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Emanuel says he ‘made a mistake’ in naming school after Obama

Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Wednesday he “made a mistake” in his “rush to honor” President Barack Obama — which is why he dropped plans to name a new, $60 million selective-enrollment high school on the Near North Side after his former boss.

The mayor seldom second-guesses himself in public for fear it might be viewed as a sign of weakness. It’s hard to remember the last time he uttered the words, “I made a mistake.”

But that’s what happened Wednesday when Emanuel was asked whether his decision to drop Obama’s name from the controversial project bankrolled by tax-increment-financing funds was a sign that he had been insensitive in the first place.

“In my rush to honor our favorite son, I made a mistake. I heard the community. And it’s not gonna be named after the president. My goal is to have a library named after him here in the city of Chicago,” the mayor said.

Despite the naming controversy, Emanuel said he’s not wavering on his commitment to build the school and “probably in that area, because that’s where the [TIF] resources are.”

Ald. Will Burns (4th), one of the mayor’s closest African-American allies, said Emanuel’s rare mea culpa can only help the mayor politically.

“There are two things people expect from elected officials. The first is to deliver on promises. The second is voters want not to relate to you, but to understand that you’re human. Part of being human is to err. To admit an error is something people appreciate. The key is obviously not to commit the same error in the future,” Burns said Wednesday.

“I’m not sure how voters will internalize this moment. But I don’t think it hurts. With the black community, it’s always about being recognized and having your voice heard by people in positions of authority. Recognizing the community’s concerns about having that high school on the North Side named after the President was a smart move.”

Chicago Teacher’s Union President Karen Lewis, who is exploring a run against the mayor, said Emanuel’s stumble over the naming of the school was an example of his top-down approach. “It works better when you include the people it would affect in the process from the very beginning,” Lewis said Wednesday night. 

Lewis also accused Emanuel of not cluing in key officials about the decision to name the school for Obama. 

“When he made that announcement, the alderman didn’t know, the head of the school didn’t know, the head of CPS had no idea,” Lewis said. 

Five months ago, Emanuel unveiled plans to use $60 million in TIF money to build Chicago’s 11th selective enrollment high school — with space for 1,200 high-achieving students, 30 percent of them from the surrounding community.

The mayor proudly proclaimed that the school would be named after Obama — even though the President has no ties to the Near North Side — and defended the location as pivotal to both accessibility and financing.

“Because it serves the entire city, it has two different rail lines, four different bus lines, open land and it’s all being funded by TIF,” the mayor said on the day he announced the plan.

“That makes the choices come down dramatically to literally less than a handful.”

The plan stirred controversy because it so closely followed Emanuel’s decision to close 50 public schools in predominantly African-American neighborhoods on the South and West sides.

Adding salt to the wound was Emanuel’s earlier decision to spend $17 million in TIF money to expand Walter Payton College Prep in the shadows of Stanton Park.

Unable to change the location of the school, black elected officials focused on the name. They called it an insult because Obama’s professional roots were on the South Side, where first lady Michelle Obama was born and raised.

The same kind of negative groundswell forced Emanuel to drop like a hot potato his plan to permanently rename Stony Island Avenue for the late Bishop Arthur Brazier.

The decision to drop the name Obama Prep was the latest in a series of actions the mayor has taken to appease black voters who helped put him in office and abandoned him in droves after the school closings.

“There’s a strong concern with protecting the legacy of President Obama and his connection to the South Side of Chicago,” Burns said last week.

“It was a very quick decision. It was a well-intentioned one. . . . But there had not been an engagement process. It was not an idea that had been socialized broadly in the African-American community prior to the announcement. Finding the right facility or institution to name after the President is something we have to engage in a longer discussion about.”

But, even Burns acknowledged that the name change alone will not be enough to appease black voters.

“The concern was that a school [was being built] on that part of town and our kids aren’t gonna be able to get in,” the alderman said.

“African-American voters are very concerned about substantive issues. The extent to which CPS is looking at its selective enrollment policy and thinking about what it can do in the short-term to boost African-American enrollment in the highest performing selective enrollment schools — those are things that are going to matter to African-American voters.”

Whatever the name, the showcase school is central to Emanuel’s plan to give parents more high-quality options to prevent families from fleeing to the suburbs when their children approach high school age.

This year alone, applications for coveted spots in Chicago’s 10 selective-enrollment high schools rose by 8 percent. That left 16,440 students vying for 3,200 seats.

Contributing: Brian Slodysko