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Emanuel takes political beating in stride after town hall meeting

Mayor Rahm Emanuel was a political punching bag at the first of three town hall meetings to solicit cost-cutting and revenue-raising ideas from everyday Chicagoans.

But the mayor doesn’t see it that way.

“I really did not consider that, quote-unquote ‘a beating.’ I consider it the healthy democratic process — with a lot of emphasis on the word, ‘healthy,’ ” Emanuel said.

“I appreciate all the people that came. If you agree or disagree, the fact is, they have a passion for their neighborhood, a passion for their community, a passion for whatever topic they wanted to talk about. And that makes Chicago better.”

Although the town hall meeting and subsequent media coverage was focused on hunger strikers who want the mayor to re-open Dyett High School in Bronzeville with a focus on green technology, Emanuel said there were “four or five” ideas related to budget and quality-of-life.

“One on TIF. One on street lights. One on tobacco. One on after-school or summer jobs kind of activities for kids. And one on investing in parks,” the mayor said.

“And I told the staff. I said, `While those were not the focus, I don’t want them lost in the noise. I want [Park District Superintendent] Mike Kelly to check in and see if we can extend the swim hours. On street lights, one of the things you know we’re going to do through the Infrastructure Trust [is] put an RFP out about redoing all our street lights in the city, both to save energy costs and maybe be available for small cells. . . . One of the ideas is making our light poles — not only energy efficient, but smart poles. That was an idea.”

Mayor Rahm Emanuel talks to the crowd at Monday’s town hall meeting on the city’s budget at Malcolm X College. | Kevin Tanaka/For Sun-Times Media
Mayor Rahm Emanuel talks to the crowd at Monday’s town hall meeting on the city’s budget at Malcolm X College. | Kevin Tanaka/For Sun-Times Media

One of the town hall participants suggested extending the city’s cigarette tax to e-cigarettes and smokeless tobacco. That’s an idea championed by Ald. Proco Joe Moreno (1st).

Uber drivers urged the mayor not to slap a $1 surcharge on ride-hailing, as Finance Chairman Edward Burke (14th) has suggested. But, a woman who drives a cab made the opposite argument after seeing much of her business siphoned away by ride-hailing services.

“There were people that talked about TIF. We have been clear as it relates to the Central Business District. I’m gonna shut down those TIFs over the next 10 years. But also, we have a surplus policy that never existed before,” the mayor said.

“So I don’t want any of those individual ideas lost. There were people that came to talk about the budget. People proposed ideas. I’m gonna make sure that happens. And to those that talked about Dyett, I understand why they wanted to talk about it. I understand their motivation.”

Protesters in the 15th day of a hunger strike to demand the reopening of Dyett were a dominant force during the first town hall meeting at Malcolm X College.

They drowned out the moderator with chants of “Dyett! Dyett!” Community activist Frances Banks glared at Emanuel, called him a “liar” and warned, “If those strikers die, the blood is on you and [Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest] Claypool!”

After the meeting, Emanuel and Schools CEO Forrest Claypool held their first face-to-face with the Dyett protesters, but made no commitments.

Last week, Emanuel hinted strongly that Dyett High School may never reopen. He argued that it may not make sense with so much unfilled capacity at surrounding high schools.

On Tuesday, the mayor was asked whether he feels any particular pressure to come to a decision on Dyett with the hunger strike dragging on and the lives of protesters potentially in jeopardy.

“It’s not important to do something fast. It’s important to do something right. We are talking about the education of our children and getting it right. They don’t get a do-over. So, we’ve got to make this decision the right way,” the mayor said.

“That’s why, while I understand they’ve decided to take that action, so to say, the key is to feel the pressure to be right about the kids’ education — not right about answering as it relates to their hunger strike.”

Two more town hall meetings are scheduled: at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, at the South Shore Cultural Center, 7059 South Shore Drive; and at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, at Wright College, 4300 N. Narragansett.

Once again, they’re expected to turn into all-purpose gripe sessions, just like the first one.

After his first budget season as mayor, Emanuel had replaced the public hearings with focus groups stacked with sycophants. But this time, he will just have to sit there and take his punishment.

Ald. Ameya Pawar (47th) has said there is “no downside” politically for Emanuel — even if he gets an earful from angry Chicagoans at all three meetings. That’s the medicine a politician has to take when he or she is about to lower the boom on taxpayers.

“Getting yelled at and hearing peoples’ issues is part of the job. It allows people to see their elected official — not in some ivory tower somewhere, but as a human being,” said Pawar, who holds three or four town hall meetings of his own every year.

“People in Chicago know what’s coming. It’s incumbent on all elected officials to go out there, look people in the eye and say, `This is what we’re planning to do to resolve the financial crisis.’ They’re not going to be happy about it. But, they need to see that we’re in it with them. Everybody can vent. But, we’re all in this together.”

Tom Tresser, of the TIF Illumination Project, was at Monday’s meeting to ask Mayor Rahm Emanuel where all the money collected through tax-increment financing has gone. | Kevin Tanaka/For Sun-Times Media
Tom Tresser, of the TIF Illumination Project, was at Monday’s meeting to ask Mayor Rahm Emanuel where all the money collected through tax-increment financing has gone. | Kevin Tanaka/For Sun-Times Media