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

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.

The broad outlines break along traditional ethnic and racial lines: white, black and brown. But that only begins to describe the divisions. There are whites of different ethnic groups and ideologies. There are ethnic whites who are divided by North Side and South Side. There are the liberals on the lakefront. There are African Americans on the West Side and the South Side. In the Hispanic community, there are Mexicans and Puerto Ricans.

As the race starts, potential candidates have emerged from virtually every group and faction in the city. All have assets; none has a base big enough to assure victory - including Emanuel, who represented a congressional district stretching from the lakefront almost to O'Hare Airport from 2003 until he resigned to join Obama in the White House after the 2008 election.

There have been two samplings of public opinion since Daley said he will not run. One showed Emanuel at about 29 percent and with a significant lead over other possible candidates. The other listed nine candidates and showed Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart leading with 12 percent.

Read all these preliminary polls with great skepticism. The field is far from set. Under the rules for the election, Chicagoans will vote first Feb. 22. Assuming no one in the crowded field gets more than 50 percent, there will be an April runoff between the top two vote-getters. Right now, many expect that the runoff could pit an African American against a white candidate.

That would make Obama's early intervention in the race touchier, pitting the first African American president against the city's black community - if Emanuel was also a finalist. Meeks is not the only Chicagoan to raise questions about whether that would be good for the president as he prepares for his own 2012 election.

Emanuel no doubt understands all this. Time is relatively short for decision-making, and he will not dither. He is known for being brash and brusque, for perpetual motion and quick action. But, just as he did when Obama recruited him to be chief of staff, he will methodically examine the race from many angles, including the potential impact on his family, what it would take to win and what it would be like to govern the city.

To tamp down the notion that he believes the mayor's office is his for the asking or that the president can handpick the city's next leader, Emanuel's spokeswoman, Meredith Webster, issued a statement to Chicago news media Friday night.

"Rahm doesn't believe that anyone can be anointed or handed this election," she said. "Additionally, it's not up the media or anyone else to anoint someone mayor - only the people of Chicago will choose who should be their mayor."

Emanuel faced criticism when he first ran for Congress, with some saying that he hadn't paid his dues in city politics and that he was parachuting back into his home town after spending much of the previous decade in Washington. He overcame those doubts and rose quickly through the ranks in Congress and then back to the White House. He is now even more of a national figure - a big personality, particularly in Washington.

How much that counts back home is yet to be seen. What's clear is that Chicagoans will make the next mayor earn their trust in what promises to be one of the best urban political contests in many years.

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