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Red Line, reading and re-election — Rahm gets a mid-term exam

Mayor Rahm Emanuel during mid-term interview his City Hall office Tuesday May 7 2013.  |  John H. White~Sun-Times

Mayor Rahm Emanuel during mid-term interview in his City Hall office, Tuesday, May 7, 2013. | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Listen: Rahm Emanuel on Garry McCarthy, loyalty and whether he would work for himself
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Updated: June 13, 2013 6:23PM

If press releases translated into votes, Chicago’s self-promoting Mayor Rahm Emanuel would win re-election in a landslide.

He might do that anyway in 2015. But, his popularity is slipping as he prepares to confront two huge controversies that threaten to further erode his standing among black voters who helped put him in office: the temporary shut down of the CTA’s Red Line and the permanent closing of 54 Chicago Public schools.

Despite a promising quarterly decline in homicides and shootings, he’s also facing the traditional summer crime surge with two-thirds of the police overtime budget already depleted.

Earlier this week, a characteristically combative Emanuel sat down with the Chicago Sun-Times to reflect on his first two years in office and Thursday’s mid-term anniversary.

Q. Judging from your continued fund-raising, you’re running for re-election.

A. Correct.

Q. Will you serve out the four-year term if re-elected?

A. Yes. I mean — I can’t predict, obviously, a health crisis in the family. [But], that would be the only thing. I don’t want [a headline that says], ‘Mayor Won’t Pledge.’ I’m running for re-election, and I’m gonna serve out the term. And for the third time with you, I am not running for higher office — EVER. Done. ... I want Hillary or Joe [Biden] to run, and I will support either one. Whoever decides.

Q. What if Hillary says, “I want you to be my running mate” ?

A. Please. I’m gonna be mayor/ …This is a hypothetical. I’m not doing hypotheticals.

Q. Would you say “no” to Hillary Clinton — someone you know and respect and who Democrats are clamoring to run for president?

A. This is a moot and mute point. I’m home. I’m done traveling …I don’t want to go back there — and plus, the chief-of-staff has a bigger office than the vice-president.

Q. When you look back on the first two years, what are your greatest frustrations? Where do you say, “Boy, I messed that up”?

A. I used to have a joke at the White House: If we knew in the first year of the first term what we knew by the first year of the second, we’d be geniuses. There’s always a learning [curve]. And there’s a great quote by Bobby Kennedy: “What you’re looking for in a chief executive is somebody [who] can learn.” You don’t come in with all the answers. You come in with a philosophy, but you have to learn.

Q. What about your frustrations?

A. Changing the culture to have a culture of accountability is probably one of the most rewarding and most difficult things I’m trying to do. ... There’s days we’ve made real progress on it and days when it’s the hardest thing to crack because there’s a self-contained culture [of self-interest] in city government.

Q. The Red Line closing is going to mess peoples’ lives up for five months. Nothing worse than messing with someone’s commute. Are you worried about the backlash?

A. The only part of the system in [ridership] decline was the Red Line South. The service was so horrendous. It had the worst slow zones because the tracks were so old. Stations were horrible. I made a pledge — given that 38 percent of the entire CTA ridership is on one line — that we’re gonna modernize the system. ... It could have been done before. It wasn’t.

Q. No one is quarreling with the end. It’s the means.

A. There was a big debate, and we went into the community about it. We listened. Do it over five years every weekend or save $75 million and plow the money into improving the stations and do it in five months … Yes, it’s difficult. [But] we’re giving free bus rides. We’re hiring 400 more bus drivers.

Q. Are you worried about five months of commuting nightmares?

A. Any time you make change to peoples’ routines, that’s gonna be difficult. ... There’s a backlash to keeping a system bad, and there’s a backlash to making the changes. I always joke: People hate the status quo. They’re not excited about change, either. What’s the [alternative] backlash? You’re not investing in my community. ... Doing it over five years and delaying all of that benefit vs. deal with it now. Get it done. Get the economic impact fast and furious. I understand those are trade-offs, [but] government is not “this or nothing.” It’s “this or that and I chose” to do it fast.

