Mayor Rahm Emanuel: Will he be remembered as a visionary leader who rescued the city from the brink of financial collapse to lift the fortunes of all residents, regardless of zip code? Or a divisive one who helped perpetuate the gap between Chicago’s haves and have-nots?
To his supporters, Emanuel was the brash, bright, big-city mayor who unapologetically raised Chicago’s profile as a global city.
He relentlessly lured corporate headquarters back to the central core. He helped expand the city’s burgeoning tech sector with investments in incubators like 1871. Downtown and adjacent neighborhoods are developing and thriving. The Chicago Riverwalk now rivals the lakefront as a place of culture and recreation.
In the struggling periphery neighborhoods, Emanuel touted developments like the forthcoming Obama Presidential Center, and new parks and recreation centers.
He made the politically perilous decision to tackle the city’s bottomless pit of pension liabilities and general debt. He raised property taxes and other fees by nearly $600 million, in addition to a slew of other fee and tax hikes, after being shot down by the state’s Supreme Court in efforts to curb benefits.
He got Springfield to pony up more money for Chicago Public Schools teacher pensions. And he expanded the school day and instituted full-day kindergarten. To that end, he reimagined the crumbling City Colleges of Chicago system as a network of trade schools, focusing on making them job pipelines for the city’s core industries. He provided scholarships to those schools for CPS kids who performed well. The graduation and performance rate improved.
Though crime spiked on his watch, Emanuel invested more in after-school and mentor programs for youth. He oversaw a gargantuan effort to reform Chicago policing, after decades of scandals and corruption, instituting a new police accountability agency and shepherding a federal consent decree. He made big investments in Chicago’s public transit, with gleaming new CTA stations and an avoidance of doomsday fare hikes and service cuts.
And Emanuel had the command of the city’s rough-and-tumble politics that both father and son Daley had, famously never losing a vote in City Council and building mutually beneficial alliances with African American and Latino aldermen that helped push all of their agendas forward.
To his critics, Emanuel was the heavy-handed, top-down leader who didn’t listen to diverse voices in the community. His police reform efforts came only after activists pushed for the release of dashcam video showing the murder of Laquan McDonald at the hands of Officer Jason Van Dyke, and many in the community accused Emanuel of attempting to cover up that video. The homicide rate spiked to 769 in 2016, before steadily falling in subsequent years.
Community members on the South and West sides saw rapid growth of the city’s central core and North Side neighborhoods and complained about the hollowing out of some of their areas.
In the eyes of the Chicago Teachers Union, Emanuel was a foil and antagonist – unilaterally canceling a 4% teacher pay raise early in his tenure, leading to a teachers strike. The union helped push the “Mayor 1%” narrative, accusing him of owing his loyalties to the city’s business elite. His decision to close 50 schools and six community mental health centers struck some community members as tone deaf and as causing more problems then it solved.
He instituted ticket-generating speed cameras and expanded the unpopular red light camera system.
He could not avoid a runoff election in 2015, when then-Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia challenged him. Over his tenure, he brought in outsiders to lead the big city agencies that had a mixed track record – from New York native Garry McCarthy’s term as Chicago police superintendent, to Jean-Claude Brizard and then Barbara Byrd-Bennett at Chicago Public Schools, the latter of whom was convicted in a federal bribery scandal. Those agencies were later stabilized under the leadership of Chicago natives Eddie Johnson and Janice Jackson.
In the end, it may take years or even decades to fully sort out Emanuel’s legacy.
Follow Paris Schutz on Twitter: @paschutz