By Erick Johnson
The time has come for Mayor Rahm Emanuel to say goodbye to 121 North LaSalle. In a few days, he will be gone from City Hall. Lori Lightfoot will be the new ruler. On May 20, she will usher in a new era in Chicago.
Since April 2 when Lightfoot swept all 50 wards to become the Chicago’s first Black female mayor, excitement has been building. Leading a city of 2.7 million people, Lightfoot aims to crack the machine politics at City Hall with a transparent administration that aims to treat the city’s diverse neighborhoods equally.
Many see Lightfoot as the real deal. Her predecessor leaves office as a mayor who gave the city a world-class image that simply wasn’t real. In the end, Emanuel left a legacy and reputation as the “One Percent Mayor” who, as a Democrat, served big developers and the city’s affluent areas while leaving the South and West Sides in shambles. The reality was, under Emanuel Chicago was good for tourists, but not for many of its residents.
While many residents prepare to celebrate the beginning of Lightfoot’s term, editors and reporters across the city are perhaps celebrating the end of Emanuel’s administration. It was also a machine that operated under an image-obsessed, control freak who went to great lengths to portray Chicago as a world-class city.
During his eight years in office, Emanuel’s administration was often sued for denying media requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act. In 2016, the Better Government Association successfully sued the city after they learned Emanuel was doing business on his personal emails. When those documents were released, they showed Emanuel’s well-oiled press team that closely watched television newscasts and read stories in daily newspapers about the mayor. The mayor made guest appearances on late night shows on NBC and CBS. Since 2017, Emanuel has featured his own podcast. Titled, “Chicago Stories,” he interviewed many prominent figures, including historian Timuel Black and Windy City personality Val Warner.
After eight years, Emanuel leaves office without giving a single, sit-down, face-to-face interview with the Crusader.
In 2017, he called the Crusader for a brief interview about the opening of the Roundhouse facility at the DuSable Museum. The questions were restricted to the opening, which coincided with the Chicago Architectural Biennial. It’s an international exhibition that showcases groundbreaking architectural projects in Chicago, or is it to showcase Emanuel and his works of art?
During his eight years in office, Emanuel sent out at least 3,490 press releases. On many days, his office posted three to four press releases. Many of the press releases were about goals that fit Emanuel’s equation to build on his idea of a world-class city and that is a city with great schools, a fabulous airport (O’Hare), an impressive downtown with fancy hotels, attractions and skyscrapers that leaves tourists awestruck. Put it all together and you have one great destination city that leaves tourists impressed with a rosy view of a city that’s fraught with racial tensions, corruption, police misconduct and severe economic disparities among residents.
In 2012, Emanuel laid the foundation for his grand design by creating Choose Chicago, the city’s tourism bureau that aims to draw visitors to the city. The bureau would play a key role in making Emanuel’s vision a success.
Since then, downtown Chicago has added four five-star hotels, three new skyscrapers (and more on the way) and the new Riverwalk—a string of shops and restaurants on the Chicago River. In February, Emanuel’s press team fired off a press release to report that three prominent Chicago hotels—the Peninsula Chicago, the Four Seasons and the Langham—made U.S. News and World Report’s 2019 list of the best hotels in the nation.
Under Emanuel’s administration, Navy Pier—the biggest tourist attraction in the city— has been transformed with a $278 million renovation that includes a new 100-foot Ferris wheel installed in 2015.
During his term in office, McDonalds, Sara Lee, Oscar Mayer, Motorola, Kraft-Heinz, Allstate, and S.C. Johnson have relocated their headquarters downtown.
In 2016, Grant Park was the site of the NFL’s Draft Town, a three-day spectacle that reportedly cost the professional league only $103,000, when it was valued at $3.2 million.
Over the years, these achievements have boosted Chicago’s profile and generated a record 58 million visitors in 2018, capping a winning streak of successful efforts to lure tourists. Last year, Conde Nast Traveler named Chicago as the “Best City in the U.S.” for the second year in a row. The report came as the latest U.S. Census numbers showed nearly 200,000 residents moved out of Chicago in the past several years.
To build on Emanuel’s vision, his aides often sent out press releases touting the latest achievements and graduation rates in Chicago Public Schools, only to be embarrassed by reports of the mayor inflating the figures.
Many press releases touted many refurbishments and upgrades at O’Hare Airport, which will get an unprecedented $8.5 billion expansion in the coming years. Meanwhile, the long-delayed $2.3 billion Red Line Extension project for Far South Side is still not complete. What efforts have been made to secure to make pay for the project as other development projects are moving forward?
One month after he took office in 2011, Emanuel sent out a press release, praising Walgreens for the “quadruple number of stores in the city’s food deserts.” He sent out another press release in 2014 praising Walgreens for their commitment to the city. Then, in 2017, Walgreens began closing stores in South Shore, Woodlawn, Roseland and other neighborhoods. Emanuel’s public relations team was silent.
Last year, when Target decided to close two of its stores in Chatham and Morgan Park while moving forward on its plans to open a new one on the North Side, where was Emanuel or his press team?
