The Definitive Guide for Cable Hosts, Bookers, and Editors to the Fraud and Failure That Was Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel

Rahm Emanuel wants to become a pundit. His track record of being wrong on everything makes him perfectly qualified for cable news.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel presides over a city council meeting in Chicago, lll., on Jan. 25, 2017. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel leaves office Monday after two terms, and America might begin seeing a lot more of him after that. He’s already been shopping around for a cable news gig, meeting with executives at CNN and MSNBC, and is represented by his brother Ari’s talent agency. He’s been making the rounds of cable shows, dispensing advice about how Democrats need to focus on winning over Donald Trump’s base. He’s been taking up regular space in The Atlantic, Washington’s resting spot for chin-stroking thoughtfulness.

He’s even advised party leaders to drive what I call a triangulation — using the term for the discredited strategy under which the Clinton administration (and a younger Rahm Emanuel) pursued punitive welfare reform and mandatory minimum sentences in order to win over Republican voters. He also famously advised grassroots party activists to take a chill pill following Trump’s election, while Emanuel unsuccessfully tried to find common ground with the new administration on infrastructure spending and on limiting police oversight in Chicago.

Emanuel appears to be “developing a new side gig: warning Democrats about the dangers of 21st Century progressivism,” criticizing newly-elected U.S. Reps. Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and “hoping there’s a demand for one last defender of the neoliberalism that defined his career — a voice to warn his party against the perils of socialism,” according to Chicago Magazine. This, despite the fact that six socialists were elected to the City Council in Chicago’s recent election.

Emanuel has a set of talking points to claim a variety of accomplishments for his mayoralty, and he’s even writing a book on “why mayors rule the world” — though one local pundit says the book “sounds more like a revisionist memoir about an egomaniac’s eight years in office building his personal brand and the fancy part of town while letting down struggling Chicagoans.”

Long known for his skill at attracting favorable media coverage, Emanuel seems to be doing quite well on that count. East and West Coast TV hosts from Fareed Zakaria to Bill Maher fawn over his tough-guy image and supposed strategic brilliance, but they never offer any reality checks.

So let’s do one. A national audience deserves to know what those of us in Chicago have already figured out: Emanuel’s mayoral administration is littered with failures and false claims, and the recent elections in Chicago represents a complete repudiation of the Emanuel years. The new mayor, Lori Lightfoot, was one of Emanuel’s foremost critics on police reform. Alderman Patrick O’Connor, Emanuel’s City Council floor leader, a 40-year incumbent, was one of several top mayoral allies who were defeated — in O’Connor’s case, by a young Latino Democratic socialist. Meanwhile, Emanuel’s finance committee chair is now facing federal corruption charges, and his zoning committee chair disappeared in December when word leaked that he wore a wire for the feds after coming under investigation himself.

And on a significant range of issues, Chicagoans are turning away from Emanuel’s initiatives.


Protesters with the Mental Health Movement stage a sit-in outside Mayor Emanuel’s office on Nov. 15, 2011.

Photo: M. Spencer Green/AP

Mental Health Crisis

The biggest controversy of Emanuel’s first year in office was his closing of half the city’s public mental health clinics, most of them on the South Side. While patients were supposed to be referred to the remaining six clinics, hundreds fell through the cracks. For months, protestors from the Mental Health Movement disrupted Emanuel’s public appearances; they sat outside the mayor’s office and occupied one of the clinics slated for closing. They probably succeeded in preventing Emanuel from closing the rest of the clinics in subsequent years.

But the first round of closings went through, and a study published a few years later by the Collaborative for Community Wellness found that Chicago’s Southwest Side had 0.17 licensed mental health clinicians per 1,000 residents, compared to 4.45 per 1,000 in the wealthy Near North Side.

As shootings skyrocketed in Chicago neighborhoods, the need for mental health services to reduce and prevent violence as well as assist survivors of trauma became a frequent refrain. Seven years after the closings, a few months after Emanuel announced he wouldn’t seek reelection, the City Council voted unanimously to establish a Public Mental Health Clinic Service Expansion Task Force to identify gaps in the city’s mental health services and “explore re-opening of mental health clinics.”

