Is it possible to succeed as a mayor of Chicago and fail as a leader of its people?
As he leaves office, Rahm Emanuel appears to have done just that.
If the measure of success is having the guts to make the tough decisions his predecessor punted, Emanuel passes that test with flying colors.
Who else would have the audacity to push through a $2 billion avalanche of tax increases to chip away at the pension crisis?
Who else would stop subsidizing retiree health care and brag about it, consolidate mental health clinics, close 50 schools in one fell swoop and lengthen the school day, demanding that it take effect immediately?
Who else would give movie mogul George Lucas lakefront land to build a museum and cut an O’Hare Express deal with Elon Musk — two projects that ultimately went nowhere?
But being mayor isn’t only about making tough decisions and giving people what you deem to be in their best interests. It’s about listening to disparate views with sensitivity, building consensus and giving people at least some say in their own destiny.
On that test of leadership, Emanuel failed.
He was better suited to be a chief of staff for another politician — as he was for President Barack Obama — than he was for being that elected political leader himself.
“It was frustrating to me — who very much admired his courage, his vision and his intellect — to see his inability to recognize that one important aspect of leadership is listening to people and bringing them along,” said soon-to-be former Ald. Joe Moore (49th), whose defeat can be blamed, at least in part, on his alliance with Emanuel.
“Too often, he’d make these pronouncements and drop them down on people. Sometimes, they fell like lead balloons. If he had talked with people initially and said, ‘Hey, this is what I’m thinking. What do you think?’ it may have headed off some embarrassing missteps.”
African American political consultant Delmarie Cobb acknowledged Emanuel was “fearless” enough to “step out on faith believing that his vision was the right vision.” But he dropped the ball on the execution phase.
“You don’t just ram it down peoples’ throats. You try to coalesce and get people to come on board with you. That’s where I find him lacking,” she said. “He had a very paternalistic approach, especially when it came to black people, of, ‘I know what’s best for you.’ That was established, almost from day one.”
The 2012 Chicago public school teachers’ strike was a classic example.
Emanuel famously used profanity in an early confrontation with then-Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, infuriated her members by cancelling a previously-negotiated 4 percent pay raise for teachers, then added insult to injury by convincing the Illinois General Assembly to raise the strike-vote threshold to 75 percent.
Chicago teachers were so incensed, they blew past that benchmark easily, with 90 percent voting to strike. They remained on the picket lines for seven days and got the better of the mayor when the strike was finally settled.
Emanuel has told associates that if he had the chance to undo even one of his decisions as mayor, he would never have canceled the teacher pay raise. The move was seen as sheer arrogance.
The same could be said for Emanuel’s pre-strike decision to force immediate implementation of the longer school day, Cobb said.
“He decided, ‘I’m gonna make it go into effect right now. I’m not gonna work with CTU. I’m just gonna do it.’ He offered individual principals money to have them implement a longer school day earlier than was scheduled by law,” Cobb recalled.
“It wasn’t that many schools in the end. But every day, there was an announcement. Drip, drip, drip to give the impression that, ‘I’ve got all of this support.’ From the beginning, he set the tone. That tone was, ‘I know best for you. I’m going to do it. I’m gonna ram it down your throat. And I will do whatever it takes to get my way.'”
Moore called the closing of 50 Chicago Public Schools, nearly all of them on the South and West sides, the most egregious example of Emanuel’s failed leadership.
“He was right to acknowledge that it made no sense to keep schools open that were only 25 percent occupied. It made no sense to spend money on keeping buildings open, rather than educating children,” Moore said. “But he should have spent more time before he announced the school closings to bring people along, to show that he understood that it’s very traumatic to people to have a school closed even if their school was failing.
“It still would have been a very politically unpopular thing to do. But if he had done so in a more collaborative fashion, he would have accomplished the same goal without as much political fallout.”
There are other equally glaring examples of Emanuel’s failed leadership.
There was the tone-deaf plan to build a selective enrollment high school named after Barack Obama and put it on the North Side — not on the South Side that needs it most and where the former president got his start as a community organizer.
“I hurt people’s feelings. Backed down. … In my desire to have the first high school named after him and have it here, I became my own worst enemy, and I know it, and I stopped it,” Emanuel told the Chicago Sun-Times in February 2015, shortly before being forced into Chicago’s first mayoral runoff.
Emanuel’s ill-fated proposal to permanently re-name Stony Island Avenue in honor of Bishop Arthur Brazier falls into that same category.
He announced the decision without consulting South Side aldermen, community leaders or businesses that would have suffered from the costly and confusing inconvenience of having their address changed.
Once again, a community uproar forced the mayor to back down.
A more recent example is the $95 million police and fire training academy in West Garfield Park that critics call a symbol of Emanuel’s misplaced spending priorities.
Even if you believe, as Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot does, that Chicago needs a new police academy to replace an “incredibly antiquated” facility that “can’t meet” training demands of the recently-implemented consent decree, the execution was all wrong.
“This is typical Rahm. Rather than engaging the community in the conversation on the front end and being transparent to elicit their input on something that’s gonna dramatically affect their lives, he once again has done a top-down, shove-it-down-the-throats-of-the-community conversation,” Lightfoot, the former Police Board president who co-chaired the mayor’s Task Force on Police Accountability, told the Sun-Times in November.
Moore was among those who went along with the police academy project, tying the new mayor’s hands.
But he agreed with Lightfoot that Emanuel mishandled the issue.
“When it came to the left, he did have a tin ear. I don’t think he realized [how it would be viewed], especially in light of what’s been going on in terms of Laquan McDonald, in terms of Ferguson, in terms of all of these cases” of excessive force, Moore said. “It hurt people like me. Friends of his who represented a very progressive community were hurt because, as much as I tried to get the message out, it was hard to do.”
Of all the leadership stumbles over the last eight years, one stands out most to Cobb: Emanuel’s handling of the Laquan McDonald shooting video.
Even if you believe that Emanuel did not withhold the video to get past the 2015 mayoral election, Cobb said he should have known better than to blindly follow the city’s longstanding practice of withholding shooting videos to avoid compromising ongoing criminal investigations.
The dashcam video of now-convicted former Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting McDonald 16 times was ultimately released, only after a judge ordered the city to do so.
“Where was the outrage? Where was, ‘Let me be a leader?’ Where was, ‘Let me make sure this never happens again?'” Cobb said. “What would make you think this isn’t gonna come out in the end? Everything comes out in the end. So what you do is, you get ahead of it. He, of all people, should have known to get ahead of it” by releasing the video himself before the court order.
Moore acknowledged a mayor who has served as a strategist at the highest levels of national Democratic politics “should have realized immediately that the political climate had changed and simply following old protocols was not gonna suffice in this heightened awareness of police misconduct and tensions between police and the African American community.
“Clearly, if he had gotten out in front of it and said, ‘This is terrible. This should not be countenanced. Here’s what we need to do. We need to bring in the Justice Department,’ a good argument could be made that he would have won re-election” to a third-term, Moore said.