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Rahm Emanuel’s year: Teachers strike, crime rates test mayor

Mayor Rahm Emanuel fell off his political pedestal 2012 but he dusted himself off kept moving forward. He survived teachers

Mayor Rahm Emanuel fell off his political pedestal in 2012, but he dusted himself off and kept moving forward. He survived a teachers strike, replaced the CPS CEO and struggled to control a spike in homicides. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: January 29, 2013 6:20AM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel fell off his political pedestal in 2012, but he dusted himself off, kept moving forward and managed to avoid the sophomore jinx.

In year two of his whirlwind administration, Emanuel survived a seven-day teachers strike that he had helped instigate; parted company with a highly touted schools CEO who turned out to be a bad fit, and struggled to control a spike in homicides that became a national media obsession.

A deftly handled NATO Summit that could have been a disaster instead gave the city a chance to shine on the world stage.

Controversies over a new ward map and the mayor’s plans for everything from speed cameras, marijuana tickets, food trucks and an Infrastructure Trust to the temporary shutdown of the CTA’s Red Line and the permanent closure of up to 100 Chicago Public Schools were either put to rest or put off.

And President Barack Obama was re-elected with a huge assist from Emanuel, his former White House chief of staff.

That raised Emanuel’s lofty national profile, which he has spent a career cultivating.

It’s also likely to pay political dividends for Chicago.

The year began the way it always does for Chicago’s first family — with another exotic Christmas vacation, this time to Chile and Argentina.

Emanuel returned to Chicago in January saying he takes his kids to a different part of the world each year, joking, “When you grow up again, you want to be an Emanuel child.”

Library Commissioner Mary Dempsey apparently didn’t feel the same about being a member of Emanuel’s cabinet.

Unwilling to preside over the dismantling of a library system she helped to build, Dempsey resigned to protest Emanuel’s decision to target libraries for 50 percent of the layoffs in his first budget.

It would be the first of several high-profile departures in 2012, including Chicago’s fire and streets and sanitation commissioners and the head of World Business Chicago.

Contentious negotiations on a new ward map ended peacefully with the mayor’s help — without a vote to spare — in a way that rewarded gains in Hispanic population, minimized losses in the African-American population and endangered half a dozen incumbents.

With the once-a-decade political bloodletting out of the way, the mayor reformed the taxicab industry, brokered the shutdown of two coal-fired power plants and rolled over aldermen who opposed his plan to siphon the state income-tax refunds of parking ticket scofflaws and red-light camera deadbeats.

Hammering away at Richard M. Daley without ever mentioning his name, Emanuel embraced a 10-year economic blueprint for Chicago with a claim that the city was emerging from a “lost decade.”

Among the bold steps suggested was a “colleges-to-careers” makeover that got its start under Daley to prepare City Colleges students for jobs in growth industries.

Emanuel kept it rolling with plans to build a new $251 million Malcolm X College to train students for careers in health care and a $42.2 million Transportation, Distribution and Logistics center at Olive Harvey College.

He also persuaded five technology giants to join forces with the Chicago Public Schools and City Colleges to open six-year public high schools that allow students to graduate with an associate’s degree and the expertise to qualify for high-tech jobs.

Motorola Mobility announced plans to move 3,000 employees from north suburban Libertyville to Chicago’s Merchandise Mart. Emanuel called it a “game-changer” and proclaimed Chicago the high-tech hub of the Midwest, then swallowed hard as Google cut 4,000 jobs worldwide, 750 of them at Motorola Mobility.

In mid-February, rank-and-file Chicago firefighters lost their champion heading into contentious contract talks. Fire Commissioner Robert Hoff — a third-generation hero whose father was killed in the line of duty — abruptly resigned after saying he was “deathly against” closing firehouses or reducing minimum staffing requirements.

Without Hoff to protect the troops, Emanuel took aim at treasured perks that raise firefighter pay and cost taxpayers millions.

Union leaders dismissed the plan as “insulting.”

In early March, Emanuel suffered a political embarrassment that even he didn’t see coming.

Obama abruptly shifted the G-8 summit from Chicago to Camp David, splintering what was supposed to be a doubleheader showcase at McCormick Place culminating in the NATO Summit.

The G-8 snub turned out to be a blessing. Anarchists bent on destruction largely stayed away from the NATO Summit and those who did come were deftly handled by well-trained Chicago Police.

