Rahm Emanuel is losing control of his city

As his disapproval rating soars, he’s getting tagged with names like the “murder mayor.” Here’s how it fell apart

Published June 16, 2013 1:00PM (EDT)

                      (Benjamin Wheelock/Salon/Reuters/Jeff Haynes)
(Benjamin Wheelock/Salon/Reuters/Jeff Haynes)

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel cakewalked into office, from his former position as the White House chief of staff to President Obama, to succeed the two-decade reign of Richard M. Daley. Like Daley, Emanuel faced weak opponents who grumbled at his supersize war chest, thickly padded by financiers from Hollywood to Wall Street. But unlike Daley, Emanuel promised two things Chicagoans do not hear often: pledges for more government transparency, and to make “tough choices” to fix the city’s ballooning budget deficit.

Now, midway into his inaugural term, the honeymoon is over. Emanuel faces scrutiny from groups Daley never alienated: public sector unions, liberal progressives and minority coalitions on the city’s South and West side. Since his election, Emanuel’s approval numbers started dropping, and some are charging him as racist -- a “murder mayor” deaf to the marginalized swaths of Chicago suffering from escalating street violence, inadequate transit and the largest mass school closing in U.S. history. While he reigns as mayor in a city traditionally ruled by Democrats, many consider him a Republican in donkey blue clothing, who, like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), swept into office and immediately hauled out the budget cleaver.

“Daley didn’t make enemies of labor unions, but now, the police, the fire, everybody essentially is now in opposition to Rahm and that didn’t have to happen,” says Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman who now teaches political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

To the surprise of no one familiar with his Washington reputation, many see the mayor as combative, refusing to take public input seriously, and allied so closely to his tight pool of corporate benefactors that the nickname “Mayor 1%” and Twitter hashtag #OneTermMayor have gone viral. Even some members of his party — a tribe that rarely breaks ranks — are scratching their heads in public. Most notable: Cook County board president Toni Preckwinkle, who told the Chicago Reader two weeks ago that his decision to close so many schools was “a terrible idea” and “demoralizing.”

“The closings are going to take place almost entirely within the African-American community, and given the problems we already have with violence, I think it’s very problematic,” she said.

In any other city, the insurgency might suggest Emanuel’s chances for reelection are in trouble, especially with two more years of drumbeating by his opponents. But this is Chicago, where term limits go to die, and where incumbents luxuriate in the home rule advantage.

Still, a Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll from early May shows a growing unrest. On the bright side, a healthy 50 percent of Chicago voters still approve of his job performance versus 40 percent who disapprove. But, a year ago, those numbers were 52-29. And among black voters, the problems are more acute. Just 40 percent approve of his performance while 48 percent disapprove; last year, that disparity was the other way around, at 44-33.

The numbers reflect the many confrontations Emanuel has faced these past two years: his proposal to reduce public library hours and staff; a contentious teacher strike that was the city’s first in 25 years; escalating gun violence that entered national headlines since last summer; a five-month renovation project that will shut down a major transit line on the South Side, primarily affecting black commuters; lackluster efforts to better the city’s unemployment rate that remains above 10 percent; and conflicting agendas on spending priorities, like the controversial announcement that 50 public schools will be shuttered in the city’s neediest neighborhoods to help shore up funds. That announcement happened to come the same week as another to spend $300 million in public money to build a new basketball arena and renovate Navy Pier, projects Emanuel promises will create 10,000 construction jobs, but others are calling white elephants in the making.

“He’s been an excellent CEO, he gives orders and things happen,” says Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman who now teaches political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “His weakness is that he’s not so good on democracy.”

In his campaign for mayor, Emanuel was scrutinized by his opponents as not being “from Chicago,” a technicality that his legal team ultimately dismantled, but a contention that still lingers as the mayor strives to show that he feels the pain of his constituents, even if a growing number may not fully believe he feels as sharp a sting.

