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Bill Helm got his O’Hare job when Mayor Rahm Emanuel was in office and helped Emanuel’s political campaigns, sources say.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times file photo

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EDITORIAL: Chicago is better today because Rahm Emanuel was mayor

Yes, the man had his faults. But he took on the big jobs, got things done — and took the heat. On that score, we’re confident historians will agree.

It took three Chicago mayors to build the downtown Riverwalk.

It began when Mayor Richard J. Daley took the first serious steps to clean the Chicago River. Nobody was going to build a walkway next to an open sewer.

Chicago’s second Mayor Daley, Richard M., began the construction. He didn’t get far, but he had the vision. He understood that this wasn’t about Chicago putting on a party dress, but about creating a vibrant city that could compete on the world stage.

Then came Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who ran with the Walk. He found the necessary money and was born with the necessary impatience. Nothing was going to stop him from crossing this achievement off a “to-do” list that he keeps in the top right-hand drawer of his desk at City Hall.

The Riverwalk is a lovely addition to our city. It fulfills an old dream of Chicago as a city with two coasts — along Lake Michigan and along the river. It’s a good example, as well, of the notion that no mayor’s successes or failures can be fully judged in the moment or in isolation, but only over time and in a larger context.

The true success of the Riverwalk, and its place in Emanuel’s legacy, won’t be clear for at least 10 years. That’s when we’ll really know if it can pay for itself, and by then another mayor — perhaps Lori Lightfoot — may have extended the Walk all the way to Chinatown. If those two things happen, the credit redounds to Emanuel.

Like everybody else, we have our views on Emanuel’s performance during two terms in office, but we offer them with a sincere dose of humility, a quality we didn’t see much around town over the last eight years. An awful lot of people — the mayor, the Chicago Teachers Union, the Fraternal Order of Police, lefty critics of the cops, our state’s last governor, the charter school lobbyists, the occasional hedge fund billionaire and glib commentators who bemoaned “Mayor One Percent” — always seemed pretty sure they had it all figured out. And so they felt no need to listen or bend.

Improved city finances

Generally speaking, we believe Chicago is better off today because Emanuel was mayor. He took on big and unpopular jobs, got things done in the wake of the worst financial recession in the U.S. since the Great Depression — and took the heat. On that score, we’re confident historians will agree.

Emanuel inherited a financial disaster from the previous mayor, the aforementioned Richard M. Daley, and the city’s finances are still a mess today — but not quite the same disaster. He found dedicated revenue sources for all four city employee pension funds, instead of selling off city assets or resorting to other one-time cheap fixes. That meant higher taxes and fees, which turned many Chicagoans against him, but his solutions were honest. Most of the alternative sources of revenue offered by critics, such as a commuter tax or a LaSalle Street tax, were hogwash.

Emanuel did much, as well, to rebuild Chicago’s economy, with an emphasis on the big boys and girls downtown. Chicago has 163,000 more jobs today than when Emanuel took office in May 2011. The unemployment rate is about 4 percent, down from 10.7 percent eight years ago.

How much credit should Emanuel really get for that? Not as much as he’d like. The whole country in 2011 was pulling out of the Great Recession. Chicago’s rebound was part of the national story. Yet it says a lot for the city’s renewed vitality, and for Emanuel, that 56 companies moved to central Chicago from the suburbs during his time in office.

The knock on Emanuel is that downtown has failed to share the wealth, with neighborhoods continuing to stagnate. We worry about the creation of two Chicagos — one for the rich and another for the poor, with not much of a middle class. Back in 1970, fully half of Chicago’s 797 census tracts were middle income, but only 16 percent are today.

Here again, though, a fully informed assessment of Emanuel’s efforts might just have to wait.

Let’s see how well the extended CTA Red Line, the mayor’s baby, better connects South Siders and jobs.

Let’s see how the remake of O’Hare Airport, another of the mayor’s babies, creates new jobs and revenue.

Let’s see whether the many neighborhood seeds the mayor planted — new parks, libraries, retail stores and city facilities — take root and lead to new development.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently discussed his eight years in office with Chicago Sun-Times City Hall Reporter Fran Spielman.

Making the grade on schools

When it comes to Chicago’s public schools, we have always believed Emanuel went off the rails in closing 50 schools all at once, ignoring the best advice of outside education experts. We think the closings — too many, too soon — left holes in the social fabric of many neighborhoods.

But, in fairness to the mayor, he inherited a financially strapped school system that required him to make brutally hard decisions — and battle former Gov. Bruce Rauner to overhaul a statewide public education funding formula that shorted Chicago’s kids. Emanuel won.

So, as we consider Emanuel’s overall impact on the schools now, we’re feeling an unabashed appreciation for how much he achieved, how hard he fought to get it and how much work still needs to be done. He took on the Chicago Teachers Union to get a longer school day and a longer school year. He expanded full-day kindergarten and pushed universal preschool for 4-year-olds.

Test scores, high school graduation rates and college-acceptance rates have all gone up, sometimes remarkably so. CPS’ graduation rates, once the lowest among big American cities, rose from 56.9 percent in 2010 to 78.2 percent in 2018.

That gain is huge.

Copping out with cops

Where, then, did the mayor fall far short? On police reform, of course, even if in a recent New York Times op-ed he claimed much of the credit for a new day in policing and lower crime rates.

Truth is, Emanuel had to be pushed to accept court-monitored reform of the Chicago Police Department, and those reforms are still kicking in. Violent crime rates are down, to be sure, but any seasoned cop will tell you that it’s dangerous to grab the credit too quickly. Crime stats have a way of bouncing around.

Once again, how Emanuel is remembered will depend a lot on what the next mayor does. And now it’s her turn to make no friends.

Lori Lightfoot must contend with a $1 billion increase in mandated pension payments by 2023, including an immediate spike of $277 million, and there will be no cavalry riding to the rescue. Money from a possible casino, sports gambling or a share of a new state progressive income tax might help fill the hole, but it won’t be enough or come soon enough. Lightfoot, like Emanuel, will be have to play tough with public employee unions and impose further unpopular tax-and-fee hikes if she’s serious about setting Chicago right.

But if Lightfoot picks up where Emanuel is leaving off — working to make Chicago a more global city, further improving CPS graduation rates, fixing the city’s finances — while moving harder on the stuff Emanuel was weaker on — like reviving old neighborhoods and actually listening to other people — they’ll both go down as winners.

All in all, Emanuel saw Chicago as we see it — as this evolving, tough, great American city — and got up at 5 a.m. every day to make it greater, after his morning swim.

He kind of exhausted us, really.

But that was good, right?

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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