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Crime, schools and race all hound Rahm Emanuel

Mayor Rahm Emanuel. File Photo.  I Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel. File Photo. I Scott Stewart~Sun-Times

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Updated: August 17, 2012 6:43AM



The honeymoon may or may not be over for Mayor Rahm Emanuel. But, let’s put it this way: The romance is gone.

This week, Emanuel returned from a week-long summer vacation to the political equivalent of a punch in the nose. He was forced to face the music about three intransigent problems with the potential to trip him up: crime, schools and racial diversity.

Fueled by a 39 percent spike in Chicago’s homicide rate that has become a media obsession both locally and nationally, African-American aldermen were demanding the return of specialized police units disbanded to put more officers on beat patrol.

Chicago’s convention and tourism chief warned that the spike in homicides and a troubling return to mob attacks downtown was making meeting planners nervous about whether Chicago is a safe place to visit.

The Chicago Sun-Times turned up the heat with an analysis that showed nearly two-thirds of Emanuel’s City Hall cabinet is white.

And the mayor was forced to explain why he authorized a $5.7 billion school budget that leaves the Chicago Public Schools without a penny in the bank, even though he has ridiculed Richard M. Daley for selling off Chicago parking meters and spending the proceeds to hold the line on taxes at City Hall.

The spending plan that builds in a two percent pay raise for teachers being asked to work a 20 percent longer school day and year — and sets the stage for a $1 billion school deficit next year — promptly led to a downgrade in the CPS bond rating that determines school borrowing costs.

The school budget was also condemned at a raucous public hearing by a jeering crowd packed with supporters of the Chicago Teachers Union, whose members have overwhelmingly authorized a strike.

For 16 months, Emanuel has been hailed as a hero for diffusing the land mines Daley left behind. Now, he’s the one wearing the flak jacket for Chicago’s most entrenched problems.

Even his closest political allies acknowledge that the honeymoon — at least in the news media — is drawing to a close.

“I’m surprised he’s had a year and [two] months of somewhat straightforward coverage,” said Bill Daley, who succeeded Emanuel as White House chief of staff.

“I don’t care if you’re in a business or politics, you’ve got to show results and it’s a tough time to do that — a terribly tough time to lead anything. You can pick the easy, low-hanging fruit. Then, it gets tougher. You’re now coming up against some major issues that are fundamental to governing: schools and crime. Some, you have control over. Some, you don’t.”

Ald. Pat O’Connor (40th), the mayor’s City Council floor leader, was asked whether he believes Emanuel’s honeymoon is over.

“In the media, yes. There is a turn toward actually trying to pile on. Up until now, they’ve had very little to criticize. Now, they can take these issues and turn them into controversies that might turn public opinion against the mayor,” he said.

“But, not in terms of people in the neighborhoods. They think he’s all over these issues and working toward solutions.”

David Axelrod, Emanuel’s former White House colleague and friend of 30 years, added, “There’s a newness factor that wears off. But, what people see in him today is what they saw in the beginning: a lot of intensity and energy and focus [to tackle] one big challenge after another.”

Political honeymoons are largely determined by the media, and reporters who cover Emanuel are growing tired of the mayor’s attempts to spin, control and manipulate them.

When the city was widely-praised for its handling of the NATO summit, it was Police Supt. Garry McCarthy who got the accolades — not Emanuel. That’s even though the mayor stuck his neck out to get the event and squeezed business leaders to spend $33 million to fund it.

“I took a risk in asking for the largest NATO conference in the 63-year history of NATO. ... I do know who would have taken responsibility if it wasn’t done right,” Emanuel, who’s used to commanding the media spotlight, told the City Council on the day aldermen honored McCarthy.

When Emanuel tried to package all of the city’s previously announced infrastructure projects into one big bundle with 30,000 jobs and a $7.3 billion pricetag, the only media outlet that bought it as new was the New York Times, where the story was planted.

Two weeks ago, the New York Times used its front page to train an unflattering spotlight on Chicago’s rising homicide rate, no doubt prompting CBS News to follow.

The first few times Emanuel tried to claim credit for private sector jobs coming to Chicago, the announcements were breathlessly reported as a coup for the new mayor and proof that the business community supported the tough decisions he was making.

