Mayor Rahm Emanuel has touted the NATO summit as a way to showcase Chicago on an international stage, and much of the Chicago area agrees with that notion, a Tribune/WGN-TV poll shows.
Nearly 6 out of 10 voters support hosting the conference and think the international gathering will be a boost to the city. And more than half of those surveyed say they believe protests would be peaceful.
With world leaders set to arrive this weekend, that theoretical public support will be tested as protesters get louder, major highways close and restrictions on Metra riders are enforced. As such, the international gathering carries political risks for the mayor and hometown President Barack Obama.
For the president, who moved an accompanying G-8 meeting of leaders of the world's top economies from Chicago to Camp David, a successful NATO conference depends on both the diplomatic results as well as how his hometown handles an international security event.
For Emanuel, who lobbied the White House to host the summit, success won't be measured as much inside McCormick Place convention center as on the streets of the city he's led for a year.
"If everything goes smoothly, it's a great opportunity for Chicago to step outside the shadows of other major cities in the U.S. and the world," said Marc Hetherington, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University.
"There's always a downside risk to all of these things," Hetherington cautioned. "One of the things that provides more (risk) than usual is people are just in such a sour mood about government in general right now."
Chicago has long sought to put to rest the images of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the result of actions that a federal panel blamed on a "police riot," which damaged the city's reputation for decades.
Later, the 1996 Democratic National Convention that renominated President Bill Clinton went off without serious problems. Obama's historic victory speech before tens of thousands on a warm Chicago night in Grant Park brought the downtown's energetic skyline to the world in November 2008.
But the city's efforts to boost its image were dealt a setback most recently by the International Olympic Committee's quick dispatch of Chicago's bid for the 2016 Summer Games, despite an in-person plea from Obama.
Now, the NATO summit is viewed as a form of consolation prize bestowed by the president upon Emanuel, his friend and former chief of staff.
"We are bringing the world to see the city of Chicago, and Chicago to the world," Emanuel said Wednesday, echoing his host role refrain. "They're going to see the most American of American cities."
It was a sentiment with which Freddie Jones, a poll respondent from the South Side, agreed. "It's good exposure for the city and I'd like to show off our city," said Jones, 85, a retired schoolteacher. "It goes down in people's memory. It's another notch in the belt."
As for gridlocked traffic, Jones said, "Anything worth having is worth being inconvenienced for."
A total of 59 percent of voters in the six-county metropolitan area and 58 percent of city voters agreed that hosting NATO would improve Chicago's international standing, the poll found. About 3 out of 10 surveyed disagreed.
Tom Crawford, 56, an information technology consultant in the health care field from St. Charles, said he believes NATO "makes Chicago more of an international city."
"Anything the mayor can do to bring in worldwide events is good for tourism, and it puts Chicago on the map," said Crawford, who works in downtown Chicago. "It's great for the economy, not only for this year, but future years."
When it comes to the protests, Crawford said he believes the burden is on how well the police force has been trained.
"The mayor is a control freak, and he's probably laid some heavy orders on the department and police (superintendent) on how to handle the situation," Crawford said. Emanuel "doesn't want to embarrass the president, I'm sure. That's all Obama would need in his hometown. It could do him in."
In a sign of public optimism amid tightened security headed by the Secret Service and a large police presence, 54 percent of voters surveyed in the city and 52 percent in the region said they believed NATO protests would be peaceful, compared with about 30 percent who disagreed.
More than 6 in 10 polled said that regardless of whether they agreed with the protesters' varied messages, they had a right to protest. The survey of 1,180 regional voters, including 700 in Chicago, was conducted May 2-10. It had an error margin of 2.9 percentage points overall, and 3.7 percentage points in the city.
Eileen Rowan, 37, a stay-at-home mom from Beverly, a neighborhood that has been home to a generation of public safety workers, said there are some demonstrators whose causes she likely would support, but she believed it would be hard to distinguish one group's message from the next.
Rowan envisions the weekend devolving into what she called a "rent-a-mob," with people being paid to protest.
"They are out to incite trouble or bait law enforcement into dealing with them," Rowan said. "They are going to try to make the cops look bad, just kind of pushing it to that limit."
Despite Emanuel's estimate that hosting the summit will result in an immediate $128 million windfall for Chicago and increased tourism down the road, Rowan is doubtful. She said her family doesn't consider where the last big geopolitical summit was held in deciding where to vacation.
"I'm sure there's an immediate economic impact if all the hotels are full. I don't know that it will have a longer-lasting effect," she said. "It's the unquenchable quest for revenue that the city is after. This is one more way they are trying to get money."
Vanderbilt's Hetherington said the real value of a successful NATO summit may be more intangible than substantial.
"The real rub is for the mayor. A lot of people get together to watch the Olympics on TV, the ratings are high. Nobody gets together to watch the NATO deliberations," Hetherington said.
"With that in mind, the traffic delays and things like that have the potential to frustrate people without a lot of upside. But this is one of the places where the leadership of the city is important," he said. If residents have been adequately warned and the summit is well-organized, "it's a great example for the city to show its best stuff."
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