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Why won't Emanuel talk about Mayor He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named?

John Kass

May 12, 2013

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One subject that Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel never touches involves a legendary political figure:

Mayor He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named.

So when I sat down for an interview with Emanuel last week to mark his two-year anniversary in the job, I asked:

Why don't you ever name the nameless guy?

Emanuel often blames that nameless ex-mayor for the city's lousy finances, including that terrible Chicago parking meter deal that so angered drivers.

That other mayor, the one with no name, brought Chicago to the edge of financial collapse. He turned City Hall into a pigpen of corruption, arrogance and influence. Yet to this day, Mayor No Name remains on the receiving end of media kisses. Big, wet, juicy ones.

And Emanuel? He gets the work, but not the love. According to a series of Chicago Tribune polls, his support is weakening among key groups, particularly African-Americans.

So why doesn't Emanuel name the guy who made his job so difficult? Why won't he name Richard Daley?

"First of all, he's a friend. And still is," Emanuel said of the former mayor. "And he was our mayor and he served loyally to the city for a long time, as his father before him. There's no purpose in … Mayor Daley … there are other things that I've given recognition that he's done well."

He referenced the horrendous parking deal arranged by the very law firm, Katten Muchin Rosenman, that now lists Daley as a partner.

"I think he, himself, would say that this doesn't stand up as one of the best things," Emanuel said of the parking deal. "He's said it himself. There's no purpose outside your own personal … I don't need to say 'Rich Daley.'"

"Rich Daley is a friend. He was a good mayor. He and Maggie served loyally to the city and the residents, and we're a better city that he was here. There are things I will do different, in this case, as in other areas. I will be different and I have done differently."

When I hear that, I wonder if he simply wants to avoid making enemies of those he'll need to satisfy future ambitions. I asked him whether people might think his reluctance to name Daley involved more than friendship.

"I didn't do it during the campaign, so I'm not gonna do it now," he said. "I think it would be cheap and I'm not going to do that. I have differences, I really ... (and here he stopped himself). It's clear this (parking meter deal) was an inherited contract, but I'm not going to do that to my friend."

Friend? Mayors don't have friends. They have allies, toadies, enemies. But friends? What mayors need more than friends are people who can tell them "No."

During my interview, Emanuel sat at the head of his conference table in his working office. Relaxed, chatty, far less defensive and prickly than he is at public events.

From his seat he could see a copy of the epic portrait "The Rahmfather" by Chicago graphic designer Eric Brightfield that we presented to Mayor Rahmfather over Christmas. The portrait casts him as Al Pacino in "The Godfather." The eyes follow you.

I asked him: Does it creep you out that your own eyes follow you?

"I don't look up when I walk by it," the mayor said, laughing. "When I see those, I see your eyes."

If he closes his own eyes, he can see the problems coming at him. Shutting public schools has cost him. The Police Department has already blown through two-thirds of the overtime budget, and summer hasn't started.

He has rookie cops walking foot patrol in Englewood, a political statement, even though squad cars would allow them to cover more ground. He said they run fast enough. He runs with the cadets some mornings.

"Here's the deal," Emanuel said. "I guarantee that when the cadets and I run and we put you on a bike, we'll beat you. Even with your helmet. When those kids see you in those bike shorts, they're gonna run."

Me, a portly columnist, riding a bike in Chicago? Is he nuts? I should have said I'd ride a rickshaw, but only if he pulls it.

When he campaigned for office, he promised transparency. Now he's actively trying to limit the reach of the city inspector general even while pushing for a City Hall-controlled casino.

He rattled off pro-ethics commentary and talking points, facts and figures flying as if the faster he talked, the faster I'd believe he wants transparency. I don't.

Still, he's smart and ruthless, and I respect that. I asked if he still likes his job.

"No, I love this. I want you to understand, I don't like this, I love this," Emanuel said, eyes bright.

Love it? I don't care what he says. Yes, there is power in the job and reach. People line up to kiss mayoral behinds because, for all her modern architecture, Chicago remains a purely medieval political city, one of chieftains and tribes.

But all mayors end up the same: as if dancing on a floating log in the Chicago River, moving their feet, keeping it rolling, hoping to stay dry.

"Yes, we have our challenges, but we have our confidence back that we're up to the task of managing those challenges," Emanuel said. "Nobody anymore, after two years, says, 'Oh, this is too big. We can't do this.' We have our energy back. We're forward looking and we're moving forward."

Keep looking forward, mayor. And don't look over your shoulder. There's a guy back there who won't be named.

jskass@tribune.com

Twitter @John_Kass