Analysis: The key players who will guide Emanuel’s 2nd term
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Mayor Rahm Emanuel has long maintained that he doesn’t have just one inner circle but a bunch of them on issues pertaining to business, labor, politics and ethnic issues.
It’s a good thing Emanuel is not relying solely on the team that surrounds him at City Hall as he struggles to regain his political footing after the police shooting of Laquan McDonald. That supporting cast has changed dramatically.
Two months after replacing Lisa Schrader as Emanuel’s chief of staff, Forrest Claypool was dispatched to the Chicago Public Schools to clean up a contracting scandal that swallowed Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and straighten out a financial mess that has the system on the brink of bankruptcy and another teachers strike.
Garry McCarthy, who spent nearly five years taking the heat off Emanuel on crime issues, was fired on Dec. 1 after the mayor accused his only police superintendent of becoming a “distraction” in the continuing fallout from the video played around the world of a white police officer pumping sixteen rounds into the body of a black teenager.
Without McCarthy, Emanuel alone wears the jacket for the troubling rise in homicides and shootings and for a precipitous decline in pro-active policing triggered by the McDonald shooting video and a federal civil rights investigation of the Chicago Police Department.
As difficult as that transition has been, the recent departure of senior adviser David Spielfogel will be an even bigger adjustment for Chicago’s politically weakened mayor.
Spielfogel had developed such a remarkable connection with the mayor, staffers who needed to know Emanuel’s thoughts and positions used Spielfogel as a surrogate. He was equal parts policy wonk, strategist, alter-ego and mayoral handholder. He played a role in or had knowledge of virtually everything going on at City Hall.
Without him, there’s a power vacuum at a time when the mayor is swamped by pension, policing and school funding crises. Speculation abounds that Corporation Counsel Stephen Patton could be next through the revolving door.
Who, then, are the key players who will guide Rahm Emanuel through a second term?
MIKE RENDINA, director of intergovernmental affairs: It won’t be easy to fill Spielfogel’s shoes or replicate his chemistry with Emanuel, but Rendina is about to give it a try. A former director of intergovernmental affairs at the Chicago Public Schools who managed Alexi Giannoulias’ failed 2010 U.S. Senate campaign, Rendina was part of the negotiating team that hammered out a new four-year contract rejected by the Chicago Teachers Union’s 40-person bargaining unit. As if teacher negotiations weren’t enough of a headache, Chicago aldermen have been pushing back, making Rendina’s job of delivering votes more difficult and forcing the administration to compromise a lot more than it used to.
CAROLE BROWN, chief financial officer: Former CTA board chairwoman who took the reins from Lois Scott one week after the state Supreme Court’s decision overturning state pension reforms placed Emanuel’s plan to reform two of four city employee pension funds in similar jeopardy. Wall Street didn’t wait for a ruling on the Chicago reform before dropping the city’s bond rating to junk status. Banks had the ability to call back $2.2 billion in city debt. It was Brown’s job to negotiate with banks and call off the wolves. She has done that while methodically executing Emanuel’s debt restructuring plan. But it has cost Chicago taxpayers hundreds of millions in penalties and higher interest rates.
EILEEN MITCHELL, chief of staff: Trusted mayoral confidant Claypool was supposed to be Emanuel’s second-term chief of staff, just as Claypool had twice served Mayor Richard M. Daley in that thankless job. But when the contract kickback scandal culminated in a guilty plea by Byrd-Bennett, Emanuel decided he needed Claypool more at CPS. Enter Eileen Mitchell, a former top aide to House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, turned AT&T Illinois executive. It was a not-so-subtle message to Gov. Bruce Rauner that his efforts to drive a wedge between the mayor and the speaker were going nowhere. With Budget Director Alex Holt at her side and Schrader offering part-time consulting help, Mitchell helped finalize a tax-laden 2016 budget that included a $588 million property tax increase for police and fire pensions and a first-ever garbage collection fee. The question is, does she have the rapport with Emanuel to do that and the personality to lead a dispirited staff?