Environmental Crisis

In an austerity push during his first year in office, Emanuel eliminated the city’s Department of Environment. In typical Emanuel-style messaging — which is often just a little too clever — he said the point was to make environmental sustainability the goal of every department.

But the result has been a de-emphasis on environmental issues. Chicago’s recycling rate has remained abysmally low. In February, an analysis by the Better Government Association and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University revealed that the city now has half the number of environmental inspectors that it had eight years ago, and the number of annual inspections, not surprisingly, also fell by more than half. 


After citywide testing in Chicago found high levels of lead in the tap water in 2018, many residents installed water filter systems in their homes.

Photo: Erin Hooley/Chicago Tribune/TNS via Getty Images
“Hazardous material inspections fell by more than 90 percent between 2010 and 2018; air quality inspections plunged almost 70 percent; and solid waste inspections dropped by more than 60 percent,” BGA and Medill reported. The Emanuel administration issued less than one-third the number of environmental citations than the city did in the preceding seven years.

Then came a devastating environmental scandal. Emanuel had begun a series of increases to homeowners’ water and sewer fees — they’ve essentially doubled in subsequent years, with thousands of homeowners facing water shutoffs — to finance replacement of the city’s aging water mains. In 2013, the EPA warned that the work could increase lead levels in tap water by disturbing service lines to homes. (Due to the plumbers union’s clout with the Democratic machine, Chicago required that service lines connecting homes to the city’s water pipes be made of lead until the mid-1980s, decades after other cities had banned the toxic metal.)

For five years, the Emanuel administration insisted that lead levels in annual tests were safe. But in 2018, the Chicago Tribune revealed that lead levels were above federal health standards in 30 percent of homes where homeowners had requested tests after work was done.

Emanuel rejected demands that the city assist homeowners financially in replacing service lines, as other cities have done. And when aldermen sought hearings on whether the city was violating federal law by allowing unsafe levels of lead in its water, Emanuel’s floor leader O’Connor blocked them. Lightfoot and key aldermen now support reestablishing a separate environment department.

Education Crisis

It was on education that Emanuel tried — and failed — to make his bones as a tough, competent city manager and as a New Democrat willing to stand up to labor. It’s also an area where, judging from a recent article by Emanuel in The Atlantic, he now hopes to frame some kind of legacy as an “education mayor.”

On some major points in that article, he appears to be counting on the ignorance of non-Chicago readers. He discusses recognizing the importance of principal leadership as some kind of revelation. That’s rich, knowing that Chicago Public Schools’ biggest scandal during his administration ­— the one that sent CPS’s chief to federal prison — involved a principal training program that principals denounced as low-quality, pre-packaged, and generally irrelevant. CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, nicknamed “B3” by Emanuel, was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison after pleading guilty to steering the $20 million no-bid contract through in exchange for millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks. (Byrd-Bennett’s successor, a longtime friend of Emanuel’s, would go on to resign after getting caught lying to ethics investigators.) Meanwhile, the head of the principals association says budgeting changes at CPS have handcuffed principals.

Similarly, Emanuel boasts of increased graduation rates without referring to local reporting showing that one factor in their rise was the introduction of alternative schools run by for-profit contractors, which operate as diploma mills for the most difficult students. They are often storefronts in strip malls, where students spend a few hours a day at “computer learning stations” compiling credits to meet graduation requirements that are lower than those in district-run schools. Also missing from his account is an investigation that showed graduation rates were artificially inflated by listing thousands of dropouts as “transfers.”


Members of the Kelly High School marching band drum line lead a protest on July 11, 2013, against funding and staff cuts to their neighborhood schools in Chicago.

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

All the statistics Emanuel cites as signs of success cover up the hundreds of millions of dollars of budget cuts neighborhood schools have suffered under his watch. His article claims he’s learned the importance of wraparound services but ignores the drastic reduction in the number of counselors, social workers, and librarians he’s carried out. Between 2012 and 2016, the number of school librarians in CPS declined by two-thirds.

The best index of Emanuel’s failures — and of the failure of his mayorally appointed school board to provide meaningful oversight — is the fact that Chicago is now on the verge of rejecting mayoral control of schools and moving to an elected school board.

