Rahm the builder

Try as he might, Chicago's suddenly lame-duck Mayor Emanuel couldn't build economic bridges to the neighborhoods

Mayor Rahm Emanuel attends the 2014 groundbreaking for the skyscraper at 150 N. Riverside Plaza. (DNAinfo Chicago/Ted Cox)

Mayor Rahm Emanuel attends the 2014 groundbreaking for the skyscraper at 150 N. Riverside Plaza. (DNAinfo Chicago/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

Sorry, but I can't join in the applause of those cheering the imminent departure of Rahm Emanuel as Chicago's "Mayor 1 Percent," nor will I wring my hands along with those who think Chicago is now doomed without him.

Chicago will be just fine. To be honest, a little turbulence has always served the city well — certainly better than the civic complacency of most of the years under the Mayors Daley. And Emanuel will be fine too.

Yes, it's curious why this renowned political fighter suddenly chose now to throw up his hands and say, "No mas," but that's in keeping with a man — and a politician — who always seems to have kept his real motives to himself and those closest around him.

I covered Emanuel for four years as DNAinfo Chicago's City Hall reporter, but my take on him has always been a little different from the conventional.

I truly believe Emanuel jumped at the chance to leave the Obama administration in late 2010 and run for Chicago mayor the following year — after Mayor Richard M. Daley expressed a similar, "No mas" — not because he craved the power, but because he sees himself as a public servant. A mayor, no matter whether in Chicago or in Savanna or in Carbondale, has a rare opportunity to actually effect change and alter policy in a political arena where dysfunction and paralysis are luxuries that simply cannot be tolerated.

A state can go without a budget for a couple of years, and that will gradually be felt statewide, but a city has to work; it has to function. The garbage needs to be collected, streets paved and cleared, fires put out, and, yes, crimes and shootings have to be prevented.

Not that vanity didn't play a part; after all, it's in the genes of every politician. I've always believed that Emanuel saw himself as Chicago's "Little Flower," Fiorello La Guardia, who served as mayor of New York City for over a decade at a critical juncture from the Great Depression through World War II.

Emanuel, I believe, thought he could come in, clean house, and build Chicago up from a pretty amazing city into a global titan, just as La Guardia did in New York. And if you look at how he ran the city, I think his achievements bear those ambitions out.

The Riverwalk, the construction boom — especially downtown on and around Wolf Point — and whatever becomes of the North Branch Industrial Corridor even after Emanuel leaves office, all bear his stamp. He sought to improve the city by building it into a colossus, and in many ways he succeeded over his two terms.

But his means were in some ways remarkably old-fashioned. He knew no other way to do that than by kowtowing to business interests. Having originally come to power in the Clinton White House, he was shocked — like Hillary Clinton — to find himself suddenly labeled not a "progressive" but a "neoliberal," beholden to big business, and I think he was as shocked as anyone to see U.S. voters (at least in the Electoral College) reject Hillary Clinton in favor of Donald Trump two years ago.

One of the great benefits La Guardia had, even as a Republican, was a close relationship with President Franklin Roosevelt, and that gave him the federal funding to build the great public-works projects he did. He was also blessed (and some would say cursed) to have a Robert Moses guiding those projects.

Emanuel benefitted from abundant public funding from the Obama administration, but in the recovery from the Great Recession that was nothing like what La Guardia received from Washington, D.C. Instead, Emanuel had to rely on and encourage business interests to do the city's building for him (especially after Hillary Clinton failed to follow Obama into the White House). As such, he gave them a relatively free hand. 

That left him open to charges of being "Mayor 1 Percent," the candidate for the city's elites, and his inability to really quash that public impression has to have led at least in part to Tuesday's announcement that he wouldn't seek a third term.

Emanuel ran in 2011 as a reformer, as someone who would tame the excesses of the Tax Increment Finance district program, but once elected TIFs grew under his administration, he retained Alderman Ed Burke as head of the City Council's Finance Committee, and he maintained the council's Rules Committee as the place "where good legislation goes to die."

I saw Mayor Emanuel pretty much every workday for four years, and I believed him when he said how important it was for kids on the South and West Side to look at the skyscrapers downtown and think that somewhere there was a place for them in what is still the economic engine that drives the state.

Yet, with finite resources, hamstrung by the fiscal mess Richie Daley left the city in when he abdicated, Emanuel was never able to invest in the neighborhoods the way he was investing time, energy, and, yes, money into the downtown business district.

While he can deservedly claim that he set Chicago Public Schools on a path toward improvement, he burned bridges with the Chicago Teachers Union during the 2012 strike, and even his strongest backers would have a hard time arguing that closing 50 schools the following year had only a beneficial effect on African-American students and neighborhoods.

Of course, while he was building a legacy on the city's skyline, he was also being saddled with the legacy of Chicago as a murder capital. And again, I believed Emanuel when he said that the saddest, most heart-rending part of his job was calling parents of shooting victims — no matter how many times he said that.

The causes of crime and gun violence are complex, however. Public policies meant to address them are inexact. But if Emanuel and his Police Supt. Garry McCarthy could lay claim to bringing murders to their lowest level in 50 years in 2013 and 2014, they have to also accept some blame for the spike in 2016 that persists at an only slightly lower level today.

And, perhaps hand in hand with the progress shown in those first years of his administration, they have to accept the consequences of tolerating the cop culture that led to the Laquan McDonald shooting at the end of 2014. As officer Jason Van Dyke was to finally go on trial for the shooting this week, that was yet another reason for Emanuel's sudden reluctance to seek re-election.

La Guardia could directly target Lucky Luciano and the New York mob and burlesque houses, but Emanuel was faced with a far more diverse target: a city rife with splintered gangs with little or no ability to police themselves and enforce any kind of code of honor. And he had to deal with a police department with a code of silence as entrenched as the "no snitches" culture on the streets.

Emanuel could put thousands of kids to work in summer to keep them off those streets, but that was a drop in the bucket given the city's population. He was never able to put together the sort of wide-ranging investment in the neighborhoods that might have stemmed some of the root causes of that street violence.

No doubt about it, Chicago is on firmer financial footing than it was when Richard M. Daley left office. In most ways, it's a far better city. Emanuel was an able administrator, even if he was also a hardball politician. Even on Tuesday, Emanuel spoke of how he had always been determined to make the necessary hard choices that had to be made, and to his credit he pushed through tax increases that city residents have been able to endure to the betterment of their town — even as thousands continue to abandon Chicago, many of them leaving African-American neighborhoods.

Emanuel had a vision of a great, more glorious Chicago and his role in bringing it about, and he largely carried that out downtown, but he did not have the same sort of progressive vision for how to address more complicated problems in the neighborhoods. I think on Tuesday he all but admitted it was too much for him. Perhaps that's the legacy the next mayor will build on.

Ted Cox