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Rahm Emanuel’s legacy: How will mayor be remembered?

Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel | Scott Olson Getty Images

In 2010, Rahm Emanuel returned to Chicago from Barack Obama’s White House to campaign for mayor and promised “safer streets, strong schools and stable city finances.”

And the mayor’s legacy will no doubt be measured in those three areas, which dominated his eight years in office.

Did he deliver on his promises?

While Emanuel said Tuesday he left the “whole city stronger and better prepared for the future,” others accused him of fostering a divide between two Chicagos — one for the wealthy at the expense of the city’s poor.

A closer look at Emanuel’s record, however, reveals a more complicated picture.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel gives high fives to students at Edwards Elementary School, 4815 S. Karlov Ave., in 2016. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

School make gains amid record closures, scandals

Emanuel’s greatest pride may be the Chicago Public Schools, whose stats he spouts at every turn: National research showed CPS kids making the fastest academic gains in the country and graduation rates are up to 78.2 percent (though short of Emanuel’s campaign goal of 85 percent by May). But since 2011, he’s also been at the helm through a crippling teachers strike, five CEOs and the loss of 32,000 students — 30,000 of them African-American.

The mayor’s controversial changes, such as lengthening the school day, provoked the powerful Chicago Teachers Union to walk out in 2012 for the first time in a generation. They were led by the charismatic Karen Lewis, who later considered challenging the man who once hurled the F-word at her — until a brain tumor sidelined her.

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The mayor then sent CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and his appointed school board to close a record 50 neighborhood schools, saying there weren’t enough kids to fill them, while blessing the rapid expansion of privately-managed charter schools.

Later, Byrd-Bennett and other Emanuel appointees fell to scandal.

“B3,” as Emanuel affectionately dubbed her, is serving a federal prison sentence for trading $20-plus million in no-bid school contracts for kickbacks. Forrest Claypool, a longtime Emanuel friend dispatched to clean up after her, also quit after the schools inspector general, prompted by Chicago Sun-Times reporting, found he lied about covering up an aide’s ethics violations.

Former CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett in 2012 | AP file photo

Their ousters led Emanuel to promote a popular homegrown educator  — the first former CPS student, teacher and principal whose kids attend CPS — as his fifth CEO in December.

Yet Janice Jackson still is digging out of a sexual abuse scandal uncovered just months into her tenure and has to submit to an independent state monitor imposed over the special education department after the state found that Claypool had saved CPS money by denying services to kids. She also has embraced Emanuel’s controversial plans to close five African-American schools in exchange for opening two new high schools, one in Englewood and the other in the tony South Loop.

CTU leaders described Emanuel’s reign and his departure — announced on the first day of classes Tuesday — as “chaos,” especially for the city’s poor children.

“Maybe it’s different down in Emerald City, in the gleaming downtown, but out in the neighborhoods, this is not a popular mayor,” CTU vice president Jesse Sharkey said Tuesday. “In the working class parts of this city, this is not a popular mayor.”

Emanuel spent much of his second term bucking the  “Mayor 1 Percent” label.

A pension crisis, tax hikes and a development boom

As crime and unemployment remained high on the South and West sides — and Chicago’s black population fell below 800,000 for the first time in 50 years — Emanuel’s administration helped lure a wave of tech startups and major corporate headquarters into the city, including McDonald’s, Motorola Solutions and Kraft Heinz.

While Google and Facebook have also staked out more Chicago office space, the fate of Emanuel’s biggest fish — Amazon’s coveted second U.S. headquarters, and the $2.25 billion in tax incentives offered up by the city — is still up in the air.

His treasured downtown Riverwalk figures to stand as one of his lasting achievements, turning the city’s notoriously polluted river into an attraction as the city saw record levels of tourism. And Emanuel will leave office with developers breaking ground on a spate of billion-dollar skyscrapers and residential projects.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel tours a then-new section of Chicago Riverwalk nearing completion between Clark and Lake Streets. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

Emanuel has rejected critics’ claims of a “tale of two cities,” pointing to neighborhood initiatives implemented along with downtown projects, including incentive programs aimed at boosting minority contracting and employment, and a Robin Hood plan to let downtown developers build bigger and taller projects so long as they share the wealth with impoverished neighborhoods.

Spending cuts early in his first term and revenue increases across the board have helped shore up city finances this year to its smallest budget shortfall in a decade. But Emanuel still will leave behind the $28 billion municipal pension fund crisis — one inherited from former Mayor Richard M. Daley, a fact Emanuel was quick to point out, if he was loath to call out his predecessor by name.

So taxpayers may remember him most for digging into their pockets for more than $2 billion in hikes, including $1.1 billion in property tax increases while jacking up water, sewer and telephone fees and imposing new levies on garbage collection, plastic bags and a slew of other city services.

Crime and policing

While Emanuel has been quick to tout economic development, his time in City Hall has been dogged by entrenched gun violence, a deep mistrust of police in minority communities and the fallout from releasing a video showing Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke shooting Laquan McDonald.

The release of the video showing the fatal shooting of the 17-year-old African-American marked a watershed moment for Emanuel. His announcement to not seek re-election came just a day before jury selection in Van Dyke’s murder trial — the first for an on-duty Chicago cop in more than three decades.

The City Council earlier approved a $5 million settlement to McDonald’s family and attorneys for the city fought to keep the video under wraps.

Protesters gathered in the loop in reaction to the release of a police dash-cam video showing the fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald, 17, shot 16 times by a white Chicago police officer in October 2014. | Alex Wroblewski/Sun-Times.

A Cook County judge ordered its release in November 2015, more than a year after McDonald was killed and about seven months after Emanuel beat Jesus “Chuy” Garcia in the city’s first mayoral runoff election — fueling speculation that the video was part of a “cover-up” and withheld for Emanuel’s political gain.

Its release sparked widespread protests. Thousands of marchers called for the resignations of Emanuel, former Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez and former CPD Supt. Garry McCarthy.

In a speech to the City Council shortly after the video’s release, Emanuel acknowledged a “code of silence” within the police department. He fired McCarthy. Alvarez lost her re-election bid to Kim Foxx.

To replace McCarthy, Emanuel tasked the Chicago Police Board with conducting a nationwide search but he ultimately circumvented the process and tapped patrol chief Eddie Johnson, who had not submitted his name, for the job in March 2016.  

In an effort to bridge the gap between police and minority communities, the CPD has made a point to hire more people of color.

At the same time, Chicago’s murder totals skyrocketed, with 780 people shot and killed in 2016. It was the first time since the city saw violence totals that high since the mid-90s. Chicago is on pace to see about 500 murders in 2018.

In 2016, Emanuel unveiled plans to hire 1,000 new police officers within two years, but as of last May, the Sun-Times reported a net gain of about 600 officers, with fewer assigned to the city’s 22 police districts.

The McDonald video spurred a Department of Justice investigation that led to a scathing report that found the police department engaged in a pattern of excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed a lawsuit against the city to obtain a consent decree to reform the CPD’s practices. That consent decree will be overseen and enforced by a federal judge and has no expiration date.


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