Rahm Emanuel: Mayor of the People
by tom negovan
“My grandfather—maternal—came here in 1917. Thirteen years old, from the Russian-Romanian border, by himself to meet a third cousin that he never met in the old country.” He was a Chicago union organizer. “My father [who was born in Jerusalem] settled here in 1959, grew up here. My father barely spoke English when he started practicing medicine,” he says. “There’s a bit of an immigrant culture instilled. On my family wall are the pictures of relatives who never made it to this country. There’s nothing subtle in a Jewish family. It’s my mother and father’s way of reminding us: You’re here, it’s fortunate, others never made it, don’t screw it up or we’ll beat the hell outta ya. And then they drove us to do something with our lives.”
|A photo of former Mayor Anton Cermak— Chicago’s first and only immigrant mayor—seated at his desk, which is the same desk Mayor Emanuel uses.|
And so they did. The story of younger brother Ari, famed Hollywood agent, is well-known. Older brother Zeke is a celebrated author and bioethicist who may hold the key to a system for universal healthcare. (“We argue about that all the time,” the mayor says.) They speak every day. Photos of wife Amy and their three children are everywhere. There’s a math text on a table, space set aside for the kids to do homework. There’s also a clear yet invisible line, drawn long ago by the mayor with the media—his family did not choose the spotlight.
Then he’s back at work, on the phone, a foot propped on a desk used in the 1930s by Anton Cermak, father of the city’s Democratic political machine and Chicago’s first immigrant mayor.
The last occupant of this office took his desk with him. It was Richard M. Daley who, in 1989, realized the potential of his aggressive chief fundraiser—a not-yet-30 Emanuel—passing him along to a presidential candidate from Arkansas.
Bill Clinton campaigned for Emanuel when he ran for Congress in 2002 and mayor in 2011. Eighty days away from the NATO summit, he comes back, announcing a billion-dollar trust to improve Chicago’s infrastructure. At that press conference, he’s asked what he saw in his young protégé.
“First of all,” President Clinton replies, “I liked him ’cause our campaign was broke, and he was a genius at raising money—even as a young person without any money himself. I liked him because people said I was too young to run for president and I was too ambitious, and Rahm made me look laid-back and passive.”
That line gets the former president a big laugh. He goes on. “When he was very young—before he ever got elected to anything—Rahm was good at figuring out how to take a good idea and turn it into real change. Lots of people can think and even more people can talk. Not everybody can do. The doing makes all the difference.”
Not that the mayor doesn’t like to talk. He loves to crack wise—especially on points of civic pride, or that Clintonesque distinction between talking and doing. During our cover shoot, he listens as a New Yorker raves about the Chicago skyline. “But I still love New York,” she quickly adds.
“That’s the thing about you New Yorkers,” the mayor fires back. “Always talking about how much you love your city. Here in Chicago, we just do.”
photography by michael edwards