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Analysis: Rahm wages image campaign, but crime, finances are key

Mayor Rahm Emanuel | Brian Jackson/ For the Sun-Times

After fending off demands for his resignation that dragged on for months, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has waged a frenzied campaign to change the subject and win back the support he has hemorrhaged.

He has unveiled an ambitious plan for Chicago parks, cut runway and gate deals with major airlines, started the planning for high-speed rail from downtown to O’Hare Airport and moved to seize control over the Old Main Post Office that straddles the Eisenhower Expy.

In a direct appeal to African-American voters outraged by his handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting video, the politician branded “Mayor 1 percent” has unveiled a Robin Hood plan to let downtown developers build bigger projects if they share the wealth with impoverished neighborhoods.

In between stops on his rehabilitation tour of the black community, Emanuel also has restarted construction on a $45 million addition to Olive-Harvey College and used a $7.4 million city subsidy to lure a Whole Foods warehouse from Indiana to the Far South Side’s Pullman neighborhood.

But the whirling dervish of activity has done nothing to alter a fundamental truth for a once-powerful politician who appears to have survived the most humiliating period of his career.

No matter what else he does, Emanuel’s mayoralty will be defined by the progress he makes in solving two intransigent problems: the $30 billion pension crisis at the city and public schools, and a simmering pot of police issues that range from controlling Chicago’s soaring homicide rate and restoring shattered public trust to improving rock-bottom morale, eliminating a code of silence and surviving a federal civil rights investigation.

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Rahm’s surprise top cop pick — a Sun-Times exclusive

On Saturday, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Emanuel went outside his own Police Board’s recommendations and asked Eddie Johnson, the CPD’s African-American chief of patrol, to take the top cop job, with an eye toward improving police morale and community relations.

“There’s no quick-fix for these problems years in the making. There’s no press release or announcement that will instantly alleviate them. It’s a long-term challenge and something you have to dig your way out of,” said David Axelrod, the mayor’s friend of 30 years who served with Emanuel in President Barack Obama’s White House.

“He’s doing a lot of [other] things,” he said. “Those things do have value. But they’re not the main issue.”

Axelrod said he firmly believes his friend has weathered the worst of the political storm stemming from Emanuel’s decision to keep the McDonald shooting video under wraps for more than a year and release it only after a judge ordered the city to do so.

But he said, “This isn’t like a storm that comes and goes. These are longstanding, sustained issues that washed up on his doorstep. You just have to chip away at them one at a time and hope that, at the end of years, you’ve made significant inroads.”

Pressed on whether he believes Emanuel will leave office before the problems are solved, Axelrod said, “He seems determined to make sure that doesn’t happen. He knows that is his mission.”

The events of the last week underscore the mayor’s political dilemma as he attempts to become The Revenant of Chicago politics.

The Illinois Supreme Court overturned his plan to save two of four city employee pension funds. The city used $220 million in “short-term bridge” financing to make a state-mandated payment to police and fire pension funds that’s higher than Emanuel’s tax-laden 2016 budget assumed.

The Chicago Teachers Union authorized a one-day walkout that could shut down the public schools and disrupt downtown commerce, just as demonstrators did on Michigan Avenue on Black Friday days after the McDonald shooting video was released.

Last week, the chairman of the City Council’s Police Committee called a meeting for this Thursday to hear from the now-rejected three finalists for Chicago police superintendent and from the Police Board that made the selection.

Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30th) was obviously unaware that Emanuel had already offered the job of interim superintendent to Johnson in an unprecedented end-run around the Police Board.

Emboldened by Emanuel’s weakened political state, the Hispanic Caucus had wanted the mayor to reject all three finalists and order the Police Board to conduct a second search that produces a list that includes a Hispanic, preferably Interim Supt. John Escalante.

Emanuel will likely try to appease them by asking Johnson to retain Escalante as his first deputy.

The Black Caucus also has been pushing back. They appear to be most concerned about making certain that Chicago’s next police superintendent be an African-American insider who can begin the herculean job of restoring shattered public trust.

They now have their wish in Johnson. Never mind that Emanuel offered the job to a candidate who did not even apply.

The mayor will technically stay within the law by rejecting the three finalists and ordering the Police Board to conduct a second nationwide search. Johnson would then apply, become one of the Round 2 finalists, and be handed the permanent job.

The only question is whether the Police Board will go along with the charade of another exhaustive and time-consuming nationwide search.

During a taping of the WLS-AM Radio program, “Connected to Chicago,” Emanuel blamed the decline in police morale, in part, for the escalating gang violence that has Chicago on pace to top 600 homicides and 6,000 shootings in 2016.

“Their morale, post-Laquan McDonald because of the conversation involved, has been affected. You now have the Justice Department, as one officer just told me, doing ride-arounds with officers. They’re worried about being the next victim in a video gone viral,” Emanuel said.

The mayor talked about “putting the genie back in the bottle” in the Chicago Police Department.

“Getting between two gangs [involved] in a historic conflict, you need an engaged police department. They have been there before and we’ve seen it work. We have to get back to that and get them back in the game,” Emanuel said.

“This is not a job where they’re just punching the clock. They picked a career, a calling. They want to make that gun arrest,” he said. “They want to stop that gang member and arrest them. They need the leadership. They need the confidence that people have their back. In the last three months, they feel that hasn’t been there.”

The pension issues are almost certain to drag on beyond a second term that’s likely to be Emanuel’s last.

All the mayor can do is chip away at it and hope Chicago’s bond rating doesn’t drop any further into junk status while he’s trying.

He can hope Gov. Bruce Rauner ultimately keeps his word and signs a bill that would give Chicago 15 more years to ramp up to a 90 percent funding level for police and fire pensions.

He can try mightily to squeeze through the window the Illinois Supreme Court cracked open by using the collective bargaining process to trade “additional benefits” for higher employee contributions. And be prepared to fill any remaining shortfall by raising the telephone tax.

The wolf is closer to the door at Chicago Public Schools, with cash running out, a $676 million pension payment due on June 30 and no help from Springfield in sight.

There, a one-day walkout is days away, a mid-May strike is more likely and the on-time opening of schools this fall is a giant question mark.

If the Illinois General Assembly adjourns its spring session without making the state school aid formula more favorable to CPS, Emanuel just might have to take matters into his own hands by following through on his promise to raise property taxes by an additional $170 million for teacher pensions.

That’s on the heels of the record $588 million property increase approved by the City Council last fall for police and fire pensions and school construction.

With all of those plates spinning in the air at once, Emanuel was asked how he believes he’s doing in the uphill battle to rebuild shattered public trust.

“It’s a day-in, day-out process. It’s living up to your word,” he said.

“Part of that trust is also understanding that when I make a decision, even if you disagree, you understand the reason and the motivation and the concept behind it,” he said. “We’re all a work in progress and I work on it every day.”

Axelrod summed it up this way: “Every person who is not the mayor should be grateful. This is a difficult time to be the mayor. These are very tough decisions. I don’t envy him.”