Q. Same philosophy with school closings. Get it done. Don’t phase it in. Why not? This is a monumental undertaking. Never been done before [on this scale] anywhere in the United States.

A. If we had basically dealt with eight or nine schools a year, we wouldn’t have it built up where you have 100,000-plus fewer children in the school system than [capacity]. It has been postponed, delayed and deferred. It’s had a real educational and budgetary impact. This school got a window. That school got air-conditioning. But, schools never got windows and air-conditioning. You did not have the money to invest like we’re doing in the receiving schools.

Q. But, you’ve scale back your savings estimate by $122 million?

A. Because of the investment. Over the ten years, not. [Only] in the early years.

Q. What about the risk for 30,000 kids forced to travel further to school crossing rival gang turf?

A. That exists whether you do this or not. ... We took all the high schools off the list. That dealt with the issue of safety. We doubled the Safe Passage resources and made sure that the Police Department is at the front.

Q. What about parents who fear for their children’s safety?

A. There’s a risk to leaving them trapped in schools that are failing. ... I understand this is painful. I understand this is difficult. But, the status quo is worse than difficult.

Q. But, you still have to deliver on your promises to guarantee their safety and to guarantee their new schools are better.

A. And whether we did this or not, we’d have to guarantee their education and their safety.

Q. Don’t you feel the political heat of this?

A. Of course I do. There’s great political risk — no different than what people said during the [teachers’] strike. There’s political risk, and there’s also the shortest school day and the shortest school year. We had a strike for seven days. It was a strike of choice. Wrong choice for our children. Didn’t need to happen. Today, our kids are getting a full school day and full school year. They’re getting math and music, reading and recess. Was there political risk for the mayor? Sure. Was it a reputational risk for the city to have the shortest school day and school year where our children were being shortchanged? Absolutely. But, nobody, NOBODY is asking us as a city to go back. The question is, do I take the political risk or do the children take the risk of having an education that’s inferior to what they need for the rest of their lives? I will take the political risk so our children have a better education.

Q. The Police Department has already blown through two-thirds of its overtime budget and it’s not even summer. What will you do when you run out of overtime money?

A. We’ll come up with the resources. ... Most of the focus has been on impact zones. Four percent of the city’s geography was committing about 25 percent of all shootings, homicides and robberies. ... So, we are saturating those areas at a specific time: between 6 p.m. and 2 a.m. …We’re down 70 homicides for the year. We’re down 193 shootings. One piece is the foot patrols we’re introducing, which are full-time people — not overtime.

Q. Doesn’t the rapid pace of overtime spending cry out for hiring more officers? Why keep racking up overtime?

A. On the overtime specifically, I don’t think you can afford not to because it’s not been a lull. It’s had a bigger impact. ... I’m not gonna feel good until we get through the summer. But that said, the moment we adopted this strategic saturation in these targeted areas, it has had an impact on both shootings down a third and homicides down over 40 percent. And the measure in this foot patrol in the neighborhood is where a woman said to me, “I can now allow my child to walk to school.” That was the measure. We had finally gotten to where I want.

Q. But, where’s the money going to come from for overtime?

A. Well, we are making other changes, other efficiencies, other models to work on this. We will come up with the resources because the other way is not an option anymore.

Q. Are you looking at creating another citywide unit [like the disbanded Mobile Strike Force]?

A. No. Your own reporting on this has shown the problems with that. The lack of accountability. The lack of results. This is working. We’re constantly revising it. We’ve agreed with the saturation, [but] it’s strategically and geographically located and you can hold people accountable for specific areas, rather than citywide. That’s much different.