Emanuel campaigned in 2011 promising to expand charter schools, attacking the teachers union as the enemy of reform. Before he was even sworn in, he worked with a multimillionaire school reformer named Bruce Rauner to pass state legislation that raised the threshold for a Chicago teachers union strike vote. (In his brief career in investment banking, Emanuel had aided Rauner in a deal which earned his company a half-billion dollars, and the two were friends who vacationed together; but after Rauner was elected governor as a Republican in 2014, his budget brinksmanship, tying a settlement to his demands for anti-union legislation, added significantly to the fiscal woes of Chicago and its school system.) After he was elected, Emanuel’s school board used an obscure contract provision to cancel the teachers’ annual raise, claiming it was unaffordable — while diverting $58 million from CPS to the city budget to pay for past “security services.”

Emanuel’s outspoken hostility to teachers, reflecting corporate school reformers’ position that “teacher accountability” based on test scores was the key to school improvement, certainly helped union leadership win 90 percent approval in a strike vote. In the second year of his administration, Chicago schools experienced their first teachers strike in 25 years.

Emanuel has always claimed the issue was a longer school day, but in fact that question had been largely settled in a side agreement with the teachers union the summer before the strike, when CPS agreed to hire hundreds of art, music, and gym teachers so that additional time would include richer programming that had been cut at many Chicago schools. Emanuel also claims he won changes in teacher evaluation in the settlement. But the big issue was the proportion of teacher evaluations that would be based on test scores, and the contract set that proportion at the minimum established by a new state law. In fact, despite his best efforts to paint a prettier picture, the strike was a huge defeat for Emanuel.

The saga of Emanuel and his charter schools is even more sorry. In 2011, the two leading charter chains in Chicago were UNO, founded by a Latino community organization which had been brought into Mayor Richard J. Daley’s political fold, and the Noble Network. UNO’s chief executive, Juan Rangel, was the co-chair of Emanuel’s campaign committee and appeared frequently with the candidate. Five years later, Rangel paid a $10,000 fine to the Securities and Exchange Commission to settle charges that he’d defrauded investors by failing to disclose contracting irregularities. UNO had been accused of covering up the fact that it had awarded millions of dollars of building contracts to companies headed by two brothers of the group’s chief operating officer.

Emanuel’s romance with Noble didn’t turn out much better. In his first campaign, he inaccurately claimed Noble high schools were among the district’s top performers. And in his first year, he contributed his enthusiastic praise for the charter network to a video by an associate of Andrew Breitbart, hosted by Juan Williams of Fox News; it posited Noble as the exemplification of school choice and demonized the teachers union. Noble was later criticized for fundraising by means of fines charged to low-income families for minor student misconduct. After its founder was dumped in the wake of allegations of inappropriate conduct, a new chief executive dropped its trademark zero-tolerance dress code, which barred piercings, hair coloring and tattoos; she actually dyed her hair purple to symbolize the shift.

But there was a much bigger blow to Emanuel and the rest of the charter movement, which viewed the non-union schools as a means of undermining teachers unions. Charter teachers began organizing, and teachers at UNO – renamed Acero after the Rangel scandal – pulled off the first charter school teachers strike in U.S. history, winning significant salary improvements. Chicago is now the most heavily unionized charter school district in the country, and teachers at the 18 Noble schools, organizing as a chapter of the Chicago Teachers Union, are pressing management there to agree not to interfere in their organizing drive.


Members of the Chicago Teachers Union hold placards outside Chicago Public School headquarters on Sept. 13, 2012, the fourth day of their strike.

Photo: John Gress/Corbis via Getty Images

After the 2012 strike, Emanuel’s biggest school policy fiasco was the mass closing of 50 schools in 2013, mostly in black neighborhoods. This cost him the support of many black voters and forced him into a runoff in the election two years later. Emanuel’s argument at the time, that the closings were necessary due to budget constraints and “underutilization,” have been parroted by local media, but activists and academics have pointed out that he opened more than 40 new charter schools in the same period. The most recent Chicago Teachers Union contract included a cap on new charters.

