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Rahm Emanuel Says 'I'm Ready Either Way' As Runoff Election Looms

By Mark Konkol | March 26, 2015 5:47am | Updated on March 26, 2015 10:50am
 Rahm Emanuel on Tuesday.
Rahm Emanuel
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BRONZEVILLE — With two weeks left in his re-election campaign, Mayor Rahm Emanuel says he can see the goal in the distance — the “barn door,” he called it — and he’s prepared to run right through it.

“I’m ready either way,” Emanuel told me Tuesday as we waited to order lunch at Ain’t She Sweet Cafe, a cute Bronzeville sandwich shop where you can get their specialty, spicy jerk chicken, on bread, in a wrap or even atop a Caesar salad — the way the mayor ordered it.

It was the first time I’ve ever sat down to interview the mayor in person.

Really, though, I didn’t want an interview.

After watching Emanuel from afar for four years, it’s clear he’s not going to let his guard down during an interview.

I was hoping to talk with him in the most casual way possible about Chicago neighborhood life — how the view from the front porch of his Ravenswood painted lady shapes his vision for revitalizing the land beyond the Loop.

I figured it a lofty, almost unattainable goal, especially with an audio recorder running, but it was worth a shot.

Before lunch was served, a nice lady waved to catch the mayor’s attention on her way out the door and said, “I see you on TV.”

She was right on point, offering a perfect segue to our sitdown. How well can you really know a guy by what you catch on the nightly news and prime time campaign commercials on TV?

(DNAinfo photo/Jon Sall)

I started my chat with the mayor by saying, “So, here my goal is …”

“This I want to hear,” the mayor said, laughing at his own one-liner.

“My goal is to talk like we’re regular people,” I explained.

“I’m a regular person,” Emanuel said, softly without a hint of irony.

The mayor’s critics — including his challenger, Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who bills himself as a “neighborhood guy” — might snicker at the idea that the former congressman, top adviser to two U.S. presidents, multimillionaire deal-maker and clout-heavy City Hall boss claims to be a common man.

Still, Emanuel — in an entirely different way than his opponent from a struggling Little Village neighborhood — considers himself a neighborhood guy, too.

In 45 minutes or less, I hoped the things Emanuel would say might add a little perspective to what motivates a mayor most Chicagoans know only from what they see on TV.

But after Emanuel finished his salad and disappeared down 43rd Street in his black SUV, I felt like a failure.

My time ran out before I could ask some important questions. And at least a few times, the mayor cut his answers short while he cracked fitness jokes with a firefighter, fist-bumped café patrons and accepted a sack of popcorn from an entrepreneurial fellow with a charming smile.

(DNAinfo photo/Jon Sall)

It wasn’t until I got home and really listened to the playback of our chat — part mayoral monolog, part argument — that I realized I was too focused on the wonky way the lifelong politician talks about his perspective on issues facing Chicago neighborhoods to recognize that Emanuel was actually being himself.

And I learned a few things.

Say what you want about Emanuel's suburban high school days. The guy is a North Sider, through and through.

Before moving to suburban Wilmette, the mayor’s family lived in the 900 block of Winona near Foster Beach.

In 1983, after finishing college, Emanuel moved to Lakeview — in apartments near Halsted and Cornelia and Waveland and Greenview — before he moved to Little Rock, Ark., and Washington D.C., to work for former President Bill Clinton.

“That was when … the only thing out there was the Music Box,” the mayor said. “[The neighborhood] was not what it is today.”

Upon his return to Chicago, he spent a short time in a rented Pilsen loft near 18th and Halsted. And for the last 26 years, the mayor has owned and lived in two houses about a half-mile apart on the fringes of Ravenswood, including the painted lady on Hermitage where he and his wife, Amy Rule, have raised their three kids.

“If you look at the time I bought [those houses], I was a bit of a pioneer,” the mayor said, trailing off as he slurped tomato soup.

In the early '90s, a few years after Emanuel bought his first house at 4532 N. Greenview, a Chicago Tribune real estate section writer pointed to Lincoln Square, the neighborhood north of Ravenswood, as a place renters shouldn't overlook given the reasonable rents, good transportation and low or “at least stable” crime rates.

“I knew it was going to be an up-and-coming neighborhood. It was a house that Amy and I could grow with our kids as they got older, and it was big enough for the whole family. Amy had one thing, when we lived in D.C., we had two kids and no parking. She had that one request,” Emanuel said. “It was basically about kids and … family. … That would make it now 17 years, two of them, obviously, I was not a resident of the City of Chicago but we owned the home.”

Rahm Emanuel and his family live in Ravenswood, where you can park. (DNAinfo photo/Mark Konkol)

I asked the mayor how living there has impacted his vision for Chicago neighborhoods.

“Look, my views on things are somewhat informed by how I do things and what I know,” he said. “I take the train twice a week. The Irving and Montrose stops are both 2½ blocks from my home.”

Without hesitating, Emanuel quickly began to talk about his accomplishments as a public servant.

