Is Chicago Finally Tired of Rahm Emanuel?

Emanuel might conceivably lose—a previously unthinkable notion—in his bid for a second term of Chicago’s mayor.

John R. MacArthur

(CTA Web / Flickr)

Detested by the black voters of Chicago and unloved by the Democratic machine to which he owes his political career, Rahm Emanuel might conceivably lose — a previously unthinkable notion — in his bid for a second term as mayor of America’s third-largest city.

The runoff against Jesus Chuy” Garcia, scheduled for April 7, shows increasingly menacing signs of the incumbent’s weakness. Last week, two major figures from the local black establishment endorsed Garcia: Willie Wilson, a self-made millionaire who ran and lost in the February 24 Chicago mayoral election; and, more significantly, Emil Jones Jr., a machine blue blood and President Barack Obama’s former mentor, who normally would be expected to hew the party line and back the mayor. A recent Chicago Tribune poll showed Emanuel leading 51-37 percent, with 11 percent undecided, but Garcia’s candidacy may not be such a long shot.

In Chicago, where the Daley family has ruled like Turkish satraps, the regular Democratic Party is practically a monarchy. Since 1955, when Richard J. Daley was elected mayor for the first time, either he or his son, Richard M., have been mayor for a total of forty-three years. Despite having left the city in less-than-stellar fiscal health when he ended his last term four years ago, Rich Daley and his brother Bill still loom large over the Chicago political scene.

I’m not privy to the internal maneuverings of the city’s Democratic grandees, but I do know that Emanuel owes his job almost entirely to the Daley brothers. In 2010, Bill Daley decided he wanted Emanuel’s job as Obama’s chief of staff. So Emanuel, a party stalwart, had to be offered something worthwhile to vacate such an important post. Thus was he slated over much better known Chicago political figures and installed in City Hall.

But his position in the local party is insecure because he was not raised in the machine, or, for that matter, in a working-class city neighborhood. Like Obama, Emanuel is really an outsider — he is subservient to the machine, not of it — having grown up in suburban Wilmette, attended ballet school, and graduated from Sarah Lawrence. (Obama, who is backing Emanuel, is married to the machine through his wife, the daughter of a Democratic precinct captain.)

Mayor Emanuel has done plenty to offend constituents and unions; for example, by closing forty-nine public schools in mostly black and Latino neighborhoods. But his hostility to the poor and to public institutions goes much deeper: as Rick Perlstein recently explained in an article for In These Times, Emmanuel is busy selling off chunks of the city’s public functions for the benefit of private interests.

In this he is pursuing the privatization mania” begun by Rich Daley, who tore down public housing projects in order to open up prized land for favored developers. Daley also sold the city’s parking-meter franchise to a private company, which caused rates to rise sharply. In the same vein, Emanuel paid Cubic Transportation Systems, a division of the defense contractor Cubic Corporation, $454 million to create and partly administer the Chicago Transit Authority’s smart card” payment program, which malfunctioned from the outset, letting certain passengers ride free while double-charging others. The transit cards are so smart that they also function as debit cards, but the city’s contract with Cubic permits various unadvertised user charges that amount to a tax on the lower class.

Emanuel, like Daley and other neoliberals, justifies privatization as essential for reducing budget deficits, but he doesn’t mention that one big reason Chicago is in so much trouble is the steady outflow of factories and factory jobs (via such free trade” treaties as the North American Free Trade Agreement) to Mexico and China, where labor is cheap. Two of the Clinton Administration’s crucially important lobbyists for NAFTA, and its cousin, Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China, were Rahm Emanuel and Bill Daley.

Nevertheless, if Emanuel loses to Garcia, it won’t necessarily be the result of popular anger against a foul-mouthed mayor who spends most of his free time with the One Percent. Rich Daley gave Emanuel only a late, pro forma endorsement, and he could be tiring of his obnoxious successor. Maybe it’s time for a new homeboy in City Hall. The four Daley brothers have lots of children, cousins, and nephews, and if Garcia temporarily interrupts the dynasty with an upset win, it would really just be for a moment.

This post first appeared in the Providence Journal and Harper’s Magazine.

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John R. MacArthur is the publisher of Harper’s Magazine. He’s the author of The Selling of Free Trade and You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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