Exit interview with ‘Mini-Rahm’ as Emanuel’s top adviser departs City Hall
Subscribe for unlimited digital access.
Try one month for $1!
Subscribe for unlimited digital access. Try one month for $1!
Mayor Rahm Emanuel is going to have to get along without his alter-ego. David Spielfogel, who for five years has been Emanuel’s most trusted adviser, is leaving City Hall to start his own company “at the intersection of technology, urban problems and data.”
Spielfogel, 38, who’s come to be known as “mini-Rahm,” has spearheaded virtually every one of Emanuel’s policy initiatives — from ride-sharing, ethics reform and raising the minimum wage to the Obama presidential library and the lakefront land giveaway to movie mogul George Lucas.
He ran Emanuel’s re-election campaign, then returned to City Hall, only to find himself at the center of the frantic exchange of internal emails that preceded the release of the Laquan McDonald shooting video.
“For five years he has been my first phone call in the morning, and my last phone call at night . . . But as I told David, he can run but he can’t hide because he’ll always be on my speed dial,” Emanuel said in an emailed statement.
Spielfogel, senior adviser to the mayor, sat down with the Chicago Sun-Times to discuss his five-year run at Emanuel’s right hand.
Question: Why are you leaving? Don’t you feel guilty leaving at a time like this?
Answer: It’s hard. There’s never a good time. . . . After five years, I probably have lost a bit of my energy, and it’s good to let other people apply their new ways of thinking to solving these problems . . . Every time I’ve talked to him about moving on, something else has come up, so I’ve stayed a few months longer. This just felt like the right time.
Q: You’ve been heavily involved in the Lucas Museum. It doesn’t look like it’s going to happen on the lakefront site. The judge has made that clear. Don’t you need to change the site or lose it to another city?
A: Everyone involved is very committed to seeing the museum in Chicago and is working very hard to find ways to make that a reality. There are lots of different options. But they were offered a site on Chicago’s museum campus. That’s where the focus is right now.
Q: But if you cling to what can’t happen, you’ll lose the museum, right?
Q: So where is this going?
A: I’m not making news on what George Lucas is or isn’t going to do.
Q: You were involved in the run-up to the release of the McDonald video. Did the mayor hold that video until after the election?
A: No way. No way. And it was not emails about, “Should we release it or not?” It was emails about, “This is the city policy. And the city policy is: During an active investigation, we don’t release evidence that could taint witnesses, that could taint a jury pool, that could taint other people. Everybody knew the policy when the incident originally happened. Everyone knew the policy when Steve Patton testified about the gory details in front of the City Council.
Q: Did the mayor hide behind the policy to accomplish what he wanted to politically?
A: No. He has said that he would look at the policy, and he did that. The reform committee came back with a good proposal. You’ve got to balance the need to know and the need to protect an investigation. The proposal they came back with strikes that right balance. We’ll see it play out. It might need to be tweaked in the future.
Q: Most Chicagoans don’t believe the mayor when he claims he didn’t sit on the video.
A: I get that trust has to be rebuilt. He totally gets that trust has to be rebuilt. . . . If you look at the last three months, there have been slow, methodical and very concrete changes that should demonstrate to the public that he hears the concerns, and he’s very committed to tackling those problems.
Q: Do you honestly think he can win back the trust of black voters who gave him a second chance after he closed 50 schools?
A: He was elected twice because people know we have very big problems, and he is the kind of person who can tackle very big problems . . . . If he continues to do that in coordination with the community, he will win back all of the trust that was lost over the last several months.
Q: But if people don’t believe him on this, what makes you think they’ll ever trust him on anything?
A: His actions. . . . People are waiting for continued action. They’ve seen a couple months of it. And they’re going to see a couple more years of it….On everything. Restoring police accountability. Improving school outcomes. Working with the Chicago Teachers Union to get equitable funding so the schools can be fully funded. Continuing to improve our City Colleges.
Q: What decisions would you like to have back?
A: We started out very focused on change and probably ran too quickly to get there. From the second election, we’ve been much more focused on expanding the tent, bringing in as many people as possible, people with diverging views, and trying to come to consensus with folks we might have fought in the early years.
Q: The Barbara Byrd-Bennett scandal was incredibly damaging. She was stealing from a school system that’s broke and serves predominantly poor children.
A: We should have been able to predict what somebody had in their heart? How would you know? You try to correct for it moving forward. … how we could improve the system so contracts like that wouldn’t go through as easily.
Q: What are you most proud of?
A: The achievements we accomplished for students in the Chicago Public Schools and community colleges. There is a very, very long way to go. But when I look at the CPS system that I grew up in and I look at what kids have today, we’ve made major advances.
Q: But you have a school system that’s on the brink of financial collapse?
A: I got it. That’s a massive problem.
Q: How will it be solved?
A: There will be a grand bargain at the end, just like the mayor has talked about for the last year and a half, where everybody gives a little, and we solve the problem once and for all.
Q: Why do people call you “mini-Rahm?”
A: I share his commitment to a lot of issues. . . . The way we transformed our transportation systems. The focus on community college, on workforce. The commitment to increasing tourism as an economic driver.
Q: How hard has it been to see him go through this humiliating period he’s just been through?
A: It’s difficult. But, in many ways, it just doubles your resolve to actually solve the problems that have built up over decades.
Q: Ferguson, Missouri, is fighting the Justice Department because of the cost of police reforms. Is that what’s ahead for Chicago?
A: The mayor is so committed to that process that I can’t imagine there are going to be reforms that are turned down because they’re too hard to take on.
Q: This is his last term, don’t you think?
A: The focus right now is on addressing the challenges we face as a city. Nobody is spending a second thinking about the next election.
Q: Rahm Emanuel was a political operative at the highest levels of government, yet his political instincts betrayed him during the McDonald controversy. He’s had to reverse field several times. Why is that?
A: I view my job as solving problems — not giving analysis to the media about what our weaknesses are as people. We think about that. We try to address our weaknesses and the challenges we have. But I don’t think there’s any good that can come out of me providing a psychoanalysis of how we operate. We’ve just got to improve it.
Q: You were a prime mover behind the new bus rapid transit system in the Loop. It doesn’t seem to be drawing many riders.
A: It’s been, like, two months. I’ve only heard positive reviews . . . . If it works, great, let’s expand it. If it doesn’t work, then you don’t expand it.
Q: The express train from downtown to O’Hare Airport — do you think that will ever happen?
A: It’ll happen because the mayor is committed to it, determined about it, and there seems to be significant demand. But it would only happen if here is a funding stream that would pay for it.
Q: What is that funding stream?
A: If the model works, there will be funding for it. Investors would love to invest in something like that.
Q: The Obama Library is going to cost the city millions for infrastructure improvements. Where is the money going to come from?
A: There’s government funding. There’s TIF funds. There are capital budgets at all of our sister agencies. . . . We are getting an amazing cultural and educational institute in honor of the first African-American president who comes from Chicago, and your focus is, “Isn’t it going to cost you some money.” Of course.