How Chicago got its groove back

Exit interview: Rahm touts ‘restored sense of confidence’ at final City Club appearance as mayor

Mayor Rahm Emanuel conducts what amounts to an exit interview at a City Club of Chicago luncheon Thursday. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Mayor Rahm Emanuel conducts what amounts to an exit interview at a City Club of Chicago luncheon Thursday. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

CHICAGO — Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he was leaving the city in much better shape than it was in when he took office — financially and philosophically — in what amounted to an exit interview Thursday at the City Club of Chicago.

Saying the city was suffering through “a crisis of confidence” eight years ago when he succeeded Mayor Richard M. Daley, Emanuel added, “We got our game back. We’ve got a spring in our step.”

Emanuel said it was the people of Chicago who give him hope for the city’s future, adding, “We have a restored sense of confidence.”

With Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot slated for her inauguration May 20, a sometimes emotional Emanuel thanked his staff and above all his wife, Amy Rule, who was in attendance at the City Club of Chicago luncheon, for their hard work and support over his two-term, eight-year tenure. He spoke openly about the city’s persistent gun violence as bringing him to a low point during his administration.

He recalled, after the shooting death of Hadiya Pendleton, how he visited her parents, Nathaniel and Cleopatra. “Here you are, the mayor of Chicago, and you feel totally useless and inadequate,” Emanuel said, adding that they were the ones who bolstered him in their resilience, kindness, and courage.

“It also renews your faith in humanity,” Emanuel said. “They’re my heroes.”

Emanuel said the persistence of gun violence had been a frequent aggravation, with no easy solutions.

“Hope replacing despair is a big part of it,” he said, adding that when boarded-up buildings are replaced by thriving small businesses it changes the entire environment of a community.

He renewed calls for gun control, pointing out the city has set records the last two years for taking guns off the streets — and that Chicago Police are on pace for another record this year, confiscating a gun every 50 minutes.

But he also insisted, “There is a moral component,” saying, “I do not understand how you can be so low and so desperate to take somebody else’s life.”


“I do not understand how you can be so low and so desperate to take somebody else’s life.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Returning to a theme he often used during the worst of the city’s murder spree in the middle of his term, he said, “We have too many guns and not enough values on our street corners.”

Yet Emanuel also repeated that being mayor of Chicago was the best job he’s had in a life of public service, by a wide margin, and that cities are really the last places left where constituents expect politics to function for the betterment of society.

“D.C. is Disneyland on the Potomac, and you watch for entertainment,” he said. City governments, by contrast, have to function to make things run, and he added how they’ve filled a political vacuum on issues like immigration and climate change.

Emanuel rejected the idea that he might have concentrated too much on the city and not enough on the interests of the state in Springfield, saying, “I don’t think you have to be there to be felt.” He pointed to how the General Assembly passed attempts at pension reform, even if they were ultimately rejected in the courts, and how it succeeded in making reforms in education funding, which he called a victory for the city and the rest of the state.

With WBBM 780-AM radio reporter Craig Dellimore acting as questioner during the lunch session at Mariano’s Banquets, Emanuel bristled at the familiar charge that he’s “Mayor 1 Percent,” serving only the interests of rich and influential citizens. “Go ask Rocky Wirtz what he thinks of being in the 1 percent,” he said, making reference to a recent media feud he’s had with the Blackhawks’ owner.

“I get the politics of playing downtown against the neighborhoods,” he said, but called it “a rotten governing strategy.” He insisted that “the success of our downtown” served as “seed capital for the success of our neighborhoods.”

Emanuel said he was perhaps most proud of the gains made in education, pointing to seven straight years of record graduation rates at Chicago Public Schools, and how he made city colleges an issue to “create talent as a draw” for the many corporations and other businesses that have relocated to Chicago in recent years.

Emanuel called attacks on Chicago corruption “a cheap trope,” pointing out that political ethics are much improved compared with 30 or 40 years ago. “We’ve made big progress. We have more progress to go.”

Making thinly veiled reference to Alderman Edward Burke, recently hit with federal corruption charges after 50 years in the City Council, Emanuel said, “It’s not just about the laws. … You also have to have the character to know what’s right and what’s wrong.”

Emanuel said he’d basically be a person “in recovery” from politics after he leaves office. He said he plans to take a series of vacations, including biking around Lake Michigan and attending his oldest child’s college graduation. But he’s also finishing a book, with plans to appear on television as a commentator and remain engaged in the city’s politics.

“We’re staying in the city of Chicago,” he said. “My eight years being mayor is over, but my love for the city is not over.”