Rahm Emanuel, whose reputation as a tough and impatient dealmaker followed him from the White House to Chicago City Hall, is finding that governing a fractious city can be as challenging as convincing truculent Republican lawmakers to pass legislation—and, perhaps in the end, unachievable.
Fresh from his post as President Obama’s chief of staff, Emanuel ran for and won Chicago’s mayoralty in 2011. Like one legendary predecessor, Richard M. Daley, Emanuel is a stern taskmaster. But he has suffered a string of unexpected challenges and missteps.
There’s certainly plenty of issues to contend with in Chicago. The city is weighed down with debt, billions in unfunded pension obligations, declining credit ratings, a police department often accused of using excessive force against African-Americans, a rising tide of murders, and a host of other troubles.
But dissatisfaction with Emanuel’s governance exploded from a slow simmer to a full boil with last week’s release of a grim police dashcam video. The powerful video portrayed, with frank brutality, the October 2014 death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald at the hands of a police officer who shot the teenager 16 times.
The video underscored the longtime tense relations between Chicago residents and police, but it was the timing of its release that drew protestors into the street. The release of the video more than a year after McDonald’s death left the strong impression that the city’s administration had purposefully delayed its release and was reluctant to make it public. Furthering these suspicions was the fact that the video only became public the same day that Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke was charged with murder in McDonald’s death.
Emanuel, who won a hard-fought reelection campaign earlier this year, seemed to lose his footing amid the furious reaction. The real reason the video was kept under lock and key, his critics claimed, was that Emanuel was battling a strong challenger for his mayoral reelection and did not want his campaign to be tainted by the kind of protests that had engulfed Ferguson, Mo. and other cities where police were accused of unnecessarily shooting civilians.
Last week, an apology from Emanuel—who said, “I take responsibility for what happened, because it happened on my watch”—did little to quell protestors’ anger. They called for him to step down as mayor to help end a system that protected police wrongdoers. An effort to recall him as mayor is also in the works. And lending further weight to citizen complaints against the police, the U.S. Justice Department has announced that it would launch a query into the circumstances surrounding the video and its release.
Then, as if Emanuel’s administration wasn’t already besieged, the local teachers’ union announced this week that its members had overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike, which would put some 400,000 students out on the street.
“Do not cut our schools, do not lay off educators or balance the budget on our backs,” said Jesse Sharkey, the union’s vice president, in announcing the results of the voting by the 27,000 teacher and staff members. Some 88 percent of them endorsed the possibility of a strike as preliminary talks over teacher evaluations, salary increases, pension contributions, and standardized testing stalled after the expiration of the teachers’ contract last June.
Three years ago, union members struck and stood on picket lines for a week.
Worryingly for Emanuel’s administration, the union seems to be framing the dispute as a tradeoff between education and economic development, with Sharkey noting that, “We need to be asking why we’re spending on things like river walks when our schools aren’t funded.”
He was referring to a $99 million overhaul of the Chicago Riverwalk, a path running along the Chicago River’s south bank in the middle of downtown. The Riverwalk, which Emanuel touts as a prime urban attraction, it is one of the steps his administration has taken to make Chicago more welcoming and economically viable.
The city’s 2012 draft plan to revitalize the local economy, “A Plan for Economic Growth and Jobs,” concluded that the city’s future rests on its ability to compete with other regions around the globe. But it gave the Windy City poor marks compared with other major metropolitan areas.
The report noted that New York and Los Angeles grew four times faster than Chicago over the most recent decade as Chicago lagged behind in creating jobs and boosting income. While entrepreneurship rose, manufacturing—a strong source of middle class jobs for decades—has slowed, the draft plan found.
Riverwalk is an easy target because it is highly visible, has a large price tag, and is financed with a federal loan backed by a local motor fuel tax that, some argue, could be better used for purposes such as municipal schools. At the same time, Emanuel, who avoided raising taxes in his first term, in September asked for a huge property tax increase to cover some of the city’s shortfall—a proposal that is anything but popular as he fights to recover the trust of city residents.
While Emanuel wants to reinvigorate the city, he is running straight into the intractable web of crime, money shortfalls, and entrenched factions that have worked hard for what they’ve achieved and aren’t inclined to give anything up. Emerging from that web with the kind of solid accomplishments that make life better for Chicago’s residents will require depths of political savvy—and generous doses of luck—that only a few mayors have possessed.