Rahm Emanuel has been campaigning hard for another bite at the White House, attempting to secure a spot in the Biden administration as secretary of transportation or possibly as US trade representative. As someone who intimately knows Rahm’s legacy, I cannot imagine a worse pick.
Chicago Alderwoman Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez said it best when she wrote, “We don’t want him [in Chicago], but we don’t want him anywhere near the White House, either.”
Rahm came into office with his crosshairs set on our union, successfully pushing for state legislation to limit the right of Chicago teachers to strike. He used his handpicked Chicago Board of Education to cancel teachers’ annual raise, claiming it was unaffordable. He followed that up by closing 50 majority-Black public schools on the South and West sides of the city. And while imposing austerity on traditional neighborhood schools, he expanded publicly funded, privately run charter schools, and diverted $58 million from Chicago Public Schools to the city budget to cover past “security services.”
On criminal justice, Rahm opposed a federal investigation of the Chicago Police Department, fought efforts to revamp the civilian police oversight authority, failed to establish a promised community oversight board, and resisted judicial oversight of the CPD—while closing half of the city’s mental health clinics. But Rahm’s most significant legacy is his handling of the 2014 Laquan McDonald police murder case, which he covered up until after he won reelection in 2015.
At the same time, “Mayor 1%,” as he’s often been called, poured money into wealthy neighborhoods through Tax Increment Financing (TIF) projects, a mechanism intended to “fight blight.” He spent $1.3 billion to subsidize luxury apartments for private developers (while failing to provide affordable housing), 55 million to buy DePaul University a new basketball stadium and millions more on downtown development at the expense of South and West side neighborhoods.
Emanuel’s capstone transit project in Chicago is illustrative of the kind of secretary of transportation he would be—and the kind of mayor he was. He trotted out his billion-dollar plan to construct a 17-mile tunnel to O’Hare Airport for an “electric sled” service in a co-venture with Elon Musk in 2018—a ludicrous project that titillated tourists and disgusted everyone else in a city where inaccessible transit limits opportunity for more than half of its residents.
Rahm got a lot of credit for his transit accomplishments, but always with caveats that those accomplishments benefited the well-to-do and failed to make change for the majority of Chicagoans. He’s been great at padding his résumé in his campaign to be secretary of transportation, taking credit for the work driven forward by his first Chicago Department of Transportation commissioner, Gabe Klein (who is already on Biden’s transportation transition committee). He led the Chicago Department of Transportation’s egregious racial profiling of Chicagoans of color, including the CPD’s admitted use of ticketing bikes in Black neighborhoods at an exponentially higher rate as an excuse for conducting searches.
When it comes down to brass tacks, we can’t talk about transportation without thinking about a secretary’s relationship with unions and private corporations. Rahm was the man who infamously said “Fuck the UAW” as President Barack Obama’s chief of staff during the auto bailout. An unapologetic union buster, Rahm took aim at other public employee unions throughout his tenure as mayor, soliciting help from the state legislature to slash and privatize city services and jobs.
Biden’s appointing Rahm as secretary of transportation would be a slap in the face not only to Chicago (as outlined in a petition to keep Rahm out of the White House) but to all the union members who turned out in unprecedented numbers in this year’s election to send him to the White House. The same applies to the millions who flooded the streets to demand police accountability and protect Black lives. President-elect Biden’s call for a reckoning with systemic racism would be seen as mere lip service to Black and brown voters who saved our democracy—and our Republic.
In his victory speech, President-elect Biden vowed to fight for the dignity and opportunity of working Americans and “battle to achieve racial justice and root out systemic racism in this country.” Putting Emanuel, a man whose career is “marked not just by his advocacy of bad ideas, but by his efforts to talk other Democrats out of ideas that turned out to be good ones,” in his cabinet would not only undermine our faith in the new administration but lead us to question Biden’s own faith in that vision.