In Chicago, it's not Rahm's for the asking

The Washington Post's Karen Tumulty discusses a possible Rahm Emmanuel run for mayor of Chicago.
By Dan Balz
Saturday, September 11, 2010; 3:09 PM

In Washington, the story of the upcoming Chicago mayor's race has been all about Rahm Emanuel. In Chicago, the story is different. There it is far too early for ticker tape parades.

In Washington, the questions have been: "Will he or won't he - and, by the way, who will replace him in the White House when he goes?" In Chicago, the question is: "Can he or can't he?"

That doesn't diminish the reality that, if he decides to run, Emanuel would be a formidable candidate to succeed Mayor Richard M. Daley, whose announcement that he won't seek another term caught everyone by surprise. But would it be Emanuel's for the asking? Hardly.

President Obama waded into the mayor's race Thursday with a virtual endorsement of his chief of staff. He told ABC's George Stephanopoulos that he believes Emanuel would make "a terrific mayor."

The reaction back in Chicago, particularly from some of Emanuel's potential opponents, has been less enthusiastic.

"We don't want someone anointed from the outside who's not really served in Chicago or spent time in Chicago coming to Chicago and telling us how we will be governed," Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., a potential candidate, told CNN's John King.

Another possible African American candidate, state Sen. James T. Meeks, who is pastor of Salem Baptist Church on the city's South Side, told John Kass of the Chicago Tribune he was puzzled by what Obama said.

"There is a danger for the president to stake out a position on Chicago politics when he doesn't yet know all the details," Meeks was quoted as saying. "We're still coming together, we're still meeting, so staking out a hard position so early on might be problematic."

Chicago is headed toward what Chicago knows best, a big, brawling, fractious political campaign. But it has been some time since one took place. After two decades of the current Daley regime, the city's politics have quieted. Now they're about to get noisy.

A Daley has governed Chicago for 42 of the past 55 years. Now there is no Daley in the wings and no heir apparent. For all the success Daley has enjoyed as mayor, he will leave behind a city in financial trouble, with a deep deficit that the next mayor will have to fill. Divisions that Daley has managed to bridge or keep in the background threaten to break out again.

Younger Chicagoans have little memory of what transpired in the 1980s, when day-to-day political life was marked by fierce battles between white aldermen on the city council on the one hand and Harold Washington, the city's first African American mayor, and his multiracial coalition on the other.

Those conflicts gave Chicago the name "Beirut on the Lake." No one expects a reemergence of anything quite like that, but the politics that will unfold over the coming months will be a reminder of just how tribal the city's political divisions can be.

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