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.