Skip to main content

Rahm Emanuel’s Moment of Truth

Chicago mayor confronts mounting crises as the public revolts against him
“Chicagoans have a long and curious history of tolerating and even rewarding corruption, neglect and cover-ups from their leaders, especially where police abuse is concerned.” – Kari Lydersen, leader of the Social Justice News Nexus reporting fellowship at Medill

This article originally appeared in Al Jazeera America on December 18, 2015.

By Kari Lydersen

Holiday lights illuminated stacks of moving boxes in a downtown Chicago plaza this week. With labels such as “false tears,” “injustice” and “cover-ups,” the boxes were meant to be Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s, ready to go his hoped-for moving day.

The boxes were props in one of the many recent protests against the mayor. But it is plausible that Emanuel, one of the country’s most feared and storied politicians, could be forced to leave office.

The Nov. 24 release of police dashcam video of a white officer gunning down black teenager Laquan McDonald last year has caused political fallout dwarfing previous outrages against Emanuel, including ones over the closing of almost 50 public schools, the shuttering of public mental health clinics and the privatization of city services.

The past year made clear that the public is not happy with Emanuel. He was forced into a runoff election with upstart progressive candidate Jesús “Chuy” García and then beat Garcia by a margin of only 12 percentage points despite a massive fundraising advantage.

But the video of the police shooting, along with Emanuel’s unsuccessful bid to suppress it, have sent his political fortunes plunging to new lows.

recent poll found that 51 percent of respondents would like to see him resign. His approval rating is just 18 percent.

There are several possible outcomes for Emanuel, who once described being mayor of Chicago as his dream job.

He could leave office, either by resignation or recall. A bill has been introduced in the state legislature that would establish procedures for a recall election if 15 percent of the number of voters in the last mayoral election sign a petition — in this case, about 86,000 people. The bill is unlikely to be enacted, given Emanuel’s power in the Democratic Party, which controls the state legislature, and his close friendship with Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.

When Garry McCarthy resigned as police superintendent on Dec. 1, Emanuel said that McCarthy could no longer lead because he had lost the public’s confidence and trust. Under such logic, Emanuel could be expected to resign. He won the April runoff election only by convincing alienated black voters to give him another chance. That fragile support has now clearly been shattered, and voters of other backgrounds want to see him go as well.

But a humble resignation is hardly likely from a man famed for his arrogance, ambition and unwillingness to ever be proved wrong. The one thing that might drive a resignation is hard evidence that Emanuel orchestrated keeping the video hidden until after the election, in part by negotiating a $5 million settlement with McDonald’s family, which was announced and approved by the City Council just days after the election. In addition, the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights investigation into the Chicago Police Department, which Emanuel initially opposed, could find further evidence of police brutality, racial profiling and cover-ups, including under Emanuel’s watch.

Assuming he remains in office, what will happen in the coming months, during the rest of his term and in 2019, when he’s up for re-election?

There’s a slim chance that Chicago will become a model for police accountability and transparency and that Emanuel will embrace the challenge of aggressively reforming a department that was known for racism, brutality and impunity long before he took office.

Even as Emanuel, the son of a civil rights activist, closed schools in black neighborhoods and slashed city jobs held largely by black people, he has seemed to relish portraying himself as a champion of the black community. His dramatic, teary-eyed Dec. 9 speech to the City Council, in which he vowed to take on police brutality and racial profiling, could be the start of a new mission for Emanuel, who famously said, “You never want to let a serious crisis go to waste.”

But the most likely outcome is that Emanuel will continue making speeches, gestures and limited reforms on police accountability until the public outrage over McDonald’s killing dies down and then revert to business as usual.

That business will include opening a front in his ongoing battle with the Chicago Teachers Union, whose members recently voted overwhelmingly to support a strike early next year. His war with the teachers — including a 2012 strike that the teachers were widely seen as winning — has a major racial component, since a large percentage of public school teachers and students are black. The teachers will surely invoke the McDonald shooting to bolster their argument that Emanuel is a 1 percent mayor who slashes school spending and neglects poor neighborhoods while selling off the schools and other pieces of the city to his friends in high finance.

Then there’s the other scandal that was seemingly kept under wraps until just a week after the April election — corruption by Emanuel’s handpicked schools CEO, Barbara Byrd Bennett. A federal investigation was announced April 15, and then Byrd Bennett resigned and pleaded guilty to charges that she took up to $2.3 million in kickbacks for steering more than $23 million in no-bid contracts to a principal training academy co-owned by a reported adviser to the Emanuel administration.

There are plenty of reasons Emanuel should be bending over backward to make amends with the public, start paying meaningful attention to the city’s black neighborhoods and usher in a new era of government transparency. But this is politics, and he is a consummate politician, so it’s probably safe to assume that he will do only what his constituents and other politicians force him to do.

Chicagoans have a long and curious history of tolerating and even rewarding corruption, neglect and cover-ups from their leaders, especially where police abuse is concerned.

Emanuel’s predecessor as mayor, Richard M. Daley, sailed to re-election multiple times even as it became clear that under his watch, Chicago police perpetrated and oversaw the systematic torture of black men, leading to multiple wrongful and questionable convictions, including some that took place while Daley was a state’s attorney.

So will Chicago residents and City Council members force Emanuel to become more responsive and transparent, not only on policing but also on education, labor, finance and services? Or will they revert to the status quo of a demoralized public and a rubber-stamp City Council? Will Chicago’s 99 percent let another crisis go to waste?

- Kari Lydersen is a leader of the Social Justice News Nexus reporting fellowship at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern.