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In City Club finale, Emanuel owns his flaws: ‘I am at fault for being impatient’

Mayor Rahm Emanuel gets emotional during a press conference after a recent Chicago City Council meeting. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Thursday pleaded guilty without apology to the charge of being a bull in a china shop, particularly when it comes to education reform.

Less than three weeks before leaving office, Emanuel delivered his swan song before the City Club of Chicago.

In a fireside chat, WBBM-AM Radio reporter Craig Dellimore asked Emanuel to respond to a Chicago Sun-Times analysis that essentially gave him an “A” for tackling tough decisions his predecessor punted, but an “F” for being a leader of people who listens and collaborates.

The mayor’s response was to acknowledge the obvious. There were times when he forged ahead because he firmly believed that the politics of inertia, particularly on Chicago Public Schools, required it.

“I do not believe in the paralysis of analysis. I made a pledge: Our kids deserve a full day and a full year. And they deserve early childhood education. And I am at fault for being impatient. I take it. I’m happy about that. Because sometimes a political system with a lot of fixed interests needs a little impatience in it,” the mayor said to applause.

Without mentioning former Mayor Richard M. Daley by name, Emanuel noted that “my predecessor” tried to add 30 minutes to the school day in 2003 and 45 minutes in 2007 and failed in both attempts.

“I studied what he did and, this time eight years ago, we made changes so we could actually get it done,” he said.

“Part of leading is listening to the parental voices that didn’t have a voice at the table, learning from what did and did not work in the past, and executing, yes, fearlessly.”

Before a packed audience, Emanuel said “I am who I am” because of a carving accident at the Arby’s where he worked. It cost him part of his middle finger, and nearly cost him his life.

He was 17. It was the summer before college.

After tightly wrapping the wound in a rag for several days, Emanuel developed a staph infection, five blood infections, two bone infections, gangrene and a fever of “105-degrees plus.”

“I nearly died. I was in the hospital for seven weeks. There was a 96-hour [period when] I was inches away from being on the other side. I made a pledge to myself if I ever got out of the hospital bed, I was gonna make the most of my life,” he said.

“It’s not like the clouds broke open and Beethoven started playing. But when you have three roommates who died next to you and you almost died, it’s a life-altering event.”

The charge of leading without collaborating was not the only point of contention.

So was the almost-cliché-like label of “Mayor 1 percent,” whose development efforts have been downtown-centric.

“Let’s be honest, guys. Did the problems on the South and West Sides start in 2011?” Emanuel asked. “Alderman Scott?”

Ald. Michael Scott Jr. (24th) was in the crowd. “Nope!” he yelled.

“Thank you,” said Emanuel, adding that he understands “the politics of playing downtown versus the neighborhoods” but called it a “rotten governing strategy.”

“You name me one world-class city in the world with a decaying central business district. … They don’t exist,” he said.

“I’m proud that we have a thriving successful central business district that gives us the revenue to also fund … 33,000 kids in summer jobs. … I’m also really proud that 300-plus businesses got $47 million out of the Neighborhood Opportunity Fund. … There’s more to do. But we actually started to make the success of our downtown become the seed capital for the success of our neighborhoods.”

Even after five rounds of ethics reforms, Chicago is a notoriously corrupt city bracing for a City Hall corruption scandal that could be the biggest yet. It’s the product of the City Council’s second most powerful alderman spending more than two years wearing a wire on the most powerful alderman.

Emanuel pushed back hard against those who believe not enough progress was made on that front, either.

“It’s a cheap trope for you all saying, `Chicago is the most corrupt.’ Really? There’s a mayor stepping down today in another city. There’s a speaker in another state and a governor in trouble. There’s another state where the governor and his chief of staff is in trouble. Come on,” he said.

Emanuel acknowledged Chicago “has a long way to go” on the ethics front, but argued that “big progress” was made on his watch.

“For 30 years, we lived [with] federal oversight of our hiring. It’s over,” he said.

“Every agency has an inspector general. Every inspector general’s budget has been secured and raised. We now have a model of procurement that other cities are trying to replicate.”