When Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel left the White House in 2011 to run for municipal office – at the time, he had been serving as then-President Back Obama’s chief of staff – he says people kept asking him “at L stops, grocery stores, places of worship: Why would you even want this job?”
There was a belief, Emanuel said, that “the tough choices had been delayed and deferred and denied for so long that the cost of each of the challenges across the waterfront had mounted. And that each had created their own wake on the city. The result was a cascading effect that the cost of solving each challenge became greater and greater and they (were) beginning to sap the strength of the city.”
Eight years later, Emanuel says, “We got our game back. We got the spring in our step. We don’t doubt ourselves anymore.”
And the city, he says, is better prepared to meet the future than it was then.
Among his cited accomplishments: scholarships to City Colleges for any Chicago Public Schools graduate with a GPA of at least 3.0; higher CPS graduation rates; a longer CPS school day and school year; more money from the state for CPS; and tackling the city’s finances.
“Are we better prepared as a city to meet the future than we were eight years ago? Are we in a stronger position as a city to make the most of the decades ahead than we were eight years ago? The answer is yes,” he said. “We stopped differing, we stopped denying the tough choices.”
Emanuel, who is on an unofficial farewell tour, received a positive reception Thursday from the City Club of Chicago audience.
But 63 percent of likely voters surveyed in a March poll conducted in collaboration with WTTW said they would not vote for him again had he been on the April runoff ballot.
Asked about his combative style, Emanuel made no apologies.
“I am at fault for being inpatient. I take it. I’m happy about that. Because sometimes a political system with a lot of fixed interest needs a little impatience in it,” he said.
Emanuel was not asked directly about the Laquan McDonald shooting video that mars his tenure.
He rejected the oft-mentioned notion that he has ignored Chicago’s neighborhoods for the sake of development downtown, citing grants through the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund and other efforts that have helped to build up areas like Washington Park on the city’s South Side.
“I get the politics of downtown vs. the neighborhoods,” he said, but “it’s a rotten governing strategy. Name one world-class city, in the world, with a decaying central business district. Name me one. They don’t exist.”
Nor was there explicit mention of his successor, Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot, who will be sworn into office May 20.
But Emanuel called it a “trope” to call Chicago the most corrupt city. He says Chicago has made progress on the reform front – stronger procurement rules, City Hall hiring is no longer judicial oversight, and every city agency has an inspector general – though there’s “a lot still to do.”
Upon leaving office, Emanuel plans to take a vacation hiking in Italy. He’s already written a first draft of his forthcoming book. And he plans to do something in the financial sector – likely a lucrative move.
Whatever else he does, he was emphatic about a particular point: he will continue living in Chicago.
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