Rahm Emanuel was sworn in on Monday as the 55th mayor of Chicago, taking on the assignment of righting a city weighed down by crushing debt and billions in underfunded pension liabilities.
Inside the Beltway, Emanuel, who was elected four times to Congress and served as President Obama’s first chief of staff, earned a reputation as a foul-mouthed but results-oriented political operative. As chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2006, Emanuel was the architect of the strategy that helped his party net 30 seats and take control of the House, and he helped direct the White House agenda during President Obama’s first two years in office.
But Emanuel’s new job as the chief executive of America’s third-largest city is the toughest he’s faced in his long political career. His city is $600 million in the hole, the public school system is beset by poor performing schools and graduation rates that hover around 50 percent, and Chicago's famed elevated train system is aging.
In his inaugural address, Emanuel vowed to cut costs, calling the city’s budget problems “difficult and profound.”
"It's not just a matter of doing more with less," Emanuel said. "We must look at every aspect of city government and ask the basic questions: Do we need it? Is it worth it? Can we afford it? Is there a better deal?"
Chicagoans are hoping that Emanuel’s deep connections in Washington will help lift the city out of tough times. Many of Emanuel’s closest allies from Washington—including Vice President Joe Biden, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, and former Obama senior adviser David Axelrod—were on hand to witness the inauguration.
But in these tough fiscal times, there’s little Washington can do to help Emanuel and Chicago. Emanuel has said he’ll freeze spending on just about everything besides worker paychecks and bills that come due. He's also vowed to shave $75 million from his predecessor Mayor Richard Daley’s final budget.
But Emanuel seemed to be sending a message to unions that he was looking to find common ground as the city goes through inevitable deep budget cuts.
“I reject how leaders in Wisconsin and Ohio are exploiting their fiscal crisis to achieve a political goal,” said Emanuel, referring to moves by Republican Govs. Scott Walker and John Kasich to curtail collective bargaining rights for public employees. “However, doing everything the same way we always have is not the right course for Chicago's future, either. We will do no favors to our city employees or our taxpayers if we let outdated rules and outmoded practices make important government services too costly to deliver.”
Emanuel also took a moment in his speech to offer a nod to his old boss, President Obama. Emanuel left the White House at a difficult moment for the administration, weeks before Democrats took a drubbing at the polls last November.
“I also want to thank President Obama, who turned our nation around and who loves Chicago so much. He understood why I wanted to come home to get our city moving again,” Emanuel said.