If the mayor’s office was a baseball team, you’d need a new scorecard.
In the last few months alone, eight key staffers have left Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s side.
The turnover has included: senior adviser and alter-ego David Spielfogel; strategy chief Clo Ewing; director of public engagement Ken Bennett; speechwriter Steve Silver; deputy chief of staff Meghan Harte; “body man” Mike Faulman; and Sean Rapelyea, deputy director of the Office of Legislative Counsel and Government Affairs.
This week, Kelley Quinn added her name to the growing departure list. She spent two years on the hot seat as Emanuel’s communications director before moving to a less stressful job as deputy chief of staff.
What’s causing the revolving door to spin in Emanuel’s office?
It’s a combination of the five-year itch and the strain of helping Emanuel weather the worst of the political storm stemming from his decision to keep the Laquan McDonald shooting video under wraps for more than a year and release it only after a judge ordered the city to do so.
There’s also mounting speculation that a second term will be Emanuel’s last, either because he chooses not to run in 2019 or because he is mortally wounded and rendered unelectable by the Laquan McDonald controversy and the massive tax increases needed to right the financial ship.
Yet another factor is the detached management style of chief of staff Eileen Mitchell, a former top aide to Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago). It’s a far cry from the warmth and savvy people skills of Mitchell’s predecessor, Lisa Schrader.
“Eileen Mitchell has gone through Madigan boot camp and that’s how they operate,” a mayoral confidante said about Mitchell’s close-to-the-vest coldness.
Another source said Mitchell’s problem is less about her history with Madigan and more about the fact that she doesn’t know city government and “builds a wall” instead of asking for help.
Whatever the reason for the wave of departures, it could spell trouble for Emanuel.
“The danger is, he’s forced to spend more time doing day-to-day strategy and less time leading,” another mayoral adviser said. “That should be a role left to others. But it would be easy for him to slip back into that role because he’s done it for others before. It comes naturally.”
Quinn said she “learned more about communications and messaging, particularly from the mayor” over the last three years than she did in her entire career.
“I went through Blagojevich [scandal and impeachment] and that was nothing compared to dealing with what happened when that [Laquan McDonald] video was released,” she recalled.
“From the beginning, all the mayor cared about was that Chicago did not become another Ferguson or Baltimore or New York. He wanted people to be able to exercise their First Amendment rights, but to do it peacefully. That’s what I carry in my head,” she said. “That when we learned that the local press was here to cover the story and cover it straight while the national press wanted things to erupt.”
During the darkest days when protesters were relentlessly demanding Emanuel’s resignation, it was the mayor who picked up his staff, not the other way around, Quinn said.
“He knew we were tired and working around the clock. He told us to hang in there,” said Quinn, who is joining the communications firm run by former Mayor Richard M. Daley’s former campaign manager Carolyn Grisko.
“Some people put off their resignations to get him through it. They put their lives on hold to stay,” she said. “Once you’ve been here, you’re always part of the family. If he calls and asks my advice, I’ll give it to him.”
Earlier this month, the Rev. Jesse Jackson accused Emanuel of sitting on the Laquan McDonald shooting video until he was safely re-elected.
The mayor emphatically denied the charge — again. That’s even though he has acknowledged that he “added to the suspicion and distrust” of everyday Chicagoans by blindly following the city’s long-standing practice of withholding shooting videos to avoid compromising ongoing criminal investigations.
On Thursday, Quinn added an exclamation point to the mayor’s denial.
“There was no sitting on the video. It was the same practice that had been followed for years. He’s addressed it and he’s making changes that needed to be made. The things we accomplished, particularly for police accountability — are part of history and it’s still being made. I’m proud of that,” she said.