Rahm’s 2017: Embarrassments, accomplishments — and a few lucky breaks

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel | Sun-Times file photo

It started with a long-anticipated gut punch from the U.S. Justice Department, and ended with three rounds of unexpected friendly fire — two from his own Law Department, the other from one of his closest friends.

That’s the kind of year 2017 has been for Mayor Rahm Emanuel — not a great recipe for an embattled incumbent trying to persuade an angry electorate to give him a third chance.

Even so, Emanuel accomplished plenty and got a few lucky breaks in between. That includes a pair of retirements that narrowed the field of potential 2019 mayoral challengers.

ANALYSIS

The mayor also benefited from some welcome diversions that took the spotlight off Chicago’s intransigent problems.

They ranged from the quest to attract Amazon’s second North American headquarters and a renewed push to build an express train to O’Hare Airport, to a running legal and political battle against President Donald Trump, who has used Chicago as his favorite punching bag.

The no-risk battle against a Republican president in this overwhelmingly Democratic city is tailor-made to rebuild Emanuel’s national image and bolster his popularity among Chicago Hispanics most threatened by Trump’s immigration policies, and by the president’s threat to cut off funding to sanctuary cities.

The Justice Department’s scathing indictment of the Chicago Police Department, triggered by the police shooting of Laquan McDonald, was appropriately delivered on Friday the 13th of January.

U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon looks on as Attorney General Loretta Lynch announces the release of a report that found reasonable cause that the Chicago Police Department engaged in a pattern of using excessive force during a press conference at the Dirksen

U.S. Attorney Zachary Fardon looks on as Attorney General Loretta Lynch announces the release of a report that found reasonable cause that the Chicago Police Department engaged in a pattern of using excessive force during a press conference at the Dirksen Federal Building in January 2017. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

It created a political nightmare that would haunt Emanuel all year long.

The DOJ portrayed Chicago Police officers as poorly trained and equipped, inadequately supervised and seldom disciplined, despite a pattern of excessive force and civil rights abuses against minorities.

On the day the findings were announced, Emanuel signed an “agreement in principle” to negotiate a consent decree — culminating in the appointment of a federal monitor — to implement the sweeping police reforms the DOJ recommended.

But when U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions signaled his disdain for court mandates that tie the hands of local police departments and ordered a nationwide review of those consent decrees, Emanuel worked in secret with the DOJ to draft a “memorandum of agreement” tailor-made to avoid federal court oversight.

Police reform advocates were united in their outrage, but the mayor stood his ground for months.

It was only after Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a lawsuit against the city in August that Emanuel finally agreed to negotiate with Madigan to finalize a consent decree — with rigid timetables and financial commitments.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a lawsuit in August seeking federal court oversight of the Chicago Police Department. She was joined at the announcement by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a lawsuit in August seeking federal court oversight of the Chicago Police Department. She was joined at the announcement by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Days earlier, the city had sought to dismiss a similar lawsuit on grounds that Emanuel’s “extensive, ongoing reform efforts,” including a groundbreaking training initiative, made the legal claims moot.

Two weeks later, Madigan announced she would not seek re-election, but assured Emanuel she would not run for mayor in 2019. Ten weeks after that, U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez called it quits and attempted to anoint County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia as his successor.

That removed from the mayoral field the candidate who managed to force Emanuel into Chicago’s first-ever mayoral run-off four years ago — even after getting a late start and being out-spent by a 4-to-1 margin.

In late January, the veteran police officer plucked out of obscurity to lead CPD into a new era suffered a health scare that could have put his tenure and even his life in jeopardy.

Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson nearly fainted during a joint news conference with Emanuel and blamed it on taking blood pressure medication on an empty stomach. Hours later, Johnson publicly acknowledged what the Chicago Sun-Times had already reported: he has a chronic kidney condition that required a kidney transplant.

Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson and his 25-year-old son Daniel Johnson, who is donating a kidney to his father, arrive with family members at Rush University Medical Center for his kidney transplant. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson and his 25-year-old son Daniel Johnson, who is donating a kidney to his father, arrive with family members at Rush University Medical Center for his kidney transplant. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

The announcement triggered an emotional outpouring of support for the popular superintendent with the engaging smile, including offers from total strangers to donate their kidneys. Ultimately, Johnson had successful transplant surgery with a kidney donated by his 25-year-old son.

The superintendent was back to work seven weeks later, attempting to combat an unrelenting Chicago crime wave that includes a still high homicide rate that topped 649 with a week to go in 2017.

Johnson and his demanding boss prefer to accentuate a 15-percent drop in homicides and a 21-percent reduction in shootings from the 2016 Chicago bloodbath.

Even bigger progress was reported in Chicago’s two most violent police districts — Englewood and Harrison — driven by an influx of newly-hired officers and the use of ShotSpotter and other “data-driven enforcement.”

Emanuel’s successes were not confined to the fight against crime.

A hard-fought school funding compromise provided a $450 million windfall for a Chicago Public School system close to the financial brink. Emanuel had signed off on the equivalent of a $389 million payday loan — secured by late block grants owed by the state — just to keep the schools from closing early in June.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, center, Chicago Public Schools Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson and CPS CEO Forrest Claypool were all smiles after a state budget deal benefiting CPS was reached. | Rich Hein / Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel, center, Chicago Public Schools Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson and CPS CEO Forrest Claypool were all smiles after a state budget deal benefiting CPS was reached. | Rich Hein / Sun-Times

Emanuel balanced his 2018 budget with comparatively painless tax increases on telephone bills, ride-hailing, and large-venue amusements because of difficult votes already taken while County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and her now-repealed sweetened beverage tax were taking all the heat.

