The last time Republican power brokers tried to grab a piece of Chicago, they had the votes to do it, and the motive was clear.
It was 1995. Republicans had seized control over the Illinois House and Senate the year before in a sweep that sent the state’s most powerful Democrat, House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago), into a brief exile as minority leader.
Then-Mayor Richard M. Daley wanted to close Meigs Field and turn the lakefront airport into a park. Then-Republican Gov. Jim Edgar wanted to keep Meigs open.
That prompted Republican legislative leaders Lee Daniels and Pate Phillip to threaten a Republican takeover of Chicago airports that Daley averted, only after forging a covert airport compact with Gary, Ind., that has diverted millions to the Gary Regional Airport.
Twenty-one years later, Republicans are trying to take back control over the Chicago Public Schools “given” to Daley in 1995 in hopes CPS would be a yoke around the mayor’s neck.
With a super-minority in both houses, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and GOP legislative leaders don’t have the votes to pull off their power play. They don’t have a bill filed or even drafted. And the motives are far from clear.
On Wednesday, Chicago aldermen and aides to Mayor Rahm Emanuel were scratching their heads to explain the latest Springfield power play.
Some view it as “red meat” for Republican voters in legislative races and a sign that the state budget stalemate may drag on through the March 15 primary and maybe even until the November election.
“They know it’s dead. But it’s good politics for Rauner to come after the city. It’s a Chicago-against-the-rest-of-the state, divide-and-conquer strategy for the legislative elections,” said one mayoral adviser.
Others view it as a political “smokescreen” and an attempt by Rauner and Republican legislative leaders to escape blame for thousands of teacher layoffs if CPS doesn’t get the $480 million in pension help from Springfield already built into its budget.
“It’s clever. CPS has been warning of drastic cuts if the state doesn’t come through. They’re trying to ride to the rescue before it gets to that point. They’re trying to position themselves in a way that deflects attention away from the real issue: unequal state funding,” said a mayoral confidant, who asked to remain anonymous.
Still, others view the maneuver as Rauner’s latest attempt to drive a political wedge between Emanuel and Madigan.
Rauner wants Emanuel to lean on Madigan to soften his opposition to Rauner’s pro-business agenda, naively assuming such a pressure tactic would even work on a headstrong speaker backed by organized labor and trial lawyers dead-set against Rauner’s plan to limit worker’s compensation claims and weaken unions.
The governor is “trying to squeeze Rahm and get the mayor’s help with his anti-labor agenda. He’s trying to squeeze the city and the schools to get the mayor to come over to his side. It’s not going to work,” said another Emanuel adviser.
Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) is a former Madigan staffer who was working in Springfield when Daley cut his secret airport deal with Gary. That threatened Republican takeover over Chicago airports was real. The threatened school takeover is not, Reilly said.
“Pate Phillip controlled the State Senate. He had Lee Daniels as speaker of the House. Republicans ran the show. That was a very different climate [in 1995]. The Republicans in the Legislature now have super-minorities. That would require some buy-in from their colleagues across the aisle,” Reilly said.
“This is simply trying to put the mayor in a tough position. But I don’t think it’s sincere at all. I find it a bit ironic that the statehouse is suggesting they could do a better job managing the CPS crisis. Ask the state universities how they’re doing. Our state university system is just months away from shuttering. These are the same folks who now are going to help us solve our CPS problems? It’s bunk.”
Southwest Side Ald. Matt O’Shea (19th), an Emanuel ally, said Rauner is clearly trying to “put pressure on the mayor and force his hand.” But O’Shea said he has no idea how the governor “hopes to achieve that” by touting bankruptcy as the ultimate answer to the school funding crisis.
“People move to areas because they have strong schools. Who wants to come to Chicago where the school system just went belly up? It would cripple us for years and years to come,” O’Shea said.
As for Madigan, O’Shea said, “The speaker has been down there for 40-some odd years. No one is going to force his hand. That’s why he’s been speaker that long.”
In recent weeks, Rauner has tried repeatedly to turn up the heat on Emanuel, who remains under siege for his handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting video.
Rauner has told reporters he was “very disappointed” in Emanuel and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez over their handling of Chicago Police misconduct cases and said he would sign a bill allowing Chicago voters to recall their mayor from office if it reaches his desk.
On Wednesday, the governor turned it up a notch, accusing a weakened Emanuel of preparing to “back down and cave in to the teachers union” during negotiations on a new contract aimed at avoiding layoffs.
Emanuel has responded by advising Rauner to change his game plan and build the “trust” that is in “short supply in Springfield” needed to break the state budget stalemate.
Emanuel and Rauner are longtime friends, education reform allies and former business associates who made millions together.
But a mayoral confidant said Wednesday’s developments make one thing clear.
“The whole thing about the friendship between Rahm and Rauner was always overplayed. This is more proof of it,” the source said.
As for Emanuel’s weakened political state, the mayoral adviser said, “I question anybody who believes this is a good time to go after Rahm Emanuel. Never underestimate him. This could be an overreach. Rahm will find a way to help Chicago.”