Now, those jobs announcements are reported with scant mention of the mayor unless a city subsidy is attached.

Chicago aldermen also help determine the length of mayoral honeymoons and they, too are growing restless, with African America-oriented radio helping to instigate the feistiness.

After the Sun-Times wrote about the shortage of African-Americans in policy-making jobs, black aldermen took a beating on radios with mostly black audiences for failing to take a stand against Emanuel.

They had earlier gone along with the mayor’s surprise plan to shut down the south leg of the CTA’s Red Line for five months amid promises of jobs and contracts for African-Americans.

“When the constituency pushes us, we push back to show that we’re trying to address these issues,” said Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), chairman of the City Council’s Black Caucus.

“Crime is an issue in all of our wards. But, there have been more murders concentrated in certain wards, and you’re seeing that frustration as to why can’t we stop it.”

The heat on Emanuel is only going to intensify.

A fact-finder’s report on the new teacher’s contract is scheduled to be released Monday. If either side refused to accept the recommendations, the countdown toward a walkout could begin.

“If there’s a teachers strike, you can officially say the honeymoon has ended,” Brookins said.

“We’re gonna have everyday moms out there saying, ‘What am I gonna do with my kids?’ How am I gonna go to work if I have no plans for what to do with my child?’”

By the end of the month, the mayor will release a preliminary city budget that’s certain to include another massive deficit that will have to be closed with more layoffs, service cuts and new revenues.

Emanuel is under the gun to cut a deal with city unions to solve the city’s $27.4 billion pension crisis in time for that agreement to be ratified during the Legislature’s fall veto session.

And the mayor’s demand for cost-cutting concessions from Chicago firefighters, police officers and other unionized city employees could result in protracted contract talks ultimately resolved by an arbitrator.

“There’s likely to be a bitter confrontation and a teachers strike. And the following year is like dropping off a cliff. There’s nothing left to buffer the cuts,” said former independent Ald. Dick Simpson (44th), head of the political science department at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“It will mean shuttering schools and cutting back major services because there’s a property tax limit. It’s the same mistake Daley made with spending all the parking meter money that was supposed to last for 75 years and it’s now gone.”

Despite aldermanic pushback on Emanuel’s plans for speed cameras and the $1.7 billion Infrastructure Trust, Simpson noted the new mayor still has a “rubber stamp” City Council.

“But, it’s more restive and may turn against him if the murder rate stays at unacceptable levels, particularly in the African-American community, and if there is a school strike this fall because of the cost of lengthening the school day. Then, some of those things may cause a backlash in the City Council as well as the public,” Simpson said.

Jacky Grimshaw, who served as former Mayor Harold Washington’s intergovernmental affairs chief, said Emanuel’s honeymoon — or its demise — will be determined by how he responds to public criticism on vexing issues such as schools and crime.

“If you solve those problem in concert with the community, you have a chance,” said Grimshaw, a gubernatorial appointee to the CTA board.

“If he ignores the community, if he ignores the aldermen, if he continues to be driven by what comes out of his brain and those of his advisors to the exclusion of the community, that’s a problem for him. Then, it becomes a charade that you really don’t want public input.”

Richard M. Daley enjoyed a honeymoon that lasted three years — until a disastrous 1992 that featured the Loop flood, the demise of Daley’s plans for a downtown casino and Lake Calumet airport and the Michigan summer home brawl at an unauthorized party hosted by the mayor’s then-teenaged son, Patrick.

Bill Daley said there’s a reason his brother’s honeymoon was longer.

“There was such a relief after all the racial strife and ‘Beirut-on-the-lake’ stuff. There was a sense the city had gone through a period of not a lot of growth. It was a different time,” Bill Daley said, referring to the Council Wars power struggle that raged during much of Washington’s tenure.

Although Emanuel is notoriously obsessed with commanding headlines and controlling the media narrative, Bill Daley said he will have to learn to roll with the punches.

“He tries to … keep the discussion within certain boundaries. But, these are difficult, big things you can’t control,” Bill Daley said, of the school and crime issues.

“Sometimes reality changes, and you’ve got to deal with it. All you can do is plow through it every day. There’s no alternative. If you live by you all [in the media], you’ll be in a mental institution shortly.”



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