Q. Are you still satisfied with Police Supt. Garry McCarthy or have you tightened the reins on him?

A. I’m constantly pushing. I’m constantly asking questions about, “Have we thought about this? What about expanding? Do we want to move it to another area?” Back in March, while it was clear there was a decline happening, I said to Garry, “While we’ve figured out certain geographies are worse than other parts, certain individuals create more problems than other individuals.” And we’ll be rolling out a concentration on a number of individuals — about 500 or 600 throughout the city — who have a higher propensity to create crimes. ... Garry’s job is secure. ... Garry’s gonna be the superintendent. Barbara [Byrd-Bennett] is gonna be chancellor of the schools. I’m gonna be mayor. But, the public’s gonna have a vote on me. And I’m never satisfied with results.

Q. You made a change with your schools CEO [Jean-Claude Brizard]. How long is McCarthy’s job is safe? Until it heats up again or do you see him staying with you?

A. He’s staying with me.

Q. But, you’re on him all the time?

A. I’m on him. I’m on everybody. I’m holding everybody accountable — including myself. ... Even while we’re getting better, nobody’s allowed to spike the ball on the 20 yard line — EVER.

Q. Would you work for a boss like yourself?

A. Anybody will tell you I’m extremely loyal. I push people hard. But, they always know, no matter what, I have their back. Go ask anybody who’s ever worked for me in any White House or Congress who are still all friends — and I protect them.

Q. On the parking meter settlement, why the need to talk about [former Mayor Richard M.] Daley and say, “This should have been done. I’m a different kind of mayor.” Why do you still need to put down your predecessor?

A. You know that he’s a friend of mine. [But], I didn’t do the deal. ... He also agrees that it was not a good deal.

Q. He has acknowledged that wasn’t implemented right. He’s never admitted it wasn’t a good deal. Why put him down?

A. I didn’t. First of all, he’s a friend and will continue to be a friend. I have a great deal of admiration for his love and affection and what he did for the city. [But], there are things I’m gonna do different. I’m a different mayor with a different style, different age, different outlook, different experience. That deal is a bad deal. ... I said I was gonna make changes.

Q. The parking garage deal is another lemon [because of costly claims tied to the now broken city promise not to authorize a competing garage nearby.]

A. Why do you always have to put down my predecessor?

Q. What are you gonna do to settle that big-ticket item?

A. We’re working through a number of issues. That’s a separate item. We have to deal with this [parking meter deal] first. ... There’s no shortage of big-ticket items over on the desk. Whether it’s a full school day, a decline in homicides and shootings, Wrigley [Field], changing how we deliver basic neighborhood services — we’re gonna constantly tackle these issues.

Q. What about the Chicago casino? Another gambling bill appears headed for the governor’s desk, but Gov. Quinn seems to be coming up with new reasons why he won’t sign it.

A. I’m gonna make this different. Every other casino that’s been signed into law by him and his predecessor was for investors. This casino, we’re gonna invest in our children.

Q. Is the city gonna get it?

A. Well, 25 years we’ve been debating it. But, there are issues that you have covered when you were just a spring chicken as a journalist that we are no longer debating, deferring.

Q. What about the pension conflict between bills crafted by Speaker Madigan and Senate President Cullerton? Pension reform for Chicago is not mentioned in either of those bills.

A. We’re gonna get it. Both their models, in one way or another, deal with the outline I proposed when I first went down there. I outlined that you have to deal with the cost-of-living increase, age, contribution and choice.

Q. But, is the city gonna be included?

A. They’re gonna deal with pension reform for the city. ... They are talking about immediately right afterwards dealing with it. ... They both know pension reform is not complete until municipalities like Chicago are dealt with. Cities like Chicago all have issues. ... You have to deal with municipalities.

Q. In the governor’s race, are you going to support Lisa Madigan? She looks like she’s running.

A. There will be a primary and I’ll support the Democratic nominee.

Q. You’re staying out of it? Why? Something that important to Chicago? Why not pick a horse?

A. First of all, she hasn’t decided to run. So, it’s premature. I know when a person makes a decision. And my view is, we’ll have a primary. When the primary is over, I’ll be an active advocate for the Democrat.

Q. Bill Daley is not running, is he?

A. It’s not for me to speak for him.

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