Mayor of the 1%

A new book explains why ‘Rahm Emanuel’ is a dirty word in many Chicago circles.

Nick Burt

In his two years as mayor, Rahm Emanuel has infuriated labor unions, teachers, mental health advocates and community groups, sparking massive protests. (Kari Lydersen)

In the first three pages of her new book on Chica­go May­or Rahm Emanuel, Kari Lyder­sen shares an anec­dote that all but sum­ma­rizes the cur­rent dynam­ic in Chica­go pol­i­tics: In March 2012, the may­or attend­ed a gala at the Chica­go His­to­ry Muse­um to cel­e­brate the city’s 175th birth­day. As the Chica­go Chil­dren’s Choir sang Hap­py Birth­day” while Emanuel looked hap­pi­ly on, a woman in a flo­ral head­scarf charged up, inter­rupt­ing the fes­tiv­i­ties to plead with the may­or not to go for­ward with his plan to shut­ter half of Chicago’s men­tal health clin­ics. We’re going to die,” she begs. There’s nowhere else to go. … May­or Emanuel, please!” 

For an executive such as Emanuel, Chicago can be viewed as less a mosaic of cultures, experiences and histories than a structure built of interchangeable parts.

That woman was Helen Mor­ley, an inde­fati­ga­ble activist and men­tal health patient who had ear­li­er that win­ter led a sit-in at City Hall to try to save the clin­ics. Emanuel, Lyder­sen writes, duti­ful­ly avoid­ed mak­ing eye con­tact with Mor­ley or acknowl­edg­ing her pres­ence. Instead, he shook the hands of friend­ly patrons and moved along before the birth­day cake was even cut. With­in a few months, the clin­ics were closed, and Mor­ley was dead. The cause was a heart attack, but her friends were cer­tain that the stress of the clin­ic clo­sures played a role.

From a van­tage point high above the Loop, Chica­go is the pic­ture of mod­ern cap­i­tal­ism: glis­ten­ing office tow­ers, parks and archi­tec­tur­al mon­u­ments named after bil­lion­aires, and a string of Pret A Manger cafes. If con­struc­tion goes for­ward, the lit­tle grit of yes­ter­year still remain­ing down­town will be sub­sumed by expen­sive new hotels and a $173 mil­lion bas­ket­ball are­na for the pri­vate DePaul Uni­ver­si­ty, paid for in sub­stan­tial part with pub­lic funds.

But on the ground, Chica­go is also a city in which pro­test­ers occu­py hos­pi­tals to demand trau­ma care on the South Side, where it’s not uncom­mon to see CTA rid­ers wear­ing Chica­go Teach­ers Union T‑shirts, and where near­ly 50 neigh­bor­hood ele­men­tary schools sat vacant at the start of this year, casu­al­ties of the city’s school reform” plan.

These are the two poten­tial lega­cies of Rahm Emanuel.

Though billed as a biog­ra­phy, May­or 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99% is bet­ter regard­ed as a thor­ough siz­ing up of which lega­cy will pre­vail. Lyder­sen, a vet­er­an Chica­go jour­nal­ist (and con­tribut­ing edi­tor to In These Times), pairs an admirably even-hand­ed account of Emanuel’s career with exten­sive report­ing on the grass­roots oppo­si­tion he’s engendered.

In Lydersen’s account, Emanuel comes off as a thin-skinned, per­pet­u­al­ly net­work­ing, intense­ly dri­ven ego­ist whose great­est for­tune seems to have been in real­iz­ing how well his per­son­al style meshed with the neolib­er­al project pur­sued by the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty over the past few decades. Ris­ing up quick­ly through the ranks of the par­ty, Emanuel took a job in Bill Clinton’s 1992 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign and then a post in the Clin­ton admin­is­tra­tion, where he helped estab­lish the agen­da of the pro-busi­ness Demo­c­ra­t­ic Lead­er­ship Coun­cil. Emanuel par­layed his suc­cess into a lucra­tive career in invest­ment bank­ing, fol­lowed by a con­gres­sion­al seat, a stint in the Oba­ma White House and final­ly the may­or­ship of Chicago.

Lyder­sen ques­tions how well the imper­son­al style of the Wash­ing­ton cir­cles where Emanuel cut his teeth trans­lates to a local lev­el. Emanuel’s crit­ics and admir­ers have both described him as a quin­tes­sen­tial crea­ture of Wash­ing­ton,” she writes. He clear­ly knows how pol­i­tick­ing works. But being may­or is dif­fer­ent, or at least it should be.”

To an exec­u­tive such as Emanuel, Chica­go may appear less a mosa­ic of cul­tures, expe­ri­ences and his­to­ries than a struc­ture built of inter­change­able parts. Long­time union jobs with the city, for exam­ple, can be changed out for out­sourced nonunion work. A school in one neigh­bor­hood can be closed, its stu­dents shunt­ed to a dif­fer­ent school, in a dif­fer­ent neigh­bor­hood, with lit­tle con­cern for the con­se­quences to either com­mu­ni­ty. And a rich urban space can be replaced with an array of tourism-ori­ent­ed, TIF-fund­ed devel­op­ment projects, as in neigh­bor­hoods such as Uptown and Logan Square, where pub­lic sub­si­dies fuel busi­ness­es like brew­eries and shop­ping cen­ters while ris­ing rents dis­place long­time residents.

