When Chicago Alderwoman Rossana Rodriguez Sanchez heard that former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel was being considered for another position in another Democratic administration, she penned an open letter urging President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President–elect Kamala Harris to put Emanuel on the “DO NOT HIRE list.”
The letter evolved into a petition that had by Tuesday afternoon attracted almost 4,000 signatures, and Rodriguez Sanchez says the messages she’s heard from constituents in the city where Emanuel served two scandal-plagued terms as mayor are unequivocal in their opposition. “It’s amazing,” she told The Nation. “People are saying ‘Never! Never! Never! We don’t want this man in the cabinet.’”
The prospect that Emanuel might be tapped to serve as secretary of transportation or secretary of Housing and Urban Development has drawn plenty of national criticism from progressives who recall his tenures as the union-bashing neoliberal senior adviser to President Bill Clinton during the fight over the North American Free Trade Agreement, and as the Obama administration chief of staff who famously spewed obscenities at progressives who wanted to push harder for robust health care reforms. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said after the November 3 election, “Someone like Rahm Emanuel would be a pretty divisive pick. And it would signal, I think, a hostile approach to the grass-roots and the progressive wing of the party.” Dream Defenders cofounder Phillip Agnew, who served as a senior adviser to the 2020 presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, said during a recent Haymarket Books forum, “As hard as we went against Betsy DeVos, we should go against Rahm Emanuel.”
The strongest response to the floating of Emanuel’s name has come from elected officials in Chicago who have not forgotten how the former mayor governed.
“We here in Chicago know firsthand the damage that Rahm Emanuel did to our city, services, institutions and people, as mayor,” says Illinois state Representative Delia Ramirez. “It is absurd and insulting that Emanuel is being considered for a cabinet position in the Biden administration.”
Chicago Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa has argued that Emanuel is uniquely unsuited for the cabinet positions he reportedly might fill, tweeting, “As Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel promoted policies that displaced record numbers of working poor Chicagoans. The thought of Emanuel as Biden’s Secretary of Housing is insulting to the mostly Black and Brown Chicagoans harmed by Emanuel’s racist housing policies” and “As Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel’s big transportation idea was to give Elon Musk public resources to put a car in an over-priced and unnecessary tunnel from downtown to O’Hare Airport. The thought of Emanuel as Biden’s Secretary of Transportation is asinine.”
Ramirez-Rosa has, with progressives across the country, been promoting the #EmbraceTheBase message that Biden should lead “an administration of competent progressive governance, not old school political patronage.”
Alderwoman Rodriguez Sanchez pulled many of the concerns together in her letter and the petition she developed with fellow activists.
That petition begins by explaining: “As residents of Chicago—and as community organizers, local elected officials, union members and others who are all-too-familiar with his work—we are writing to un-recommend Rahm in the strongest terms possible. If you want to root out systemic racism, defend democracy, and build a society that leaves no one behind—all worthy goals mentioned in your victory speech—we can think of few people worse for the job than the man who earned the nickname ‘Mayor 1%.’”
Then it gets specific about “Rahm’s resume in some key policy areas”:
- Covered up the police murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in 2014. Laquan McDonald’s killing—police shot him 16 times, including while he lay on the ground—was a catalyst of the Black Lives Matter movement and doomed Rahm’s political future in the city.
- Closed 50 elementary schools—the single largest school closure in U.S. history—over an outcry from parents, students and community members. Most of the schools served African-American children on the south and west sides of the city.
- Shuttered half of Chicago’s public mental health clinics, leaving patients in need of care literally sitting on the sidewalk outside of the locked doors and pleading for help.
- Lavished wealthy neighborhoods and pet projects with public dollars through Tax Increment Financing (TIF). Rahm’s greatest TIF hits—this is an economic development tool that’s supposed to fight “blight,” mind you—include $55 million to buy DePaul University a new basketball stadium, millions funneled to Navy Pier through an elaborate shell game, and another $1.3 billion in subsidies for luxury mega-developments on his way out the door.
- Repeatedly broke the city’s promises to rebuild public housing, while blocking an ordinance improving transparency in the mis-managed Chicago Housing Authority. The deficit in affordable housing, combined with staggering and deeply regressive property-tax hikes, were factors in the exodus of tens of thousands of Black residents out of Chicago during his term.
- Hyped a failed plan to build an express train from downtown Chicago to O’Hare airport that would bypass the transit used by actual Chicagoans. The boondoggle, hatched by Rahm campaign donor Elon Musk, was widely panned; one alderman called it a scheme “mostly for tourists and Musk’s reputation.”
- Oversaw a police department that cost taxpayers more than $540 million for abuse and misconduct settlements during his time in office.
- Rejected public referenda calling for an elected school board, instead hand-picking school CEOs such as Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who was sent to federal prison after pleading guilty on a multi-million-dollar kickback scheme involving Chicago Public Schools money.
- Went on a privatization spree, to disastrous effect. Selling off everything from school janitorial services to trash collection, privatization left Chicago with indignities such as dirty classrooms and one of the nation’s most abysmal recycling rates.
The petition concludes in the blunt language of Chicago politics: “Given his track record, awarding Rahm Emanuel a cabinet position in the new administration would be a disaster for many of the communities that helped defeat Donald Trump. Not least, it’s a Sears-Tower-sized insult to our city of Chicago, where we are continuing to deal with the effects of his legacy on a daily basis. Take the word of the city that knows him best: We don’t want him here, but we don’t want him anywhere near the White House either.”