“The first thing I did as congressman was I got money to modernize the Brown Line. It went from six cars to eight cars because those parts of the neighborhoods were growing,” he said. “And all the stations have artwork.”

He didn't bother to step on the clutch as he shifted to how that influenced decisions he’s made as mayor.

“Look at Red Line South,” Emanuel says, referencing the complete overhaul of the CTA Red Line south of Chinatown that got finished in six months. “All those stations have artwork because I know it [builds] a sense of community, and I know you can’t have a vibrant neighborhood if you don’t have multiple transportation options.

"Another thing," the mayor says, talking quickly to continue making his point. "You can't have housing without ... good public transportation, good public schools, good parks and libraries. And great culture, culture brings commercial [districts] to life."

Emanuel says that’s one of the things he’s learned watching the North Side neighborhoods near his house evolve into what they are today.

“Look at how the Old Town School [of Folk Music] took [Lincoln Square] and totally commercialized the area,” he said. “Good public transportation wasn’t an accident. … You have a number of bars and restaurants. You have great coffee shops. There’s an ice cream store that’s jam-packed with kids and families in the summer. … You have art sections on Ravenswood. That is what you want in neighborhoods. … Take Bronzeville.”

After all, part of the reason we’re in Bronzeville is to talk about plans to regain the glory of the Near South Side neighborhood on the lake — once known as “The Black Metropolis,” a hotbed of an African-American cultural crusade that nurtured the civil rights movement to the beat of jazz, gospel and rise of an electrified sound that became known as “Chicago blues."

“We’re putting a new art and recreation center for after-school and art programs. We did lofts here for artists. Mariano’s is coming,” he said. “What’s waiting to happen given Bronzeville’s history is an incredible art renaissance. … You can’t name me one vibrant city or vibrant community without culture. It doesn’t exist anywhere in the world.”

‘What makes me tick’

During his fast-talking explanation, the mayor got a phone call from his daughter.

“This is off the record,” Emanuel tells me.

Emanuel, as much as he can, protects his children from being in the public eye, and he can get pretty angry if you press him with questions about his kids.

But when we got back on the record, I asked him about sending his kids to private school in Hyde Park. But I stumbled a bit — using the word “strategically” — when delivering a question that I hoped might lead to a discussion about how navigating both the North Side and South Side of town gives people a wider view of the city.

The mayor pounced, revealing a bit more of himself without expressing anger or walking out of the room.

“Let me tell you something. My kids are not a tool. … I send my kids to a school based on its education. Have you ever seen my kids in a commercial? I want you to understand my values,” Emanuel said.

“The values [aren't] … ‘Do you send them ‘strategically.’ … As a father it gives them a good education, and most importantly, given what they’ve done with the president's children, they allow them to be children. Adolescence is hard enough with out your father f------ it up for ya. … I’m just making you understand what makes me tick. It allows our kids to have quality education without messing up their education.”

He took a bite of his salad … and we continued to talk about Bronzeville and the recent meetings he’s had with local folks about the arts-centric community development projects in the pipeline.

“The leaders I met with are designing the plan. That’s bottom up, not top down … in case you don’t know,” the mayor jabbed.

Rahm on crime

As Emanuel finished his soup, I asked him about crime — not the shootings and murders that make national headlines — but the burglaries, robberies and property crimes that in the last few years people living in his part of town have complained about the most.

“I can give you the data. The fact is the neighborhoods over the four years have double-digit declines in basic property crime. But you don’t tell someone whose house is robbed that statistically you’re a lot better than you were four years ago. That’s not what I say to them. It’s a constant effort in making sure commanders, sergeants, beat officers know their residents and residents know them. That’s the best way to handle it,” he said.

‘I’m like everybody else’

After Emanuel finished his salad, talk turned to what might be the biggest campaign issue of them all — the mayor’s infamous my-way-or-the-highway management style.

Last year, Emanuel said in a sit-down interview with Chicago Sun-Times City Hall reporter Fran Spielman that he understands he’s a polarizing figure but he doesn’t want to be “phony” and governs “as if you had run your last election.”

That’s a much different message than the one Emanuel delivered in a recent campaign commercial.

"They say your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness. I'm living proof of that," Emanuel says. "I can rub people the wrong way, or talk when I should listen. I own that. But I'm driven to make a difference."

Seems to me, I say, you’ve changed a little in the last month or so.

“I’m like everybody else. Your strengths are your weaknesses. I was acknowledging the fact that even while you might have the right idea or the right goal, you can make mistakes along the way if you have not included people or they felt left out of that process,” the mayor said.

“On the other hand, when you are taking on a big change and you have a short time to make big fundamental change you push through stuff that gives people a sense of they haven’t had their voice heard. So, I own that. … People need to know that I’ve heard their concerns, their complaints. … I’m human. I make mistakes. They want to know that. And that’s an important part, so the rest doesn’t get lost because we can’t get over point one. I need to have people understand I know that I have to own up to my own faults.”