And the Regional Transportation Authority played the political heavy, setting the stage for a long-overdue CTA fare hike the mayor blamed on state funding cuts.

The City Council approved Emanuel’s plan to re-light Chicago streets, overhaul Midway Airport concessions and unleash billions of dollars in North Side development by opening 760 acres of protected industrial property to residential and commercial development.

And the mayor took a significant step toward unloading the old Michael Reese Hospital purchased by the city for an Olympic Village that was never built — by choosing a master development team that made an initial proposal of $144.45 million in compensation for the 77-acre-site.

Michael Reese would subsequently emerge as one of 10 sites included in the Chicago area’s $2.25 billion bid for Amazon’s second North American headquarters. Two sites in the North Branch corridor also made the cut.

The pursuit of Amazon’s $5 billion investment and 50,000 six-figure jobs would prove to be a year-long diversion that will drag on into the new year.

Sources said Chicago has been informally notified that it’s likely to make the initial cut; if so, it would be among roughly a dozen cities slated for site visits by the Amazon team early next year.

But the mayor’s year was marred by embarrassments of the city’s own making — like the April 9 passenger dragging fiasco aboard United Airlines Flight 3411.

Three Chicago Department of Aviation security officers remove Dr. David Dao from United Airlines Flight 3411 on April 9, 2017.

Three Chicago Department of Aviation police officers remove Dr. David Dao from United Airlines Flight 3411 on April 9. | Supplied photo

Provided photo

Chicago’s image as a destination for international tourists was tarnished immeasurably when cellphone video went viral showing unarmed aviation police officers dragging a flailing and bloodied Dr. David Dao down the aisle when the doctor refused to give up his seat for a United crew member who needed to get to Louisville.

A housecleaning triggered by racist, sexist and homophobic emails swept out Water Management Commissioner Barrett Murphy, managing deputy William Bresnahan, district superintendent Paul Hansen and two other top managers.

Murphy’s ouster was a stunner because he and his wife, Lynn Lockwood, are close friends of Emanuel and his wife, Amy Rule.

Lockwood is an Emanuel appointee to the Library Board. She once chaired a political fundraising committee for the mayor, helped organize the 2012 NATO Summit and had a one-year, $160,000 consulting contract with the tourism agency known as Choose Chicago.

Four current and two former Water Management employees — all African-Americans — have filed a federal lawsuit accusing the department at the center of the Hired Truck and city hiring scandals of creating “a hostile and abusive work environment” based on race that includes violence, intimidation and retaliation.

That includes less-desirable shifts and work assignments, and being denied promotions, transfers, overtime and training opportunities. Black women were routinely referred to as “bitches and whores,” the suit contends. Those who dared complain were also punished with “unfair, arbitrary and capricious” discipline, plaintiffs claim.

Yet another embarrassment occurred at the newly created Civilian Office for Police Accountability.

COPA chief Sharon Fairley left the mayor high and dry when she resigned to run for attorney general just days after getting the office up and running.

Emanuel’s Law Department abruptly settled a major police misconduct case for $20 million — in the middle of closing arguments — after it was discovered the city had, for the eighth time under the mayor’s watch, failed to produce a critical disciplinary report involving the accused officer.

Even worse was what the mayor called the Law Department’s “callous” year-end decision to sue the estate of a bat-wielding teenager shot to death by a police officer in December, 2015, along with an innocent bystander.

Emanuel insisted he knew nothing about the legal motion and reversed it before calling the father of Quintonio LeGrier to apologize.

Still, what the mayor characterized as a “mistake” threatens to undermine Emanuel’s efforts to restore public trust in the Chicago Police Department shattered by the police shooting of Laquan McDonald.

The Law Department’s mistakes — compounded by a $38.75 million settlement to motorists denied due process after being slapped with red-light and speed camera tickets — were the political equivalent of friendly fire.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel discusses the resignation of Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool during a press conference Dec. 8. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel discusses the resignation of Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool during a press conference Dec. 8. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

But, the most glaring example of flak from within came from now-former Chicago Public Schools CEO Forrest Claypool, the mayor’s friend of nearly 40 years.

Claypool resigned after being exposed by CPS Inspector General Nicholas Schuler as the architect of a “full-blown cover-up.”

The resignation came after a two-day period that saw the mayor defend his old friend and give every indication he would allow Claypool to ride out the storm caused by his decision to “repeatedly lie” during two rounds of questioning from Schuler during an ethics investigation triggered by a series of stories written by the Chicago Sun-Times.

When Claypool finally decided on his own that his credibility had been too damaged to carry on, the changing of the guard was announced at a bizarre Friday afternoon news conference that was more like a funeral.

As he passed the baton to his replacement, Chief Education Officer Janice Jackson, an emotional Claypool told reporters that “Good men can make stupid mistakes.”

Emanuel has been victimized by more than a few of those in 2017. He can only hope the pattern doesn’t continue into a new year that will likely feature the start of his uphill campaign for a third term.

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