2013 was a yo-yo of a year for Emanuel
BY FRAN SPIELMAN City Hall Reporter January 2, 2014 6:18PM
Mayor Rahm Emanuel (pictured in September 2013) | Chandler West/For Sun-Times Media
Updated: February 4, 2014 6:21AM
Chicago’s bond rating dropped three notches, and his former city comptroller was indicted in a $500,000 kickback and money laundering scheme in Ohio.
He closed about 50 schools only to go on a school building spree, sealed a deal to renovate Wrigley Field with nothing to show for it, pulled the plug on the privatization of Midway Airport and pulled off a five-month closing of the CTA’s Red Line only to get tripped up by a botched Ventra rollout.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been up and down like a yo-yo in 2013, a dangerous place to be with the 2015 mayoral election fast approaching.
The year began with a classic Chicago deal. Ald. Richard Mell (33rd), one of the City Council’s most colorful characters and father-in-law of imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, was planning to resign and engineer the mayor’s appointment of his daughter to fill his seat.
Emanuel and Mell denied the Chicago Sun-Times story for fear the deal would come undone. By July, they had followed the script to the letter.
An “embarrassed” City Council agreed to spend $22.5 million to compensate a mentally ill California woman who was arrested and held overnight, then released in a high-crime neighborhood, where she was kidnapped and sexually assaulted before falling from the seventh floor window of a CHA high-rise.
The black eye that Chicago suffered paled by comparison to the tragedy that unfolded Jan. 29.
Hadiya Pendleton, a promising sophomore at King College Prep, was shot in the back while hanging out with friends at a park a few blocks from the high school and less than a mile from President Barack Obama’s Kenwood mansion.
Her murder shined another unflattering international spotlight on Chicago because she was an honor student, a volleyball player and a majorette who had just performed with her high school band at festivities tied to Obama’s second inauguration.
Emanuel responded by flooding 20 of Chicago’s most violent neighborhoods with moonlighting police officers, setting the stage for $93 million in police overtime costs in 2013. He also challenged a business community that bankrolled Millennium Park, the NATO Summit and Chicago’s failed Olympic bid to raise $50 million over five years for jobs, mentoring and recreation programs for at-risk kids.
The Hadiya Pendleton murder would be one of three deadly outbreaks of violence to mar a year that would end with an otherwise promising drop in homicides.
March came in like a lion — and it had nothing to do with the weather.
The mayor’s handpicked school board announced the closing of schools that impacted 30,000 students, nearly all in predominantly African-American neighborhoods on the South and West Sides. It was the largest public school upheaval the nation has ever seen — even after a small number of schools and thousands of students were spared.
Emanuel took a media beating for dropping the school-closing bombshell while on a spring break ski trip to Utah with his wife and kids.
Whether the mayor takes a political beating will depend on whether he delivers long-term on his promise to safeguard displaced students and improve their new schools. The brutal beating and sexual assault in recent days of a 15-year-old girl near a Safe Passage route in Belmont Cragin raises troubling questions.
The mayor also suffered a split decision on two pivotal issues.
The win came when the Illinois Supreme Court insulated Emanuel and his top aides from investigation and tied the hands of Inspector General Joe Ferguson. Ferguson and the mayor have feuded, but more recently, Emanuel reappointed him to another four-year term.
The bitter defeat occurred when Chicago Police sergeants overwhelmingly rejected a new contract that Emanuel had hoped to use as a road map to solve Chicago’s nearly $20 billion pension crisis.
Emanuel blamed Fraternal Order of Police President Mike Shields for sabotaging the deal and got even by using a paperwork mistake made by Shields to deny Chicago Police officers their automatic right to a retroactive pay raise in 2012.
Shields responded with an explosive allegation — that the last two police contracts dictated by an independent arbitrator were “fixed” in the city’s favor and that the recent sergeants’ contract may also have been “rigged.” The state FOP took the extraordinary step of suspending Shields.
The five-month closing of the CTA’s Red Line South could have been a disaster for commuters and a political nightmare for Emanuel.
But the $425 million project was carried out with military precision. Red Line riders raved about their free express bus rides to the Garfield Green Line station and were reluctant to give them up.
The on-time, on-budget project proved to be a feather in the cap of CTA President Forrest Claypool, who would need it to survive the Ventra debacle.
Shortly after the Red Line closing, Emanuel unveiled another controversial project that would become a symbol to some of his misplaced priorities.
The city would use more than $100 million in public money to bankroll a 10,000-seat basketball arena for DePaul University that would double as an “event center” for McCormick Place.