Sensing that my time was running out, I quickly shifted to a question that I asked Garcia a few weeks back, “What kind of neighbor are you on your block? Do your neighbors like you?”

“Yes. I was a better neighbor when I was a congressman,” Emanuel said with a laugh. “Look, I have a lot of friends, a couple of them have a holiday party we participate in. There’s a gay couple that had a wedding that Amy and I went to that was in the backyard of another neighbor. There was the playground we used when I was more around than I am today. You can be a better neighbor when you’re around more.”

When I visited the mayor’s block later that afternoon, I spotted Emanuel campaign signs posted on a few front lawns. A few people didn’t want to talk about the mayor other than to say they’ve seen him around. After mentioning the mayor, one gentleman politely declined to talk and closed the door.

But Kathy Goetz, who lives a few doors down from the Emanuels, endorsed Rahm as a “great neighbor.”

“He’s very friendly and outgoing. We’re a very tight block where everybody knows everybody. We’ve been to Christmas parties and weddings he’s attended. He’s totally a normal person,” she said. “That’s not why he has my support. I’m sure Chuy is a good guy, but I don’t think he’s nearly as qualified as Rahm. We voted today and I voted for Rahm. It’s a tough job and I think he’s a great fit.”

‘Going way ahead’

"Five minutes," the mayor’s spokesman warned. High schools, I blurted out to change the subject.

The moratorium you placed on school closings would end during your second term. What’s going to happen when the time comes to close high schools in neighborhoods with declining population? I asked.

“You’re going way ahead,” Emanuel said.

He answered by pointing out how Gwendolyn Brooks College Prep, Back of the Yards, Morgan Park, Roberto Clemente, Senn, Taft and Lincoln Park high schools have improved their graduation rates.

I interrupted him to ask again about potential high school closings and whether he would rule them out.

He wasn’t happy about that.

“You ask about high schools. I’m telling what you I’m going to do about high schools. Here’s the thing,” he said in a frustrated tone.

“I’m trying to talk about how to reinvigorate neighborhood high schools. And you want to talk about which high schools are going to close. There’s a moratorium in place. What I’m focused on is making sure there’s a rising graduation rate. That’s what I’m focused on.”

'I hate you all equally'

Under pressure with the clock ticking, I made an awkward attempt to get the mayor to give his best regular guy sales pitch for why he’s a better pick than his mustachioed challenger with the catchy nickname.

“Without hitting on any talking points …,” I fumbled.

“Why am I hitting talking points? I just talked to you honestly. You’re so insulting,” the mayor said in a soft voice. “You are.”

The awkward silence in the moment after I unwittingly insulted the mayor was broken by a kind soul who stopped to say hello to Emanuel.

I tried again, this time offering the mayor a friendly regular guy scenario.

“Let’s say, you’re at a bar with a guy. He might be a fat guy with a beard,” I said, clearly referring to myself.

“He might be fat? I wouldn’t drink with him,” Emanuel said before letting out a high-pitched cackle.

I reminded the mayor that he had a drink with a certain bearded big guy before he was elected four years ago.

“I took schmutz out of your face because you, like, were turning the girls away the way you looked, man. I was helping you,” he said.

Emanuel leaned over the table, looked me in the eyes and said, “Here’s the deal. This is a place where at least part of it, the record, counts. Four years ago, was Chicago in the state it is today? Are certain things better that I have focused on and gotten done? We are not out of the financial mess but we are not where we were,” Emanuel said.

(DNAinfo photo/Jon Sall)

“The mayor requires leadership. You cannot subcontract that for a third party to handle. The buck stops at your desk. You gotta be willing to tell people in concise ways so they can have that leadership to hang their hat on. And like I said to you, my strengths are my weaknesses. Am I clear? Am I concise? Is there any doubt where I stand on something. No. That has a strength to it that is necessary to deal with the big challenges we have going forward as well as the ability to mobilize the city to seize the opportunities.”

With that our lunchtime chat was about over.

As we shook hands, I asked him jokingly why he trades Christmas gifts with other writers in town but he doesn’t seem to like me that much.

“I’m going to be clear. I used to tell my mother, ‘You love [brother] Zeke more than you love me,’” Emanuel said. “You know what she said? ‘I hate you all equally.’ ”

And there you have it — the real Rahm Emanuel.

He’s an unapologetic North Sider who laughs at his own jokes, defends his family at all costs and believes that the quality of life in a community revolves around the very things that helped his own neighborhood thrive — good public transportation and schools with business and entertainment districts directly tied to art, music and culture.

He can be a bit of a bully but recently learned that’s not always a good thing and, believe it or not, when you insult him it actually hurts his feelings a little.

He’s relentless about pushing forward the agenda he believes will make Chicago better and unwilling to stray too far from his ideals when push comes to shove.  

Despite his high-profile resume, Emanuel considers himself a regular guy — and at least one neighbor on his quiet Ravenswood street will vouch for that.

Still, that might not be enough for the mayor to win re-election on April 7.

Either way, Rahm says he’s ready.

(DNAinfo photo/Jon Sall)

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