It’s perhaps fitting that Rahm Emanuel chose Tuesday, the first day Chicago public schools were back in session, to announce that he won’t be seeking reelection as mayor. From the start of his tenure, Emanuel has assailed public education in the city through an agenda aimed at breaking the power of the teachers’ union and shutting down schools in poor communities of color.
This anti–public education crusade is also where Emanuel suffered one his biggest political defeats, when in 2012 Chicago teachers went on a historic strike and—with overwhelming public support—successfully beat back the mayor’s attacks on their pay, benefits, and ability to focus on classroom instruction rather than standardized tests. That strike, the largest the United States had seen in a quarter-century, left an indelible stain on Rahm Emanuel’s political legacy. Despite his best efforts at rebranding, Emanuel will be remembered as the mayor who advanced corporate interests and an agenda of austerity at the expense of Chicago’s working-class residents.
A longtime politico who served in both the Clinton and Obama White Houses, Emanuel swept into the mayor’s office in 2011 with ambitions to shake up city politics through implementing the type of neoliberal, business-friendly reforms he’d spent his entire political career trumpeting. While he’s continued to pursue such policies since, the massive teachers’ strike showed the rookie mayor the depth of opposition he would face in doing so. As Chicago Teachers Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey tells The Nation, “He came in like a wrecking ball, but we stood up to him.”
A major player in that opposition has been Karen Lewis, the fiery president of the CTU who stepped down from her role this June because of health issues. Lewis has served as Emanuel’s bête noire through much of his stint in Chicago, and in 2011 was the subject of one of the mayor’s more infamous eruptions: “Fuck you, Lewis!” The CTU president, though, had a much more tactful and scathing choice of words for Emanuel two years later when she pronounced him “the murder mayor.”
“Look at the murder rate in this city,” Lewis said at a press conference in 2013. “He’s murdering schools. He’s murdering jobs. He’s murdering housing. I don’t know what else to call him. He’s the murder mayor.”
These were no empty jabs. At the time, Emanuel had just announced a plan to close down 50 public schools in what would become the largest mass school closure in modern US history. This came after Emanuel closed half of the city’s mental-health clinics in one fell swoop. These closures hit poor Latino and African-American areas the hardest—the very communities most in need of investment.
Under Emanuel’s administration, the uniquely corrupt Chicago Housing Authority slowed construction of new public housing at an alarming rate, while the mayor massively increased property taxes and continued to oversee the widespread displacement of low-income families by wealthier residents across the city.
When it comes to jobs, Emanuel likes to repeat the claim that Chicago is experiencing “the highest employment since 1950.” However, that’s a blatant lie. What’s more, the jobs that are being created in the city are largely concentrated in the higher-income areas near downtown, while outlying neighborhoods remain starved of resources and opportunities. This deeply inequitable approach to governance has led Emanuel’s Chicago to be dubbed “a tale of two cities.”
Meanwhile, Emanuel has enacted an austerity regime upon city residents, privatizing assets and services from public-transit cards to school custodial services while raising taxes on everything from water and telephone service to garbage pickup. Yet, with Chicago facing some of the worst finances of any major US city, the mayor has offered whopping tax breaks to mega-corporations—including a $2 billion giveaway to Amazon to attract the company’s new headquarters. Partially as a result of these overtures to corporate scions, Emanuel was bestowed the nickname “Mayor 1 Percent.”
Amisha Patel, executive director of the Grassroots Collaborative, a Chicago-based coalition of social-justice organizations, says, “Rahm Emanuel was always Wall Street’s mayor. He pushed forward flawed economic policies that have resulted in skyrocketing violence and the massive displacement of black families.”
Indeed, under Emanuel, Chicago’s black population has undergone an exodus, largely attributed to the lack of employment and housing facing African-American residents, as well as another key component of the mayor’s legacy: skyrocketing violence.
The bloodshed in Chicago is incomparable with other major cities—in recent years the Windy City has seen gun-death totals that exceed the number of murders in Los Angeles and New York combined. Just last month, Chicago saw the worst weekend of violence in years, to which Emanuel responded by blaming not systemic inequities but the lack of “a value system and a moral compass.”
Along with linking culpability to a lack of morals, Emanuel’s response to the crisis has been to invest more resources into policing, rather than mental-health services, education, community programs, and other social services that could help prevent this violence in the first place. Yet the Chicago Police Department itself is a documented perpetrator of such violence—a shocking Justice Department report last year revealed rampant use of excessive force, abuse, and civil-rights violations throughout the CPD.
The most high-profile case of such police misconduct is the 2014 murder of Laquan McDonald by CPD officer Jason Van Dyke. The video of the killing, which shows Van Dyke shooting McDonald an excruciating 16 times, was withheld from the public ahead of Emanuel’s reelection in 2015, which many critics have deemed a cover up orchestrated by the mayor’s administration.
It’s no surprise, then, that Emanuel announced his decision not to run ahead of Van Dyke’s trial, which begins this week. Whether or not any damning new revelations come out against Emanuel, the fact that the first on-duty Chicago cop to face first-degree murder charges in 35 years is standing trial in a case so intimately connected to the mayor’s office suggests an uphill climb for reelection. And that’s even before considering the dire state of affairs facing the city following nearly eight years of Emanuel’s reign.
It’s possible we haven’t witnessed the end of Rahm Emanuel’s political career. But the centrist political project he’s helped build since his days pushing NAFTA, welfare reform, and the crime bill under Clinton and increased deportations under Obama is experiencing a wholesale rejection—not just in Chicago but across the country.
As Chicago Alderman Carlos Ramirez-Rosa tells The Nation, “Now is the time for Chicago’s progressives to seize this moment and imagine a city free of corporate Democratic control, a city that is implementing bold policies, demanded by social movements, that act as a counterweight to the right-wing agenda coming out of Washington.”
With his announcement, Emanuel’s legacy is now sealed, in large part because he was hounded every step of the way by dedicated protesters who never stopped fighting his retrograde agenda. It’s these activists—and the social movements they represent—who will help write the next chapter of Chicago’s legacy.