Facing deep distrust among black voters who believe their unsafe neighborhoods have been left behind, Mayor Rahm Emanuel responded by creating a $185,000-a-year job and filling it with a prominent African-American woman.
“I’m not here to be used . . . I choose to be here because I’m passionate about this work and I’ve been doing this work for a long time,” former Chicago Urban League President Andrea Zopp said at a news conference Thursday.
Fresh off her failed campaign for the U.S. Senate, Zopp will serve as the city’s deputy mayor and chief neighborhood development officer, a job that does not now exist.
Emanuel has blamed his dismal showing among African-American voters in a recent New York Times poll on what he called “40 years” of disinvestment on Chicago’s South and West sides. Zopp’s marching orders are to reverse that trend.
RELATED: Emanuel says history of disinvestment explains low approval rating among black voters
At the news conference, held at the CTA’s soon-to-be-replaced 95th Street station, the mayor denied that he created the job for Zopp to reduce his whopping 70 percent disapproval rate among African-Americans angered by his handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting video.
“When we took the big risk of closing down the Red Line South and . . . redeveloped something in four months that hadn’t been done in 40 years, it wasn’t about my credibility. It was about making sure people have a modern transportation system,” Emanuel said, after announcing upgrades to Green Line service and a handful of South Side bus lines.
“It’s not about my credibility. It’s about making sure that people in Englewood have a grocery store, which will be opening up this September . . . It’s about making sure that people in Bronzeville, who do not have a grocery store, will now have one. It’s about making sure that the basic amenities that you would call a thriving neighborhood exist in all parts of the city. And you’ve got to be honest. We know that doesn’t happen.”
Chicago already has a Department of Planning and Development with layers of deputy commissioners and assistant deputy commissioners who are supposed to focus on neighborhood development. Deputy Mayor Steve Koch also rides herd over development deals, economic policy and corporate relocations.
Why does the cash-strapped city need yet another layer of bureaucracy in Andrea Zopp?
“It is somebody that’s totally focused on the neighborhoods, acknowledging specifically that different neighborhoods have different opportunities but also challenges,” the mayor said.
“I’ve worked with her. But not just me. A lot of people have worked with her. Private sector businesses. If we’re gonna convince grocery stores like Mariano’s and Whole Foods as well as Pete’s to go into neighborhoods [where] they haven’t gone, I want somebody with the credibility to sit right across the table from the CEO who can speak from experience with the community.”
During her tenure as Urban League president, Zopp worked closely with the mayor to make certain that African-Americans benefited from the motherlode of jobs and contracts generated by the Red Line South project.
“That idea didn’t seem revolutionary at the time. But it hadn’t been happening. Now, we have a plan and a model and we’re going to take that across the city,” Zopp said.
Pressed on what she plans to do differently, Zopp pointed to the ongoing revitalization of the Cottage Grove commercial strip.
“I’m going to focus on making sure, as I did here [on the Red Line South], that those jobs are going to go, in part, to people in the community. That those contracts are gonna go, in part, to minorities . . . and going out and creating partnerships and doing more,” she said.
“That’s why you need another person . . . My job is to be focused 24/7 on what are we doing to drive improvement in our neighborhoods, particularly our most challenged neighborhoods.”
A former state and federal prosecutor, Zopp has been a troubleshooter for Chicago mayors for decades.
In 2003, she co-chaired the independent panel appointed by then-Mayor Richard M. Daley to investigate the E2 nightclub disaster. The panel recommended an increase in building inspectors after discovering only two inspectors and one chief were assigned to check on 6,000 entertainment venues across the city.
Prior to her failed Senate run, Zopp also served as an Emanuel appointee to the Chicago Board of Education during the record 50 school closings and the contract corruption scandal that culminated in the conviction of former schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett.
Thursday’s news conference ended abruptly when a reporter dared to ask whether the appointment as deputy mayor would give Zopp a platform to run for mayor in 2019 if Emanuel doesn’t.
“He ain’t going no place. He’s still the mayor,” an African-American woman at the station shouted, referring to Emanuel.
The mayor added, “She just answered you. End of press conference. Thank you.”
Moments later, Zopp was asked whether she was interested in running for mayor if Emanuel bows out.
“I’m not gonna answer that question. I’m here to be the deputy mayor . . . I just started as deputy mayor. I’m focused on doing that job,” she said.