Example: Daley left office on the heels of a $1.15 billion privatization deal involving selling the city’s 36,000 parking meters to a consortium owned, in part, by Morgan Stanley. The deal was not only later debunked as a financial catastrophe for the city — the city’s inspector general later said it was valued for $974 million more — but one that became a hot button issue for residents, as it cost them nearly triple to park on city streets, and made parking costly in some neighborhoods where meters previously didn’t exist. Since day one in office, Emanuel made it clear he understood the political liability of not doing something to rectify the situation. But critics say what he is proposing feels shaky.

After Morgan Stanley delivered the city a bill for an extra $49 million in fees — it turns out few city council alderman read the fine print that mentioned being charged for lost revenue from street festivals or disabled parking — Emanuel is proposing a new deal that once again made Sunday parking free, in exchange for allowing the company to extend parking hours, up to 10 p.m., in some neighborhoods. Emanuel’s talking point for selling the swap is “trying to make a little lemonade out of a big lemon.” But many aldermen, spurred by local media reports that Emanuel’s numbers were flawed -- and worried their constituents will run them out of town on a rail -- are demanding hard data from city hall to determine if, indeed, the numbers add up in their favor.

It doesn’t look good: A recent Tribune analysis concluded that Morgan Stanley would actually reap more under Emanuel’s new deal, to the tune of $517 million in additional revenue above meter fees. John Arena, a freshman alderman in the city’s 45th Ward, has been one of the few in the city council to demand accountability for the new deal, and he says the parking meter fight is an example of the mayor not coming clean about whose side he’s ultimately on.

“Transparency is the one thing the mayor was very vocal about in his campaign, and that’s been something he’s not fully lived up to,” Arena says. “Of course, when you’re in power, some of those promises may change, but my point of view is, transparency is more important now after the Daley years when it was a very closed circle of confidants and advisers and it’s led us into a bad place.”

Politically, the swap has the potential to test the patience of an electorate that the Tribune/WGN-TV poll shows is already on the wane: 52 percent of voters believe Emanuel has not kept his campaign pledge to rid government of insider deals, an increase from 39 percent last year.

If there is a legacy issue that may determine whether Emanuel’s reform agenda is best for Chicago, or a debacle in the making, it’s likely his decision in May to permanently shutter 50 public schools. Among his top reasons why: The school district must close its $1 billion deficit and the number of schools is disproportionate to the district’s population loss.

Again, many dispute his data. Between 2000 and 2013, the city says it lost 145,000 students according to census data, an 18 percent drop; however, school enrollment dropped much less, just 6 percent. Also, the $1 billion in savings the city says it will generate from the school closings is not likely to happen considering the district admits that the majority of that money will get redirected into the receiving schools as capital investments -- which means the budgetary nightmare will still remain as frightful.

“The numbers are certainly going to be debated because we have different resources coming up with different data and that certainly is going to fuel both the defense and the distrust that some are feeling the system is putting forward,” says Steve Tozer, a professor of education and director of the Center for Urban Education Leadership at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

While Tozer agrees with Emanuel that the school district is woefully underfunded by the state, he says that Emanuel’s solution to close so many schools was unusually bold, given that he could have looked elsewhere for deep cuts -- such as programs, personnel or operating costs.

“Any time you’re talking about closing even 10 percent of schools in any district, that’s pretty significant. No doubt this is going to be deeply disruptive,” he says.

Politically, the situation is disastrous, and some are (perhaps wishfully) taking it as the first real sign of vulnerability for his reelection chances. The Chicago Teachers Union is already spearheading a registration drive to turn a constituency that is already against the mayor into voters, and union president Karen Lewis labeled Emanuel “the murder mayor” because of all his cuts to vital services. Multiple lawsuits are also pending from families and the union who both say the mayor is violating the civil rights of special needs children and those living in poorer, marginalized neighborhoods. They say the closures are really a veiled attempt to weaken the union and expand the privatized charter school system.

No matter who wins the public relations war, the fight is ultimately rooted in how Chicago governance operates. On paper, the school board is an independent body, armed with the power to bypass city hall politics and do what it perceives as right for the children -- even if it means raising taxes, which the board also has the right to do.