In 2015, parents and community activists staged a 34-day hunger strike that forced Emanuel to backtrack on one of the school closings, the phaseout of Dyett High School in Bronzeville on the South Side. (A leader of the hunger strike, Jeanette Taylor, was elected to the City Council in April.) Complaints of racism surrounding the school closings were validated in court last year, when a Cook County judge blocked the first school closing Emanuel had proposed since 2013, upholding a lawsuit by black parents charging it was racially discriminatory.

In a case of unfortunate timing for the mayor, at the time of the school closings, he proposed a $55 million subsidy for a basketball arena for DePaul University under the controversial Tax Increment Financing, or TIF, program — a program long criticized for diverting tax money from schools and other purposes into a mayoral slush fund to be awarded to favored developers. “The mayor says he has to close the schools because the city’s too broke to keep them open,” columnist Ben Joravasky observed in the Chicago Reader. “Of course, as broke as we are, there’s still $55 million lying around to buy up some land and hand it over to private entities that don’t need it.”

Housing Crisis

Emanuel came into office promising to reform TIF — which collects one-third of Chicago property taxes each year, totaling a half-billion dollars or so — but he’s doubling down on it,” said Ald. Scott Waguespack, a leading mayoral critic. In Emanuel’s final City Council meeting in March, he pushed through $2 billion in TIF subsidies for two huge luxury developments, despite the fact that both candidates running to succeed him called for a delay in approval. One of those projects has been challenged in court by community and civil rights groups, arguing it’s a perversion of the TIF program (supposedly aimed at “blighted” communities) and a perpetuation of racially discriminatory development policies.

Emanuel has had signal success in attracting corporate headquarters, and his signature development projects — miles of bike lanes and a tourist-oriented riverfront project — have advanced Chicago’s standing as a “global city.” The neighborhoods haven’t fared as well, a fact demonstrated by the city’s ongoing loss of population; large numbers of African Americans in particular are moving to suburbs or other regions to escape poor schools and violent streets. Last year, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chris Kennedy accused Emanuel of carrying out a strategic gentrification plan ethnically cleansing the city of black people. It’s a quite plausible charge: the largest demographic growth under Emanuel by far was among young people earning more than $100,000 a year. Meanwhile, economic development programs haven’t reached outlying communities: From 2010 to 2017, covering most of Emanuel’s two terms — a period of economic recovery — the unemployment rate for black Chicagoans fell just 0.4 percent, down to 17.2 percent. That’s more than double the national rate.

Initiative after initiative launched by Emanuel has failed to live up to his hype. When he passed an ordinance in March 2015 expanding affordable housing requirements for developers who get city assistance, he said it would create 1,200 affordable housing units and generate $90 million for two housing funds over the next five years. Two years later, the Chicago Tribune reported that the program had generated only 194 units and $9.2 million in funding. When a progressive alderman championed an affordable housing development in a traditionally segregated Northwest Side neighborhood and came under attacks featuring racially charged rhetoric, Emanuel refused to back the project and said residents opposing it “need to be heard.”

The mayor and his council allies blocked an ordinance that would have required transparency from the Chicago Housing Authority, which built huge cash reserves under Emanuel by slowing public housing renovation to a near halt and holding back housing vouchers. They also blocked an ordinance that would have limited the ability of individual aldermen to block affordable housing in their wards; historically, it’s been a tool for maintaining segregation. Emanuel made sure it remained in place.

Infrastructure Crisis

Another dud is Emanuel’s Chicago Infrastructure Trust: a “breakout strategy” unveiled amid huge fanfare in 2012, with claims that the mayor had lined up $1 billion in private financing for building and transportation projects that would create 30,000 jobs within three years. Two years later, its first project got underway, an energy retrofit of municipal buildings; but instead of a public-private partnership, it was financed with a traditional bank loan. Originally described as a $200 million project that would create 2,000 construction jobs, its scope was scaled back due to lack of investor interest. It ended up involving only $13 million in projects and creating just 108 jobs, according to the trust.

