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Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel: It’s Not Just Companies That Can Undergo Turnarounds

September 25, 2018, 7:30 PM UTC

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel argues that it’s not only troubled companies that can undergo turnarounds. Cities can too, he says, using his city—arguably, to critics—as a prime example.

When Emanuel took office in 2011, Chicago had a long list of intractable problems: A big budget deficit, poorly performing schools, and ample violent crime. Seven years later, speaking at Fortune’s Brainstorm Reinvent conference in Chicago on Tuesday, the mayor claimed credit for making headway on at least some of those priorities (unfortunately, crime isn’t one of them).

However, time is running short for Emanuel, who has only eight months left in office after recently announcing that he would not seek a third term. Nevertheless, he promised to keep working and dismissed the idea that he is a lame duck who can’t accomplish much before stepping down.

“I’m going to run through the tape,” he vowed.

Here are some of the highlights from his discussion:


Emanuel likes to remind everyone how far Chicago has come in the past 31 years since Ronald Reagan’s Education Secretary described the city’s schools as the nation’s worst. Today, they’re on the upswing, he said, reciting a litany of data to prove his point.

Graduation rates have rising from 56.5% when he started to 78.2% today, for example. And a respectable percentage of public school children—66%—go on to college.

But not everyone has embraced Emanuel’s education policies. He closed dozens of poor performing schools, eliciting anger from parents and educators, while some residents still complain that the public education system should be better.

“It’s not about popularity,” Emanuel said, explaining away some of the unpopular decisions he’s made. “It’s about the success of our kids.”


Chicago was in a deep financial hole when Emanuel arrived. The city was taking $300 million annually from its reserves to cover its costs, while leaving its pensions underfunded.

With the help of an improved local economy and some very unpopular property tax hikes and utility levies, he’s managed to, as he put it, stabilize the budget—but not entirely fix it.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us,” Emanuel said.


Chicago is negotiating with Tesla founder Elon Musk to build a 17-mile tunnel for high-speed transit between the city’s downtown and O’Hare International Airport. Futuristic pods would shuttle passengers at 150 mph during the trip, reducing what is currently a 40-minute train ride to just 12 minutes.

“There’s a tunnel under the English Channel,” Emanuel said. “I don’t think the English are more innovative than us.”

But he was quick to note that the project, if it comes to fruition, wouldn’t cost taxpayers a dime. Rather, it would be funded by Musk’s tunnel drilling firm, the Boring Co. “It’s his money, no public money—it’s his reputation,” Emanuel said. As for the ticket to the airport costing as much as $25, he underscored that travelers would still be able to take other transportation to the airport, including traditional public transit that costs a lot less money.

“You’ll have competitive choices,” Emanuel said.