It turns out all of us who bought into the Rahm Emanuel myth were wrong on two counts — that he is a masterful politician and that he is a hard-nosed manager who gets things done.
The question at this point, as Harold Washington would have put it, is: Who will bell the cat?
Emanuel’s administration has been marked by large claims for accomplishments that turn out to be overstated — on deploying police, reducing food deserts, filling potholes, and saving money on garbage pickups. Crime statistics have also been reduced through manipulation. His No. 1 bragging point, lengthening the school day, was undercut by thousands of layoffs of school personnel. Now neighborhood schools with reduced budgets have to deal with unfunded mandates for art and physical education.
He claims to have reformed TIF but continues to finance high-end developments and has failed to order an audit of the program, as his own task force recommended. His infrastructure trust was rushed through — with too much urgency to consider taxpayer protections — because $7 billion in projects were supposed to be lined up and ready to go. Two years later, after scrambling for investors and reducing the project size by half, the trust finally approved its first deal, a $13-million energy retrofit that could easily have been financed with bonds.
His vaunted pension fix is caught in a net of crossed wires, trimmed by Governor Quinn, attacked by Emanuel’s friend Bruce Rauner, and disliked by aldermen warily eyeing a new poll showing just one percent of voters supporting the huge property tax increases required for the deal. Prospects for addressing the larger police and fire pension fund shortfalls seem remote.
Timing of major announcements has demonstrated a remarkable tin ear: a mega-TIF-deal for a DePaul arena on the heels of 50 school closings imposed with a constant refrain about CPS’s budget deficit; a $60 million TIF commitment to build a second selective enrollment high school near Payton College prep following deep budget cuts at neighborhood schools.
In his imperiousness, impulsiveness, and abrasiveness — and in his ability to alienate African Americans — he increasingly resembles one-term Mayor Jane Byrne.
Even his longstanding ability to court the media is failing him. Maybe it was the Chicagoland fiasco, but now we are hearing about everything from speeding and running red lights to jet-setting on the taxpayer’s dime.
His growing unpopularity — he gets support from 29 percent of likely voters in the Sun Times’ new poll, against 41 percent for three of his top critics — shows that in a more open political system, he would be in serious trouble. At this point, his one great talent (as I argued three years ago), fundraising, has made him the clear favorite for reelection. But he is certainly vulnerable.
Who will bell the cat? Of three possible credible candidates in the Sun Times poll, Karen Lewis is not running. She’s never expressed interest in running; calls for her to run come from her members and supporters as a tribute to her leadership; in its lust for personality conflict, the media misses this entirely.
Ald. Bob Fioretti, redistricted out of his own ward, would be an underdog but could conceivably mount a strong challenge with union support and a sharp critique of Emanuel’s neoliberal policies. But County Board President Toni Preckwinkle is the strongest contender.
Proof comes from the comical efforts of the Emanuel camp to spread the word that she is not running. But she has refused to rule out a race.
In recent months Preckwinkle has leveled criticisms at Emanuel on the most basic issues facing the city. She’s said that dealing with violence by “just arrest[ing] everybody” is not a long-term solution — we need “interventions that are more comprehensive than just police interventions.” She’s characterized his economic development policy, focused on attracting corporate offices, as “shifting pieces on the board.”
She criticized school closings in the black community as “troubling” and “very problematic” and noted that community input on the decision was entirely ignored. She’s called for more resources for public schools and cited an educator friend who “wondered whether there was a deliberate effort to weaken the public schools in order to make the case stronger for charter schools and contract schools.”
In a recent interview, it was on the subject of school closings that Preckwinkle, a former schoolteacher herself, “got downright emotional,” Greg Hinz reported.
If anything can convince Preckwinkle to run for mayor, it will be the threat to public education that many perceive a second Emanuel term represents.
In his first term, Emanuel precipitated a school strike, closed 50 schools, and cut budgets for neighborhood schools while shifting resources to charters. But he is only about a third of his way through his plan to add 60 charter schools, which destabilize neighborhood schools by drawing away students, while performing no better — or hiking scores by expelling and counseling out challenging students. And during a second term, his five-year moratorium on school closings will expire.
As a result of mayoral control of CPS, Chicago has never had an honest debate about the direction our school system should take. In fact, we haven’t had much of a debate about anything. We deserve one. Toni Preckwinkle could make it happen.