To his credit, Emanuel did a number of impressive things in Black neighborhoods.
In January, the $280 million renovation of the 95th Street Red Line Station was completed after the southern terminal was completed in 2018.
Under Emanuel, the city renovated the Whitney Young and Carter G. Woodson Chicago Public Library branches. In the past three years, three spectacular bridges were built linking Bronzeville to the city’s lush lakefront. Three major supermarkets—Mariano’s, Whole Foods and Jewel—have opened up in Bronzeville, Englewood and Woodlawn.
Many students have benefitted from Chicago’s STAR Scholarship fund, which started in 2015. It allows students who graduate from CPS with a 3.0 GPA and who are test completion-ready in math and English to pursue an associate degree at the City Colleges of Chicago at no cost with free tuition and books.
In February, Emanuel announced plans to build a new, state-of-the-art, all-weather, eight lane track and athletic turf at Ogden Park in Englewood.
Under Emanuel, many Blacks were appointed to head various city departments. They include: Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson; Chicago Public Schools’ CEO Dr. Janice Jackson; Chicago Housing Authority CEO Eugene Jones; Chicago Transit Authority President Dorval Carter; Chicago Fire Commissioner Richard Ford; Chicago Water Department Commissioner Randy Conner; and Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Charles Williams.
However, questions remain whether these public figures have any real power under a mayor who often pushes his agenda with appointees. And many of these departments have fallen short in serving Chicago’s Black residents.
In 2018, Emanuel and Johnson signed a historic consent decree to implement reforms in the police department. It was an achievement, but much credit is given to then-Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Black Lives Matter activists, who sued the city when Emanuel and Johnson slowly backpedaled on promises to implement reforms under court oversight.
Since 2011, Chicago has paid half a billion dollars in police misconduct cases.
Then there was the big racial discrimination lawsuit against the Chicago Water Department. Six employees—five of them Black—alleged they were routinely denied promotions and transfers and harassed. Some were fired. Emanuel appointed Conner to replace Barrett Murphy, a friend of the Mayor, who was forced to resign after a city inspector general’s investigation turned up racist and sexist emails. The lawsuit accuses Emanuel of trying to hide the emails, which the plaintiffs are seeking to get released.
Emanuel leaves with other spots on his record. In 2012, he closed six mental health clinics to save $3 million. That same year, the Chicago Teachers Union leveled a crippling strike against Chicago Public Schools. In 2013, Emanuel closed a record 50 public schools, many of them on the south and west sides. That decision left scars on many parents and teachers in the Black community. Then in 2018, there was the sexual abuse and bullying scandal in CPS, where administrators and principals failed to report to police on cases involving dozens of innocent teenagers.
Currently, the city sits on $400 million in surplus funds to build more housing as 50,000 residents languish on wait lists for vouchers for places to live. The city never replaced the number of public housing developments as promised in the CHA’s Plan for Transformation. And as shootings ripped through neighborhoods on the South and West Sides, less than 20 percent of those crimes were solved.
Then, there was the proposed Obama Presidential Center and Library on 19 acres in Jackson Park. It was originally planned to boost the beleaguered Washington Park and the neighborhood. After those plans changed, Emanuel pushed his former boss’ plans through the City Council, despite demands for a community benefits agreement with residents in Woodlawn and South Shore.
Originally, the Obama Foundation told the press that it needed to close Cornell Drive. As it turned out, those plans also included closing Marquette Drive, which the press was told was part of plans to merge the southern part of Jackson Park with South Shore to create a $30 million championship golf course designed by Tiger Woods. That plan came without public hearings, but in one of Emanuel’s personal emails, Chicago Park District Superintendent Mark Kelly wrote, “We must be very cautious as this community typically weighs in loudly on any capital project that makes change.”
Finally, the biggest stain of all on Emanuel’s resume is the Laquan McDonald case. He tried, but failed to keep a video from being released. In 2016, a Cook County judge ordered the city to release the dash cam tapes, which showed Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting 17-year-old McDonald 16 times. Protests erupted throughout the city, and Chicago was on the evening newscasts around the world.
When he decided not to run for a third term on September 4, 2018, Emanuel posted a press release that included positive comments about him from powerful political figures, including Obama, former President Bill Clinton, Senator Dick Durbin, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and 14th Ward Alderman Ed Burke, whom federal prosecutors in January charged with attempted extortion of two owners of a Burger King restaurant in his ward.
Soon, Blacks and many in Chicago began to see through Emanuel’s image. Many felt betrayed and disrespected. Once viewed as an ambitious figure, Emanuel now looked like an opportunist who used Black voters to advance his political career. In the end after years of dogging the press, Emanuel struggled to be transparent and real to the ordinary folks of Chicago.
Though he has denied any wrongdoing, Emanuel suppressed the video as he sought re-election in the city’s first-ever mayoral runoff against Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.
Emanuel won two of his terms with the help of Black voters, many of whom forgave him for closing 50 public schools. Although he apologized for the situation, Emanuel never came fully clean about his role in the alleged cover-up.
In deciding whether to run for re-election, Emanuel’s image was not enough to save him.