Culture » February 18, 2019
Good Riddance to Rahm Emanuel
An enemy of the people since 1998.
As much as we’d like to be done writing about Emanuel, his political career may not yet be over.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, facing dismal approval ratings, announced in September 2018 he wouldn’t be running for a third term. Leading up to the next election, held February 26, even relatively moderate candidates have distanced themselves from Emanuel’s record on police violence, school closures and luxury development.
For progressives who have long been critical of Emanuel’s brand of business-friendly, pro-privatization policies, his fall was a sign that Third Way-style Democratic politics might finally be on their way out. In These Times has been reporting on Emanuel since he burst into the national spotlight in the 1990s working in the Clinton administration, through his stints as a representative in the U.S. House, as President Barack Obama’s chief of staff and as Chicago mayor.
Emanuel first appeared in our pages in the Feb. 8, 1998, issue, as a close advisor to Clinton. The president had set up a diverse advisory board on racial issues—then put five centrist white guys, including Emanuel, in charge of overseeing it. “I don’t know who they are or what they are doing,” one advisory board member told In These Times’ Salim Muwakkil. “I’ve never even met them.”
Emanuel popped up again three months later, in Doug Ireland’s review of Howard Kurtz’s classic book, Spin Cycle: Inside the Clinton Propaganda Machine. Ireland refers to Emanuel as a “spin-meister” who spent his nights socializing with D.C. journalists and plotting how to crush negative stories about Bill Clinton.
David Sirota looked back on Emanuel’s role in the Clinton administration, and his subsequent private-sector career, in a 2007 story:
[Emanuel] provides a good example of dishonest graft. In 1993, Emanuel was the Clinton administration aide charged with ramming NAFTA through Congress ‘over the dead bodies’ of labor and environmental groups, as American Express’s CEO cheered at the time. Emanuel orchestrated weekly meetings with K Street lobbyists to strategize about how to pressure Democratic lawmakers. Emanuel went on to cash in as an investment banker, raking in roughly $16 million over a two-year period.
Following his time in private finance, in 2002 Emanuel was elected to represent Illinois in Congress. He was soon appointed head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), where he was accused of heavy-handed meddling in local races. “Everything [Emanuel and the DCCC] do drips with centralized arrogance and is as autocratic as any ensemble of Republicans,” Doug Cole, a DuPage County Democratic Party activist, told In These Times reporter David Moberg in 2006.
Cole wasn’t the only one to compare Emanuel to a Republican. That same year, the great writer and historian Studs Terkel called Emanuel the “Henry Kissinger of the Democratic Party” in an interview with In These Times columnist Laura S. Washington.
In 2008, newly elected President Barack Obama appointed Emanuel chief of staff, and he became a conservative force within the young administration. He projected an outward disdain for organized labor, exclaiming at one point during the 2010 auto bailout, “Fuck the UAW!”
In a 2009 In These Times cover story, Robert Dreyfuss discussed Emanuel’s hawkish influence on foreign affairs.
Emanuel, an unflinching partisan for Israel, is the son of a former fighter in the anti-British terrorist group, the Irgun Zvai Leumi. Emanuel’s father, who emigrated from Israel and now lives in a Chicago suburb, caused a stir when he commented on his son’s appointment. “Obviously he will influence the president to be pro-Israel,” he told a reporter. “Why wouldn’t he be? What is he, an Arab? He’s not going to clean the floors of the White House.” (Afterward, Emanuel was forced to apologize to an Arab-American organization for his father’s racist comments.)
In 2010, Emanuel moved across the country to run for Chicago mayor, where he was elected in 2011. Once there, as I wrote in a 2016 op-ed, Emanuel “earned his reputation as ‘Mayor 1%’ by shutting down public mental health clinics and public schools, giving massive tax breaks to corporations while black and brown neighborhoods remain mired in poverty, selling off public goods and services to private interests that prey on city taxpayers, laying off public sector workers, presiding over a scandal-plagued police department, and overseeing a historic number of shootings and gun deaths.”
For many, Emanuel’s time in Chicago will be most remembered for the 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike, in which teachers successfully fought back against the mayor’s demands for contract concessions. In covering the strike, Moberg compared Emanuel to yet another Republican, describing his “apparent bid to be the Democratic double for Scott Walker—the staunchly anti-union Republican governor of next-door Wisconsin.”
In a 2015 cover story, “How To Sell Off a City,” historian Rick Perlstein took a deep dive into Emanuel’s penchant for privatization as mayor, writing that he “has proven himself practically an addict when it comes to brokering deals with his former investment banker comrades and the other business interests he keeps on speed dial.” Perlstein documented those who benefited from Emanuel’s deals—from charter schools to investors to defense contractors—and those who footed the bills: the taxpayers, public transit riders, laid-off janitors and children with their schools closed.
As much as we’d like to be done writing about Emanuel, his political career may not yet be over. He claims to want to spend more time with his family, but he could still swoop in for a swan song. As our reporting over the years makes clear, he will not be welcomed back kindly by the public—or In These Times.
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Miles Kampf-Lassin, a graduate of New York University's Gallatin School in Deliberative Democracy and Globalization, is a Web Editor at In These Times. He is a Chicago based writer. firstname.lastname@example.org @MilesKLassin