Even the patron­age jobs that long greased the gears of the Chica­go Machine — jobs that, how­ev­er ill-dis­pensed, were still pub­lic-sec­tor jobs for Chicagoans — have suc­cumbed to the dri­ve to privatize.

All of this has pro­duced among crit­ics a creep­ing nos­tal­gia for the Daley era. Despite their offens­es — cor­rup­tion, dubi­ous busi­ness deals, seg­re­ga­tion — the father and son Daley were regard­ed as ador­ing care­tak­ers of the city they ruled. Richard J. Daley, the elder, was reput­ed to have stopped to pick up over­turned garbage cans as he sur­veyed his king­dom on his morn­ing com­mute to City Hall. The junior Daley held his polit­i­cal meet­ings over corned beef sand­wich­es and paper cone cups at Man­ny’s Deli.

Emanuel is sure­ly a ben­e­fi­cia­ry of the pow­er the Daleys con­sol­i­dat­ed in city hall dur­ing their terms. Still a one-par­ty town, Chica­go also boasts a city coun­cil in which any dis­sent­ing votes are uncom­mon, and a may­or-appoint­ed school board that crit­ics deride as unac­count­able. But there’s a pre­vail­ing sen­ti­ment that the may­or, though prob­a­bly not any more pow­er­ful than the Daleys, is less encum­bered with a per­son­al con­cern for the city that he governs.

Daley was a lunch buck­et Demo­c­rat,” one city offi­cial tells Lyder­sen. He knew the dri­vers of the garbage trucks, he knew the tree trim­mers, he knew their par­ents. Rahm has no clue who the dri­vers are, and he does­n’t care. … But you ask him who the head of the Chica­go Mer­can­tile Exchange is, and he’ll have him on speed dial.”

Will Emanuel’s detach­ment from the lives of ordi­nary Chicagoans end up doing him in?

Against the nar­ra­tive of Emanuel’s dri­ve to remake the city, Lyder­sen sets accounts of the activism that has tak­en place in Chica­go under his watch. With the struc­tures of tra­di­tion­al demo­c­ra­t­ic rep­re­sen­ta­tion all but dis­man­tled, labor unions, pro­gres­sive orga­ni­za­tions, and com­mu­ni­ty and reli­gious groups have increas­ing­ly had to rely on a dif­fer­ent kind of pol­i­tics — one that’s more will­ing to eschew the old man­ner of bar­gain­ing with the city in favor of inde­pen­dent orga­niz­ing and often-con­fronta­tion­al tactics.

There’s the sto­ry of Men­tal Health Move­ment activists who occu­pied a clin­ic in Wood­lawn slat­ed for clo­sure and brought bags of cement they planned to use to seal the doors to keep the police out. Anoth­er chap­ter recounts the takeover of the Chica­go Teach­ers Union by a rank-and-file cau­cus that ulti­mate­ly led 30,000 union mem­bers to a sev­en-day strike. And a chap­ter on last spring’s NATO sum­mit describes the mass street mobi­liza­tions led, in one instance, by hun­dreds of nurs­es clad in red scrubs and green Robin Hood caps to demand health­care paid for by finan­cial spec­u­la­tion tax.

While oppo­si­tion to Emanuel and his pro­gram has­n’t reached the point of broad uni­fi­ca­tion, the may­or is pro­vid­ing the frac­tured dis­con­tent­ed with a sin­gle tar­get. This week, 2,000 Chicagoans gath­ered at a Take Back Chica­go” ral­ly at the UIC Forum, orga­nized by the Grass­roots Col­lab­o­ra­tive, an umbrel­la group of 11 unions and com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions. There, nurs­es, stu­dents, home­less advo­cates and union mem­bers denounced the may­or’s pro­gram and laid out a sketch of a new peo­ple-focused agen­da.” Alliances such as these are like­ly to form the basis of an elec­toral cam­paign against the may­or when he comes up for re-elec­tion in 2015; the Chica­go Teach­ers Union — whose strike last year came the clos­est so far to bring­ing togeth­er large and diverse sec­tions of Chicago’s work­ing class — appears to be antic­i­pat­ing such a chal­lenge, and is mak­ing an effort to reg­is­ter 100,000 new vot­ers through­out the city.

The deci­sions we make in the next two to three years will deter­mine the face of Chica­go for the next 20 to 30 years,” Emanuel told TIME ear­li­er this year.

That’s undoubtable true. And so Lyder­sen’s book arrives at a crit­i­cal time, pre­sent­ing Chicago’s 99% with a ques­tion whose answer has yet to be deter­mined: In the end, whose city will it be?

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