Mayor Rahm Emanuel acknowledged Friday that he has alienated some Chicago voters with his polarizing personal style and would benefit politically from being “smoother around the edges.”
“Thank God the election is not today,” Emanuel said, when confronted again with results of a Chicago Sun-Times poll that showed only 29 percent of those surveyed and 8 percent of African-Americans would support him if the election were held today.
Friday’s “fireside discussion” hosted by the University of Chicago marked the anniversary of Emanuel’s third year in office.
The one-on-one interview with “Chicago Tonight” host Phil Ponce, who lives a few doors down from the mayor in Ravenswood, gave Emanuel a chance to address his image as a relentless politician who believes the end justifies the means.
He’s in trouble nine months before the mayoral election — not so much because of what he has done, but the bull-in-a-china shop way he has gone about it.
Asked point-blank whether he has alienated Chicago voters with his “personal style,” Emanuel replied, “The short answer is, `Yes.’ Sure….Your strengths, my strengths — while they’re different strengths — is also our weaknesses.…That level of, yes, pursuit with a focus has both helped and hurt me.”
The mayor argued once again that he has “taken on battles against very powerful interests” and that may have cost him politically.
“Could I have been different and smoother on the edges? Yes. And my wife suggests that very frequently. But I also believe that there are things that are so important, you should be very principled about,” Emanuel said, citing the longer school day, the five-month closing of the Red Line South and battles against the tobacco and gun lobbies as a few examples.
Emanuel has been criticized repeatedly for making top-down, sometimes tone-deaf decisions that neglect to build consensus.
His decision to open charters and build new schools and school additions so soon after closing 50 schools in predominantly African-American neighborhoods on the South and West Sides is just one example.
Spending $60 million in tax-increment-financing (TIF) funds on a new selective enrollment high school named after President Barack Obama on the North Side near Walter Payton College Prep, which is in line for a $14 million TIF expansion, is another.
But even after acknowledging the flaws in his political style, Emanuel argued that there is another side of his leadership style that the public seldom sees.
It was on display in the deal that produced cost-cutting reforms that drew more conventions to McCormick Place. And it helped persuade unions whose members rely on the Municipal Employees and Laborers pension funds to accept a 29 percent increase in employee contributions and a reduction in employee benefits.
“I have 31 unions that all agreed to different changes on the pension. Do you think that was just my way or the highway? You had to hear people. You had to work through the agreement because they’re agreeing to very difficult changes,” the mayor said.
“So, the characterization I get — and I understand where it comes from — [is one-dimensional]. Like you, like me, like everybody else, we are more complex than just one-dimensional. And I can show you time and again different examples of things that took a different style to get done. And it has…benefited the city of Chicago.”
As he often does, Emanuel cited the sage advice he got from former President Bill Clinton, who said, “The hard part about politics is having people understand that change is a friend — not a foe.”
“I make no bones that I’ve brought about a period of change. But like [this week] on the Shakman decree — we spent millions of dollars because the federal government had to oversee the way we do hiring,” the mayor said.
“From Day One, I said we’re gonna make this change. I pursued it, put people in place that I think had that same vision and been dogged. Now, I happen to think this is a milestone and we have to stay vigilant about the reform that symbolizes.”
The mayor was referring to the finding of “substantial compliance” that will set the stage for Chicago to get out from under the shackles of the Shakman decree and a federal hiring monitor after a hiring scandal that has cost Chicago taxpayers $22.9 million over the last decade.
Earlier this week, Emanuel shrugged off results of the Sun-Times poll that shows his popularity plummeting. He said he ran for mayor on a promise to confront vexing problems “swept under the rug” and he’s not about to compromise his principles.
“The moment you decide that you’re gonna blow with the wind, folks are smart and they’ll smell it,” he said then.
On Friday, he vowed once again to heed his wife’s advice to be more patient, slow down and listen more. But, he told Ponce, “I don’t only have one gear, Phil. You don’t have one gear as an interviewer. You have good interviews and bad interviews — mainly based on who the interviewee is.”
In spite of the intransigent problems and the threat of even more trouble ahead, Emanuel reiterated that being mayor of Chicago is “the best job I’ve ever had in public life.”
That’s because, unlike Washington D.C., a town he derisively called “Disneyland on the Potomac,” a mayor can far more easily affect change and deliver results, Emanuel said.