But this is Chicago. And no sitting mayor is going to let a group of appointee hacks stifle his chances at reelection. Which means that although the school district is in a separate building, operates under different rules, and is chartered to serve the children first, the reality is that, under Emanuel, the board is a politicized body that serves at his bidding.

“Chicago Public Schools pays a lot of money for benefits for board members and salaries for public administrators whose real job seems to be answering the phone when city hall calls and try to find a way to implement the dictated policy. They’re not setting the agenda so far as following the agenda,” says David Morrison, acting director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, an advocacy group. “They don’t seem to play an independent role, so why are they there? Again, it comes back to the control that the fifth floor mayor’s office has.”

Business leaders are more forgiving of Emanuel’s no-nonsense style because they perceive him as a strong leader emboldened to do whatever it takes to drag Chicago out of the red, and develop long-term strategies to curb its financial crisis. Summing up this perspective is a quote by United Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek, in a current Time magazine cover story on the mayor, who described Emanuel as “just what the doctor ordered.”

Lawrence Msall agrees. As president of the Civic Federation, a government research organization in Chicago, Msall says Emanuel “has begun a lot of the heavy lifting that’s been needed in Chicago,” considering it faces a financial crisis largely compounded, he says, by an unfunded liability of $32 billion in the 10 Chicago-area public employee pension funds.

Msall blames much of the bungling of deals like the parking meters, not on the mayor’s office, but on the city council -- which he says is too big, and lacks the authority to effectively analyze complicated financial legislation. The solution, he proposes, is an Office of Independent Budget Analysis that will vet all contracts and provide the council the analysis needed to make smart budgetary decisions.

So far, Msall says Emanuel is showing he is serious about confronting areas Daley hesitated to touch. One example is his plan to phase out the city’s subsidy of retiree healthcare by 2017 and moving the coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

“Whether we have any money for more government services, it is directly related to these legacy issues of unfunded pensions and other areas that continue to put financial pressure on the city,” Msall says. “That’s why a strong leader like Mayor Emanuel is attractive in dealing with the issues that were avoided or viewed as unworkable.”

Whatever its merit, this kind of talk is unusual in Chicago, where Republican challengers are extinct and mayors have traditionally maintained power through their patronage armies -- which have consisted mainly of city workers and unions, the same groups that complain they are feeling the squeeze under Emanuel.

But in recent years, the Democratic Party in Chicago has operated much differently from its counterparts in other cities. Having zero opposition from Republicans has allowed it to adopt some core Republican principles, and push back harder against traditional constituent groups without fear of retaliation. In essence, this hybrid Chicago boss — corporate-friendly and anti-union, but progressive on traditional social issues like gay marriage — seems to thrive here, making it quite difficult for a serious challenger to rise up, either from the corporate sector or among the progressives, and pose a serious threat.

“So there is this remarkable void on the left and the right, which allows mayors like Emanuel and Daley to steer this middle of the road course. There isn’t much of a risk, even if Emanuel is seen as broadly unpopular,” says Larry Bennett, a political scientist at DePaul University in Chicago. “Chicago has been a one-party city for so long that there’s very little infrastructure for running against an incumbent.”

Indeed, while more in his party feel emboldened to publicly criticize Emanuel than they had Daley, none are likely to mount a serious campaign to knock him out of his seat in two years. One reason is political: He still rules what remains a rubber stamp council. The second is money: He has way more than they ever will see in their lifetime. The third is time: For progressives, a traditionally unorganized group, two years to coalesce into a political majority is slim to none.

“You can’t be somebody with nobody. You have to have a viable candidate and they have to have a movement behind them and some fundraising capacity,” Simpson says. “Most aldermen aren’t there yet.”

Still, while Emanuel’s war chest may ensure his political future, money can’t buy him love. “Daley had a charm to him that endeared him to residents of Chicago, even though he was making decisions that hurt their interests,” Arena says.

“But Rahm is different. He wants to squeeze. But the problem is, the more you squeeze, the more things run through your fingers. That’s going to be a challenge for him. You have to keep the city. The city has to love you.”

By Mark Guarino

Mark Guarino is a staff writer with the Christian Science Monitor. He lives in Chicago.

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