JANEY ROUNTREE, public safety liaison: The one-time aide to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg pulled together the mayor’s task force on police accountability after the McDonald shooting video was released, and she dealt directly with a rather ornery and defensive McCarthy before Emanuel fired the police superintendent. As special counsel and firearms policy coordinator under Bloomberg and chief operating officer for the Bloomberg-founded “Mayors Against Illegal Guns,” Rountree crossed paths with the U.S. Department of Justice. Sources said Rountree used those contacts to help Chicago brace for the protracted and costly federal civil rights investigation that’s likely to culminate in the appointment of a federal monitor similar to the one that rode herd over city hiring for a decade.
JOE FERGUSON, inspector general: What a turnaround for a man who spent the first two years in a cold war with Emanuel that included a legal battle over access to documents that went all the way to the state Supreme Court. Their relationship was so frosty, it appeared Emanuel was counting the days until Ferguson’s term expired. It was only after the Ohio bribery scandal, which culminated in the conviction of former City Comptroller Amer Ahmad, that Emanuel seemed to realize Ferguson was more helpful than threatening. In 2013, Emanuel re-appointed Ferguson with the unwritten understanding that the IG would step down after a year. Eight months later, Ferguson decided to serve out his new four-year term after dramatically improving his once-contentious relationship with the mayor. When a federal judge released Chicago from the Shakman decree and dismissed a federal hiring monitor, Ferguson assumed the all-important power to police city hiring in the post-Shakman era.
GINGER EVANS, aviation commissioner: Whip smart and tough as nails, Evans is front-and-center in Emanuel’s push to finally deliver the long-stalled plan to build an express train between downtown and O’Hare Airport. If she can persuade private investors to bankroll construction and business travelers to pay as much as $30 to ride it, she will have pulled off a major coup. Already, the former Washington, D.C., airport official has helped Emanuel hammer out a deal with major airlines to build the final runway at O’Hare while American Airlines has agreed to add five gates. Evans also is presiding over the mayor’s $248 million plan to confront Midway Airport’s biggest weaknesses and passenger annoyances: parking, security and concessions.
DAVID REIFMAN, planning and development commissioner: Emanuel raised conflict of interest concerns by hiring this attorney who had advised the Cubs on the massive Wrigley Field renovation project and counseled many other clout-heavy clients whose projects have altered the Chicago skyline. But the mayor knew he needed an expert on zoning, land-use planning, historic preservation and tax-increment financing if he hoped to counter the charge leveled against him during the mayoral campaign that his development efforts are downtown-centric, leaving impoverished neighborhoods behind.
LORI LIGHTFOOT, police board president, co-chairwoman of Task Force on Police Accountability: Her appointment to both police jobs stirred controversy because she once ran the Chicago Police Department’s Office of Professional Standards. But what critics failed to appreciate is there’s a reason why Lightfoot, a former federal prosecutor, was a runner-up of the U.S. Attorney’s job that went to Zach Fardon. She’s fiercely independent and showed it in 2005 while joining Mary Dempsey in cleaning up Daley’s Department of Procurement Services after the Hired Truck and minority contracting scandals. Lightfoot sure has amassed a lot of clout for a person who barely knew the mayor before her Police Board appointment. Not only is she conducting the nationwide search for McCarthy’s successor, she is trying to restore public confidence in a Police Board with a troubled history of reversing the superintendent recommendations to fire wayward officers. Lightfoot was even talked about as a possible replacement for McCarthy before slamming the door on that possibility.
STEVE KOCH: The former investment banker is at the center of Emanuel’s efforts to lure suburban companies to move their corporate headquarters to the city to appeal to a workforce of millennials who love city nightlife and can’t stand the long commute. He played a key role in renegotiating the deal that initially used $55 million in tax-increment financing to help finance a 10,000-seat basketball arena for DePaul University that will double as an event center for McCormick Place. When critics called the project a symbol of Emanuel’s misplaced priorities, Koch helped rearrange the financing so the TIF subsidy would be used to acquire land for the project and surrounding hotels, instead of to build the stadium.