Updated: April 30, 2011 4:46AM
The legal case of whether Rahm Emanuel can or cannot run for mayor of Chicago is a Rorschach test, one of those ink blots everyone looks at and sees something different.
Enemies of Emanuel see a wealthy outsider who moved to Washington and decided to make even more money renting out his house. The law says you gotta live here for a year to run. He didn’t. End of story.
Supporters of Emanuel, on the other hand, see a lifelong Chicagoan, a congressman who gave up representing the city’s 5th district and moved to our nation’s capital at the request of the president of the United States, an exception covered by a clause absolving those who serve our country.
So which one is the right interpretation?
Before answering that, I probably must say which camp I’m in. If I don’t, people then decide for me, based on their own ideas of tribal loyalty. Too many readers assume I support Emanuel — “birds of a feather” and all that — forgetting that I’ve handled Emanuel as roughly as anybody else.
“The ruthless, foul-mouthed insider raising millions,” I wrote in October, “whispering into the ears of powerful friends.”
“Serpentine,” “sharp-elbowed,” “buzzsaw” — the wonder is he never picketed me, not even after I compared him to the Wehrmacht: “Emanuel could still go off the rails. The Germans looked strong in 1940, too, remember, but they got overambitious.”
After meeting with Emanuel for nearly two hours a few weeks back, the thoughts going through my head as he strode cockily to the elevator can be accurately summarized thus: “What a jerk! This guy is going to be just like Daley, another bully parked on the 5th floor for the next 20 years.”
While hard to take one-on-one, jerkiness isn’t necessarily a bad quality in a mayor. I am among those who hope the Illinois Supreme Court reverses the Appeals Court decision and allows Emanuel back on the ballot. Daley proved you can be both a bully and a good mayor; he was a good mayor, though we’re so busy parsing legal technicalities we’ve barely even paused to consider what being a good mayor means.
Gery Chico could also be a good mayor. He has tons of municipal experience — head of the park district, of the schools — you know his resume by now and if you don’t, with the money he’s raising, you soon will. Chico’s no schoolboy either — a schematic of his connections would look like a multicolored CTA route map — but schoolboys rarely get elected mayor, thank God (“Mayor Timmy met with the head of the new Bureau of Milk and Cookies today...”)
The truth, as I see it, is that Chico and Emanuel are different shades of the same color — both sharp, well-connected rich guys who know how to get stuff done. That’s what we want, though this truth flies by fans of the more marginal candidates who exude a how-can-we-lose-when-we’re-so-sincere wishfulness and miss the fact that the bureaucracy doesn’t just bow down to whomever is elected mayor. Jane Byrne was no fawn — Richard J. Daley’s protege, she was an insider for a dozen years yet was still utterly lost at sea after she took office in 1979, and ran straight into the arms of Ed Vrdolyak, who knew just what to do.
So even if by some miracle, say, Patricia Van Pelt-Watkins were elected, could she really make things work? If the word that pops into mind with Emanuel is “jerk,” the word that flashes every time I see Miguel del Valle on TV is “timid.” “Jerk” is better.
You’ll notice I’m not mentioning Carol Moseley Braun. My deep conviction is, if she can’t manage her own life, how can she possibly manage anybody else’s? Please don’t answer that. If you think she represents the future of the city, and would like her to bring the intellect, work ethic and temperament she applied to the U.S. Senate to City Hall, then go in peace, there is no point in arguing. The great Harold Washington once said that Jane Byrne was “psychologically unfit” to be mayor, and I would humbly suggest that Jane was not the last candidate to merit that description.
Actually, there is little point in arguing about any of this until the Illinois Supreme Court hears the case. None of our opinions matter at this point — the opinions of seven justices matter, and all we can do is guess. The law is indeed an ass, as Mr. Bumble observes, but it is still the law, and we obey it.
That said, given his famous temper, Rahm Emanuel is doing a surprising job of soldiering placidly onward in the face of adversity, since his goose might really be cooked this time. Chicago is going to be facing a lot of adversity in the years to come. Along with jerkiness, the ability to stay calm during a crisis is a quality Chicago might want to value when choosing its new mayor. If the city is ever allowed to make the choice.