Mayor 1% Rahm Emanuel Will Not Be Missed in Chicago

Emanuel will be remembered for his arrogance, impatience and disregard for regular Chicagoans.

Kari Lydersen September 6, 2018

Many Chicago residents aren't wishing Mayor Emanuel a fond farewell. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

On July 7, more than a thou­sand Chicagoans marched onto the Dan Ryan Express­way on the city’s South Side, defy­ing state police who threat­ened to arrest them. 

In the Windy City, Emanuel will always be remembered by many as Mayor 1%.

Marchers were protest­ing issues includ­ing ram­pant gun vio­lence on the city’s South and West sides. May­or Rahm Emanuel pub­licly endorsed the action, lock­ing horns with Gov. Bruce Rauner and state police over the planned civ­il disobedience. 

But despite the may­or’s announced sup­port, count­less marchers named him as the tar­get of their protest, and blamed him for the city’s violence. 

Their main focus was not his polic­ing strat­e­gy or posi­tion on gun laws, but rather his fail­ure — or refusal — to invest in the South and West sides: African Amer­i­can and Lati­no neigh­bor­hoods rav­aged by vio­lence. While the nation­al move­ment ignit­ed by the teenagers from Park­land, Flori­da has focused large­ly on gun con­trol, in Chica­go, marchers on the express­way and count­less oth­er res­i­dents say dev­as­tat­ing gun vio­lence has caused by Emanuel’s actions over his tenure in City Hall: clos­ing pub­lic schools, slash­ing city jobs, shut­ter­ing men­tal health clin­ics and invest­ing in trendy neigh­bor­hoods while strug­gling ones languish. 

Then there’s Emanuel’s most noto­ri­ous con­tro­ver­sy: Poten­tial­ly cov­er­ing up vio­lence by police as high­light­ed in the shoot­ing of Laquan McDon­ald.

Chicago’s gun vio­lence and its pen­sion cri­sis were the main issues high­light­ed in much of the nation­al media cov­er­age of Emanuel’s Sept. 4 announce­ment that he would not seek re-elec­tion in 2019

While many Chicagoans clear­ly do blame Emanuel for the vio­lence, and it would be a stain on any may­or, this fram­ing lets Emanuel off the hook for the deep­er rea­sons that so many city res­i­dents oppose him, espe­cial­ly African Amer­i­cans and Lati­nos who live in the neigh­bor­hoods where vio­lence is worst. 

Even before Emanuel took office in 2011, he had already posi­tioned him­self as May­or 1%,” intent on reshap­ing Chica­go as a glis­ten­ing, hip glob­al city that many felt had no room for reg­u­lar peo­ple strug­gling to sur­vive on low-pay­ing jobs, with crim­i­nal records or in crum­bling neighborhoods. 

Emanuel promised to slash inef­fi­cien­cy and pub­lic spend­ing, to run Chica­go like a busi­ness and whip its finances into shape. And once in office, he fol­lowed through. But poor peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties and men­tal health needs don’t make for a prof­itable busi­ness. And Emanuel has always seemed unin­ter­est­ed in — and even hos­tile to — the sug­ges­tion that serv­ing them and lis­ten­ing to their demands is the may­or’s responsibility. 

Like­wise, labor unions and their mem­bers — which built Amer­i­ca’s mid­dle class and made Chica­go the City of Big Shoul­ders — were an incon­ve­nience and imped­i­ment to Emanuel, as he made clear from day one, pick­ing fights with both trade unions and teach­ers who called out Emanuel’s role in a larg­er class war. 

Inequal­i­ty, seg­re­ga­tion and gun vio­lence have long been endem­ic to Chica­go, and fatal shoot­ing rates were high­er in the 1990s than they are now, but that posed no threat to for­mer May­or Richard M. Daley’s power. 

Many argue that Daley should have been held more account­able for his efforts to pri­va­tize and strat­i­fy the city. But in style if not in sub­stance, Daley still respect­ed the idea that work­ing peo­ple, neigh­bor­hood orga­ni­za­tions, labor unions and lead­ers of minor­i­ty groups were play­ers who had a seat at the table. Emanuel strode into office with the slick arro­gance of the tech start­up founders he adores, with no time for such afore­men­tioned insti­tu­tions or the scores of reg­u­lar peo­ple they represent. 

When he was called to task by the Chica­go Teach­ers Union’s wild­ly pop­u­lar 2012 strike, and when he was forced into a 2015 run-off by may­oral chal­lenger Jesus Chuy” Gar­cia, Emanuel respond­ed with fits of piqué and patron­iz­ing plat­i­tudes. Most saw through his attempts to throw mon­ey at black neigh­bor­hoods, glad-hand with black high school stu­dents or don a fuzzy sweater to apol­o­gize for being so abrasive. 

An Emanuel com­ment last month about the gun vio­lence seemed to sig­nal that even these half-heart­ed attempts at engag­ing with and under­stand­ing reg­u­lar peo­ple had become too wear­ing for the may­or. He essen­tial­ly claimed par­ents and com­mu­ni­ties are respon­si­ble for stop­ping the vio­lence by instill­ing bet­ter val­ues” and a moral com­pass” in their kids. Many saw the com­ments aimed at low-income black and Lati­no par­ents, who are strug­gling just to get by in Rah­m’s bifur­cat­ed Chicago. 

In ret­ro­spect, it appeared to be a sign he was just done with it all, ready to move on to some­where more appre­cia­tive of his tal­ents, with­out hav­ing to risk the humil­i­a­tion — or, per­haps in his view, just the has­sle — of anoth­er elec­tion where mul­ti­ple African-Amer­i­can can­di­dates and his own for­mer police chief are poised to spot­light all the ways he has betrayed and attacked Black, Lati­no and poor Chicagoans. 

Or maybe Emanuel was just speak­ing from the heart when he made the val­ues” com­ment, one he report­ed­ly had pre­vi­ous­ly road-test­ed in pri­vate. If so, it points to the may­or being clue­less about the com­pli­cat­ed eco­nom­ic and social fac­tors under­ly­ing gang vio­lence and sug­gests he’s so unfa­mil­iar with those neigh­bor­hoods that he has­n’t seen the ample exam­ples of good val­ues” therein. 

Either way, the com­ment was a fit­ting begin­ning of the end for Emanuel’s tenure in City Hall. 

Depend­ing what Emanuel does in the future, his time in Chica­go may become a blip in an illus­tri­ous polit­i­cal biog­ra­phy. But in the Windy City, he will always be remem­bered by many as May­or 1%, sym­bol­iz­ing the arro­gance and impa­tience of those who would shape soci­ety to cel­e­brate enti­tle­ment, fame and wealth. And his depar­ture will be seen by many as a vic­to­ry for those whose val­ues” encom­pass sol­i­dar­i­ty, empa­thy and democracy.

Kari Lyder­sen is a Chica­go-based reporter, author and jour­nal­ism instruc­tor, lead­ing the Social Jus­tice & Inves­tiga­tive spe­cial­iza­tion in the grad­u­ate pro­gram at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author of May­or 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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