Emanuel pitched the project not as a handout to DePaul, but as a subsidy from the nation’s largest Catholic university that will help McCormick Place compete for mid-sized shows and free millions to renovate Navy Pier.
It was a tough sell at a time when Chicago was closing schools, slashing school budgets to the tune of 3,168 layoffs, phasing out the city’s 55 percent subsidy for retiree health care and piling up police overtime to mask a shortage of officers.
The mayor’s decision to renegotiate the widely-despised parking meter deal was also difficult to swallow.
Emanuel settled outstanding claims by Chicago Parking Meters LLC in a way that could relieve taxpayers of a $1 billion burden over the next 71 years for spaces taken out of service. But he tried to sweeten the deal by trading a longer parking day for free neighborhood parking on Sundays.
Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) warned that the swap would make a lopsided deal worse and give the company another windfall. But the mayor prevailed by a vote of 39-to-11.
In September, the City Council authorized another $12.3 million in settlements tied to Jon Burge’s reign of terror, and Emanuel finally apologized for the torture of black suspects by the convicted former Area 2 commander and his cohorts.
The apology was clearly aimed at winning back African-American voters whose support the mayor has lost — and it wasn’t the only good will gesture.
Emanuel also used an $11 million city subsidy for site preparation to lure upscale grocer Whole Foods to an impoverished Englewood community that might have been better served with a Wal-Mart.
And the mayor announced plans to permanently rename Stony Island Avenue for Bishop Arthur Brazier.
The ill-conceived renaming of a major thoroughfare through that runs through the heart of Chicago’s South Side blindsided black aldermen and was subsequently nixed amid complaints about the cost and inconvenience to local merchants and residents.
The school construction spree further undermined the mayor’s standing in the African-American community.
For parents whose children were impacted by school closings and budget cuts, it was difficult to understand why the mayor would build a $17 million annex that will add up to 400 seats at top-rated Walter Payton College Prep High School.
In mid-July, the financial “day of reckoning” that Emanuel had been warning about finally arrived.
Moody’s Investors ordered an unprecedented triple-drop in Chicago’s bond rating, citing the city’s “very large and growing” pension liabilities, mountain of debt, “unrelenting public-safety demands” and historic reluctance to raise local taxes that has continued under Emanuel.
In 2015, the city is required by state law to make a $600 million contribution to stabilize police and fire pension funds that now have assets to cover just 30.5 and 25 percent of their respective liabilities.
Privatizing Midway Airport could have left Chicago with $500 million — even after debt was retired — to shore up city pensions and build infrastructure projects.
Instead, it ended up costing Chicago taxpayers $3.5 million. That’s how much money Emanuel spent on a clout-heavy team of advisers, only to pull the plug after one of only two bidding teams left the runway.
The mayor’s plan to privatize, improve and market the underutilized Chicago Port District was also sunk after a Colorado company that had promised to invest $500 million over 10 years “amicably suspended” negotiations on a master lease.
The indictment of former City Comptroller Amer Ahmad, just weeks after his unexplained resignation, sent shock waves through City Hall.
An embarrassed Emanuel denied that he should have known about Ahmad’s wrongdoing as deputy treasurer of Ohio and promised an investigation to determine whether Chicago and its pension funds had been similarly scammed.
After a forensic audit, consultants concluded Ahmad did not defraud Chicago taxpayers. But he did approach a financial firm about a job, then vote on four of the company’s pension fund deals. Last month, Ahmad pleaded guilty to being part of a large kickback and money-laundering scheme when he was Ohio’s deputy state treasurer — crimes for which he’ll face up to 15 years in prison.
The $500 million plan that authorized the Cubs to renovate 99-year-old Wrigley Field and develop the land around it took all year to negotiate.
Wrigleyville residents have derisively branded Emanuel the Cubs “most valuable player for 2013” for his seemingly endless string of concessions to the billionaire Ricketts family that owns the team.
If that’s true, the mayor is still waiting for his MVP trophy. Not a shovel of dirt has been turned. Rooftop club owners have not withdrawn their threat to file a lawsuit to block two massive outfield signs needed to bankroll the project.
The Illinois Legislature’s historic vote to at least begin to solve the state’s $100 billion pension crisis left Chicago still clamoring for relief.
That guarantees that 2014 will be a cliffhanger of a year filled with even more difficult and politically unpopular decisions.
No wonder Emanuel had already used his prolific fundraising skills to put more than $5 million in his campaign war chest by Oct. 1. He might need every penny.