Emanuel: Chicago NATO summit is already paying off
CHICAGO (AP) — Two days before Chicago hosts a summit of NATO leaders, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said the wide-ranging security measures and months of preparations that went into the event are already starting to pay off.
Motioning to a conference table in his office, the mayor said the president of Latvia had recently joined him to discuss a possible deal in the transportation industry — an example, he explained, of the kind of partnership that might happen between Chicago and other countries whose leaders are spending the weekend here.
"Do I have a contract signed today? No. Did the conversation about a possibility of that happen? Yes," the former White House chief of staff said in an interview. "Many of those conversations happen around these conferences."
The mayor acknowledged the possibility that "some situations" surrounding the summit could be disruptive, apparently referring to potentially large protests. But, he added, "I wouldn't do this if I didn't think this was a great opportunity for the city."
The gathering involving 60 heads of state and another 2,500 journalists offers a rare opportunity to show off Chicago to the rest of the world. For Emanuel, the summit is also perhaps his biggest chance yet to display the connections to business and political leaders that helped convince voters to elect him last year.
At the same time, if the city experiences the kind of confrontations that erupted during similar events in other cities, most notably Seattle in 1999, it could be a setback for Chicago's long-running effort to distance itself from a gritty, sometimes brutal past.
Emanuel dismissed any concerns that police might act as they did at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, when officers clashed violently with demonstrators, or more recently in 2003, when large numbers of people protesting the Iraq War were arrested. The city later settled a related lawsuit for more than $6 million.
Instead, the mayor pointed to the Occupy movement protests last fall and a May Day protest a few weeks ago — neither of which were marred by significant violence.
There have been two "moments in time in the national conversation where Chicago's police department and Chicago have stood out," he said. "And I think that deserves to be noted."
Emanuel has made it clear that he intends to keep the peace, sometimes in ways that raised concerns among members of the City Council. He pushed, for example, to dramatically increase fines for resisting arrest, explaining that the fines were long overdue to be raised.
He backed down after some aldermen worried that the fines might suggest Chicago was intent on curbing First Amendment expression.
If protesters "do it right, they'll get heard. If they do it wrong, nobody will hear it," Emanuel said. "We are going to do our job to allow them to express themselves but not lose control of the public safety."
In fact, many people are bracing for vandalism and violence. Businesses and residential towers downtown have hired security forces and stockpiled plywood that can be quickly fitted over broken windows. Many commuters are avoiding the Loop.
If all those foreign leaders and journalists return home with good reviews of Chicago, it could ultimately mean thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars to a city that the mayor acknowledges is still eclipsed by New York and Los Angeles.
"We're the third-largest city in America and yet we rank 10th in tourists," he said. "If we become ninth in tourism, that's 25,000 jobs and a billion dollars' worth of economic activity."
While much of the summit's focus will be on what happens inside the McCormick Place convention center, the gathering is also part of a narrative of which Emanuel is the star.
"This is his chance to shine," said Dominic Pacyga, a Columbia College history professor and author of "Chicago: A Biography."
"This is his chance to say, 'Look, I'm the mayor of a major city. I'm the mayor of a city that's a major world player."