. I owe the kids of Chicago the ability to sit on the porch [or] play in the front yard. For too many of our children, gunshots are too familiar,” he said.

“Gang-on-gang shooting is what’s driving that. And there will be things you’ll be hearing about in short order as it relates to [police] pressure on gangs.”

Daley enjoyed a honeymoon that lasted nearly three years – until a disastrous 1992 that included the Loop flood, the demise of his Lake Calumet Airport and downtown casino plans and a Michigan brawl at an unauthorized party hosted by his son, Patrick. While contract cronyism was a steady drumbeat, Daley did not endure his first major scandal until 1997.

Emanuel is still in the honeymoon phase. His obsession with controlling the media message, planting stories and packaging his plans as new, even when they’re not just might prolong that honeymoon. He runs the government like a non-stop national political campaign.

But ultimately, he will have to stop blaming Daley and start delivering results on plans that, too often, either over-promise cash savings, lack specifics or distort the facts to fit the script.

“Rahm has brought a lot of integrity and high energy to the process. But, we’re very much in a period of adjustment. People are having to adjust to his style and he’s having to adjust to the breadth and depth of the crisis the city is in,” Jackson said.

Former city budget director and mayoral candidate Donald Haider, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, called Emanuel a “strategic thinker” who has “set good foundations” in his rookie year.

But, he said, “The first year, you get the halo effect. Given the magnitude of the problems he inherited, people gave him a pass. He met very weak opposition. He has been able to divide and conquer. The second year is when the tires hit the road. That’s when the tough decision on taxes, pensions, schools, Springfield and police and fire contracts have to be made.”

A City Hall insider, who asked to remain anonymous, added, “It’s one thing to put dazzling programs in place. But, how are they gonna work and will he be around long enough to make them work? It would be hard to criticize him on substance in Year One. That comes in Years Two and Three when you see how well they execute.”

Emanuel flatly denied that he has used Daley as a whipping post – without once criticizing him by name – to make the case for the changes he has implemented during his first year in office and the ones ahead.

“Rich Daley is a mentor. … I praise him, and I like him. He’s a friend of mine. … Rich Daley has a lot to be proud of for his tenure. [But] he’d be the first to acknowledge that it’s time for a change. And I’m working on the change,” he said.