In 2017, the Sun Times reported that the trust has yet to raise a dime of private financing for a single public works project,” and an unnamed city official was quoted saying, “There’s no excuse for the mayor to avoid closing down this thing that’s been a complete failure.” Instead, Emanuel has shifted the mission of the trust, an independent nonprofit whose board is appointed by the mayor, to procurement and contract management, tasks previously handled by city departments and the Public Building Commission. Its final act under his leadership was to select Elon Musk’s Boring Company to construct an express train to O’Hare Airport using “visionary” (and unproven) technology, a project that is now dead in the water.


Left/Top: People react outside of City Hall on Oct. 5, 2018, after a jury convicted former police Officer Jason Van Dyke of second-degree murder in the 2014 shooting of Laquan McDonald. Right/Bottom: Jason Van Dyke and his attorney Daniel Herbert during Van Dyke's sentencing hearing in Chicago on Jan. 18, 2019. Photos: Matt Marton/AP; Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune via AP

Policing Crisis

While education controversies defined Emanuel’s first term, his second has been consumed with police scandals following the release of video that showed the official narrative about the police shooting of Laquan McDonald in 2014 was a lie. Policing is one of the few failures of Emanuel’s tenure that has gotten national attention. Suffice it to say, it was even worse than it seemed. Indeed, it was the day before McDonald’s killer, Officer Jason Van Dyke, went on trial that Emanuel announced he would not seek a third term. (A jury found Van Dyke guilty of second-degree murder.)

Most recently, Emanuel has taken to the pages of the New York Times, which allowed him to rewrite history with a remarkably broad brush. The Chicago Tribune termed his op-ed a revisionist history; national police reform expert Sam Walker, of the University of Nebraska, told me it’s “a self-serving fairy tale.”

Virtually every point Emanuel makes is deceptive. He points to reductions in violent crime rates as proof of his success, but these followed huge spikes in crime rates, which are now returning to previous levels. He claims he’s achieved buy-in for reform by police officers without mentioning a lawsuit by the Fraternal Order of Police seeking to overturn the city’s new consent decree. He said he “allowed sergeants to exert more direct leadership.” In fact, the consent decree orders the city to require police supervisors to review use-of-force incidents and report misconduct, serious shortcomings highlighted by a 2017 Justice Department investigation; it also requires reducing the “span of control” to 10 officers for each sergeant, after the Justice Department found it ran as high as 1-to-35 in Chicago.

Emanuel even falsely reframes his notorious comment in 2015 that cops were being allowed to get “fetal.” He said, “I was clear that police officers would ‘go fetal’ if they weren’t included in the reform.” In fact, the original Washington Post report makes perfectly clear it was increased public scrutiny and accountability that Emanuel was referring to.

The biggest lie is the implication that Emanuel in any way provided leadership on police reform. An old-school, tough-on-crime politician – who played a key role in Clinton administration policies that ramped up mass incarceration – Emanuel resisted reform at every step of the way, including fighting against the release of the Laquan McDonald video. Even before that, his law department sought to overturn a court ruling that found the existence of a code of silence in the police department, and he backed up his superintendent when he promoted a lieutenant who had a long history of excessive force complaints.

Following the storm of protest unleashed by the video release, Emanuel opposed a federal investigation of the police department, opposed efforts to revamp the civilian police oversight authority and give it budgetary independence, failed to carry out a promise to establish a community oversight board, and resisted judicial oversight through a consent decree, seeking instead to cut a deal with then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions. As the Chicago Tribune points out, that consent decree came about only because the state attorney general, “determined to block Emanuel’s end run, forced his hand with a lawsuit,” at which point “Emanuel finally got on board.”

Indeed, the candidate elected to succeed Emanuel was one of his sharpest critics throughout the process. Lori Lightfoot was Emanuel’s police board president and headed a mayoral task force which went far beyond Emanuel’s intentions in highlighting systemic racism and lack of accountability in the police department; over the following two years, Lightfoot repeatedly called out Emanuel for slow-walking reform. Certainly prospects for police reform in Chicago improve dramatically by Emanuel’s replacement.

If Rahm Emanuel starts showing up on your screens more frequently in coming months, the advice of many Chicagoans would be: “Don’t believe the hype.”


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