New era for Chicago as Rahm Emanuel ends the Daley mayoral dynasty

  • @guyadams

Great civic events call for grand civic gestures. So, in preparation for his swearing-in as the Mayor of Chicago today, Rahm Emanuel treated the Windy City's inhabitants to a free Saturday night pop concert at a park near Lake Michigan. It was headlined by the soft-rock act Chicago, who achieved fame with the schlocky 1970s hit "If You Leave Me Now".

The song makes a perfect soundtrack for an occasion which involves the fondest of saccharine farewells. For when the former White House aide nicknamed "Rahmbo" takes over this lunchtime, at a ceremony attended by the Vice President Joe Biden along with a smattering of minor celebrities, City Hall will also be marking the end of one of America's great political dynasties.

It has been 22 years since a thrusting attorney called Richard M Daley arrived in the mayor's office pledging to reverse the decline of a once-great metropolis, which had fallen upon hard times, becoming synonymous with urban decay, organised crime, and deep-running racial divides.

He went on to win five successive elections, using every ounce of his relentless charm to become the longest-serving leader in Chicago's history. Supporters, of which he boasts a great many, credit him for reinvigorating a city which by the end of the 1980s had become known as "Beirut on the lake".

Mr Daley's decision to retire has therefore been widely likened to a royal abdication. His father, Richard J Daley, won six successive terms in office before suffering a fatal heart attack in 1979. Between them, the duo, who are both Democrats, have controlled the levers of power in America's third-biggest city for 43 of the past 55 years.

"All my brothers and sisters, my children are laughing at me," he told an interviewer this weekend, revealing that, at the grand old age of 69, having spent almost a third of his life in office, he has forgotten how to carry out such daily tasks as bringing his own wallet, driving a car, and buying a mobile telephone.

Mr Daley's legacy is self-evident to anyone who visits Chicago during the summer months when snow thaws and the parks are in bloom. It may never achieve the status of New York, Paris or London, but in recent years it has been able to lay claim to being a well-kept example of urban regeneration.

A grass-roots politician who tirelessly cut ribbons and pressed flesh, Mr Daley has planted more trees, opened more squares and green-lit more trendily-designed skyscrapers than any other civic leader in the United States. Compared to neighbours such as Detroit and Cleveland, his creation veritably glistens.In a farewell interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, he yesterday summed up his legacy: "We're not Beirut on the lake. We're not the laughing stock of the country and the world."

Yet Mr Daley may be leaving something of a poisoned chalice in Mr Emanuel's hands. For all the glitzy new projects, recent years have seen the city's finances deteriorate to the extent that it now finds itself roughly $500m (£309m) in debt. Assets such as parking metres and the Skyway toll bridge have been sold to private corporations to raise cash. And an ambitious bid to attract the 2016 summer Olympics ended in expensive failure.

Critics have meanwhile raised allegations of political patronage and cronyism, citing the conviction of a top aide in 2006 in connection with criminal hiring practices at City Hall, and scandals involving the handing of plum contracts to firms who had made donations to his political campaigns.

Mr Emanuel, who won the mayoral election with 55 per cent of the vote, has duly set the stage for his arrival by promising an era of revolution rather than evolution. Last week, he published a plan for his first 100 days in office, promising to shave $75m from city budgets.

The document mentioned the word "change" no less than 19 times, and in keeping with that Obamified theme, he has so far styled himself as a down-to-earth Everyman, often turning up at engagements in jeans and T-shirts.

The future won't be so laid back, though. Down the road, taxes will have to rise, spending will further be cut, and pain shared – a prospect which may leave locals quoting another schlock-driven staple of Chicago's back-catalogue: "Where do we go from here?"

The rise of Rahm Emanuel

* Rahm Emanuel's early career was closely linked to Chicago. He grew up in the city and in 1989 he served as chief fundraiser and adviser to the city's outgoing mayor, Richard M Daley

During Bill Clinton's presidency, Emanuel emerged as a national figure in Democratic politics, working as director of finance for Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign, and later as a senior presidential adviser on policy and strategy.

For Barack Obama, as the President's chief of staff, Emanuel functioned as a controversial right-hand man, valued for his ability to push divisive measures through Congress. In spite of his reputation as a political bruiser, he has been criticised by some on the left for being too willing to compromise on matters of principle, particularly over health care.