Emanuel stuck his neck out to get the NATO Summit, squeezed business leaders to fund it and imposed strict rules and fines governing public protests before softening those regulations under pressure from Chicago aldermen.

But all of the post-summit accolades went to Police Supt. Garry McCarthy, whose frontline leadership in helping to diffuse a potentially volatile confrontation with Black Bloc provocateurs at Michigan and Cermak turned him into a folk hero.

McCarthy’s turn on the pedestal was short-lived. It wasn’t long before he was under the gun once again for a surge in gang-related homicides and shootings. Homicides surged 66 percent during the first quarter of 2012, before leveling off to a still troubling 25 percent. By late October, Chicago had passed its homicide total for all of 2011

African-American aldermen questioned the Emanuel-McCarthy strategy of putting more officers on beat patrol at the expense of disbanding specialized units.

Emanuel and McCarthy insisted their holistic, anti-gang strategies were making steady progress and that overall crime was dropping.

They even persuaded an emotionally torn City Council to help by authorizing tickets for people caught in Chicago with small amounts of marijuana, eliminating the need to cart offenders off to jail. Forced to choose between their desire to get more police officers on the street and their fears about sending the wrong message to kids about drugs, it wasn’t even close. The vote was 43-3.

In early June, black aldermen got a political headache that had nothing to do with crime.

The CTA announced plans to rebuild and shut down the south leg of the Red Line, inconveniencing thousands of commuters who would be offered free shuttle bus service to the Green Line and 50-cent discounts on other bus rides.

Emanuel argued that the stunning five-month closing would save $75 million and would trump the alternative — four years of weekend-only shutdowns.

He also vowed to give minority contractors a piece of the pie, use construction savings to improve South Side stations, hire local residents to drive shuttle buses and retain those new drivers even after the work is done.

The mayoral promises persuaded South Side aldermen to go along with his plan. It remains to be seen whether their constituents will be so tolerant when the inconvenience begins.

The Red Line controversy would pale by comparison to the upheaval in the public schools.

Chicago teachers went on strike for the first time in 25 years, fueled by their anger against a mayor who stripped them of a previously negotiated 4 percent pay raise and offered schools and teachers extra money to waive the teachers contract and immediately implement his longer school day. The strike damaged Chicago’s reputation and turned teachers union President Karen Lewis into a folk hero.

The seven-day strike ended only after Emanuel took a political beating. But he came out with his signature education initiatives intact, including the longer day, a modified teacher-evaluation system and the right for principals to pick their own teaching teams.

But by agreeing to teacher raises above a budget that drained every last penny of reserves, Emanuel essentially locked in four years of up-to-the-limit property tax increases and the closing of more than 100 underused schools.

Less than a month after teachers returned to their classrooms, the strike claimed its first casualty.

Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard, one of Emanuel’s showcase hires, resigned by “mutual agreement” after just 17 months. Brizard had angered the mayor by going on vacation in the runup to the strike and, more importantly, by falling short as a manager.

Emanuel denied his decision to send Brizard packing with one year of his $250,000 salary — and replace him with interim chief education officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett — was a political embarrassment.

As schools CEO, Byrd-Bennett will preside over the political bloodbath of school closings. She promptly won a change in state law that will allow her to push back the deadline for announcing a hit list of schools until March 31.

In exchange, she agreed to do it once, then swear off school closings for five years while retaining the right to shake up schools for academic reasons.

Emanuel’s chosen CTA team similarly promised to hold the line on basic fares through 2015 after raising pass prices and nailing down $60 million in union concessions.

Although school closings and painful solutions to the city’s pension and retiree health-care crises were punted to 2013, the year ended with an Emanuel-style frenzy of activity.

Aldermen approved the mayor’s no-new-taxes, “calm-before-the-storm” budget, then moved on to authorize digital billboards, a new supplier of electricity to give consumers a modest break and a new city vending-machine contract that’ll make it tougher to purchase junk foods and sugary drinks.

At the last City Council meeting of the year, Emanuel gave himself a glowing year-end report card to get a jump on media critics.

As he prepared to take his wife and kids on another exotic trip, he told aldermen, “I want you to rest up. Take this holiday season with your family, because I know you have this sneaking suspicion I’m not gonna slow down. . . . At every level, we’re gonna keep bringing reform and change and shaping our future, rather than be shaped by it. . . . I hope this was as rewarding and fulfilling for you as it has been for me and I look forward, after your rest, to a very aggressive schedule in 2013.”

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