CHICAGO — Even before he was elected Chicago's new mayor, Rahm Emanuel hinted there would be changes at City Hall: deep cuts to the budget, a possible shift in the city council power structure and the expectation that unions would negotiate on pensions that pose a heavy burden for the city.
How he goes about it is the big question. Emanuel's answer will determine whether a politician capable of overwhelming the mayoral competition by winning 55 percent of the vote can now master the delicate complexities of a fiscal crisis without hobbling the "City that Works" or triggering endless battles with the city's other centers of power.
In his first post-election news conference on Wednesday, Emanuel offered only the vaguest of clues about what's in store for Chicago residents and city workers after he takes office in May and replaces the retiring Mayor Richard Daley.
Although the city has a badly underfunded pension system, he said he's committed to the current defined benefit plan for public employees -- a major union priority -- rather than pushing for a less costly alternative. But he also took off the table a property tax increase to raise more revenue.
"We are not the only city facing this crisis or state. Every municipality is. I want to be the first city to solve it," Emanuel said. The city's next budget deficit could exceed $500 million, and could reach $1 billion if the city properly funds its pension system.
Ralph Martire, executive director of the bipartisan Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, and one of many experts watching Emanuel's next moves, said the new mayor could look at cutting middle managers in order to avoid trimming direct service providers such as police officers and firefighters. Targeting midlevel managers wouldn't save a lot – maybe $20 million to $40 million – "but it's one of the first things you need to show voters and taxpayers that you're very serious about cutting costs," Martire said. Most of the city's work force is unionized so that limits the mayor's flexibility on personnel.
Emanuel has already promised to freeze city spending when he takes office and cut $75 million from the city's existing $6 billion budget.
Choosing some targets for reductions while sparing others will be difficult, but Emanuel, in contrast to his famously hard-charging personality, is offering himself as the embodiment of conciliation.
"I will reach out my hand to everybody to work for reform and enacting reform," he said.
David Axelrod, a former top Obama adviser who has known Emanuel for almost 30 years, said the soothing tones don't mean Emanuel isn't determined to gets what he wants.
"Whatever he sets his mind to he does. He's a very purposeful guy. And you know I think one of the reasons people turn to him is because they see that quality in him. It takes a big strong figure to lead a city forward and Rahm is that kind of person," Axelrod said.
Emanuel said he's looking for a new partnership with the City Council, which was largely docile under Daley but will soon have a new crop of aldermen. And Emanuel has suggested he wants to create new alliances with possible changes in powerful City Council chairmanships.
"They cannot be a rubber stamp. That's unacceptable. The challenges are too big. They can't be what they were in the last years, they don't want it, the city doesn't want it, I don't want it," Emanuel said.
U.S. Rep. Mike Quigley, among those who celebrated Emanuel's win at an election night party, said Emanuel can't waste any time in figuring out how to deal with the council. Together, they have to figure out a way to spend much less without weakening education, public safety, the transportation system and other key services.
"He's got to start working with the council that's already been elected as of tonight to put together a coalition that understands what we're going to have to do to make the government more transparent, more accountable and more importantly fiscally responsible," Quigley said.
In addition to the city's budget problem, Emanuel has promised new action on the city's troubled public schools. Emanuel is expected to expand a model program that trains new teachers in a one-year residency program and installs them at low-performing "turnaround" schools. "If you want a strong visionary who backs it up with leadership, and you get one, you better be prepared to go to work. He's not fooling around," said Mike Koldyke, who founded the Golden Apple Foundation that recognizes superior teaching.
He's also in the market for a new police superintendent with a stronger focus on community policing. "I have nothing personally against the superintendent," Emanuel said, although he rapped Superintendent Jody Weis for increasing central office personnel.
During the campaign, Emanuel received support from his big-name former bosses, President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton, for whom he held high-level staff positions. But those connections will only go so far now when he's looking for help for Chicago, said Axelrod.
"Obviously, the president has great affection for this city, his hometown but he has to be fair as well. But whatever the city's entitled to the city will get and I don't think Rahm will leave one dollar on the table," Axelrod said.
Associated Press writes Karen Hawkins and Tammy Webber contributed to this report.