Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) gave up a well-funded but uphill chase for a third term on Tuesday, stunning the city’s political establishment by announcing he’ll retire rather than face the political storms he generated over the past eight years.
Emanuel, a veteran Democratic insider with a four-decade track record as an elected official and senior operative for the Clinton and Obama administrations, made dramatic cuts to city services early in his first term. He shuttered half the city’s mental health clinics and 50 public schools as part of the austerity regime he imposed at the depths of the Great Recession.
Despite that record, Emanuel touted his accomplishments for Chicago students in Tuesday’s shock announcement speech.
“The changes we have made together to our school system — universal full-day pre-K, universal full-day kindergarten, a longer school day and year — will add up to nearly four more years of class time for Chicago students,” the mayor said. “And in the end of the day, what matters most in public life is four more years for our children not four more years for me.”
The service cuts harmed Rahm’s popularity, especially with teachers unions and low-income residents hit hardest by the civic retreat. The fights he picked early on bruised him, but it was actions taken late in that first four years that buried any hopes of reconciliation with the city’s black community.
When Laquan McDonald was killed by Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke in the fall of 2014, Emanuel’s office had access to dashcam video showing the teenager had been walking away from Van Dyke when he emptied a clip into the kid. His re-election campaign was hitting the closing months when McDonald’s killing salted long-standing wounds in the relationship between Chicago and its police. But Emanuel did nothing to quell the false cover story proffered by Van Dyke, his fellow officers, and his chain of command.
It would be more than a year before a judge forced the city to release the footage, the first in a series of dominoes that are still falling. Van Dyke’s murder trial begins this week. Numerous fellow officers and former officers stand accused of federal conspiracy charges in the cover-up. Emanuel was forced to fire Gerry McCarthy, the man he’d hired to create an appearance of progress on law and order and one of several challengers who entered the mayoral race to deny him a third term. Anita Alvarez, the longstanding county prosecutor with jurisdiction in the case, was fired by voters in 2016.
But Emanuel had already won a second term by the time the truth about McDonald’s murder came out. His regressive response to the news, coupled with stubbornly high rates of gun crime around the city despite McCarthy’s renowned talent for juking the stats to serve a turnaround narrative, helped cement the sense among Chicago’s black voters that Emanuel was deaf to their policy demands.
His attempt to cut a deal with the new Trump administration to avoid court-enforced reform agreements for the police department were consistent with the dogged pragmatism for which Emanuel is famous inside Democratic party politics, but also signaled the mayor was more interested in being able to say the word “reform” than in doing the politically inconvenient heavy lifting required to change the scandal-plagued department.
With his second term secure, Emanuel did take action in response to the policing outcry. He revamped the city’s civilian oversight board, a move criticized by policing experts and local activists as milquetoast at best, and proposed hiring 1,000 new cops. To serve that glut of new recruits, he pushed a $95 million spending plan for a new police academy through the city’s Board of Aldermen.
The police academy plan crystallized Rahm’s approach to the city. The same budgets that hadn’t had room for struggling schools and vital mental health infrastructure suddenly could swell to accommodate a heavier police presence. Worse, Emanuel chose to site the new facility in a heavily black west-side neighborhood with high poverty rates. When local activists began canvassing West Garfield Park residents for opinions on the proposal, more than three-quarters of those asked said they hadn’t heard anything about the plan. Some 88 percent said they opposed it, and most said if the city wanted to invest that kind of coin in West Garfield Park it should go to the exact kind of public services Rahm had shrunk in his first wave of policy changes.
Although it’s already received nearly unanimous support from Alderpersons, the police academy project still requires occasional perfunctory votes from the board to move ahead. Those votes and associated hearings became a flashpoint for youth activists hoping to derail the deal, creating a renewable media resource for Emanuel’s many critics. City leaders eventually tried to restrict public comment at the meetings, forcing activists to shout their dissent until police escorted them out of hearings — a visual that only underscored the mayor’s slackening legitimacy among those he governs.
Despite all those headwinds, recent months suggested Emanuel was keen to fight for another term. His campaign would have had a dramatic fundraising advantage over any of the more than half-dozen serious challengers currently gathering signatures to get on the spring ballot. He sought to publicly align himself with street protests that shut down major roadways in the city this summer as part of a call for police reform and revamped anti-violence work, seeming to believe he could reclaim the mantle of racial justice crusader for the campaign season.
His sudden reversal will convulse the mayoral race, though exactly who benefits most is hard to say. The large, diverse field of challengers — ranging from two different former Chicago Public Schools officials, to fired police superintendent McCarthy, to local youth activist Ja’Mal Green, to one of the women Emanuel hired to run his revamped police oversight board, with several stops in between — has now lost a shared traction point. Each candidate had built their voter pitches around the need to stop Emanuel’s reign and shift the course of his policies, albeit to varying degrees and from starkly different angles.
The race was always going to be chaotic with this many candidates. But there had been one clear maxim to this cycle in Chicago: Run against Rahm. With that single rule out the window, the campaigns are free to court voters in a more positive frame. But they have also lost the contest’s north star, leaving each to navigate by their own wits and instincts about precisely what sort of change Chicagoans want.