Mayor Rahm Emanuel in his office at City Hall. | Rich Hein / Sun-Times
Emanuel makes no apologies for polarizing style
Rahm Emanuel returned to Chicago four years ago as a polarizing figure from his days as White House chief-of-staff and as architect of the 2006 Democratic takeover of the U.S. House before that.
Now, he’s a polarizing mayor who’s not about to change his steamroller style, no matter how many people he rubs the wrong way.
“It’s not that I’m polarizing [or]…not polarizing. Of course. I don’t want to be a shade of gray. I haven’t been my whole life. It would be inauthentic for me to be anything but who I am,” said Emanuel, 54, during an exclusive interview with Early & Often.
“People are tired of the blow-dried hair, which I don’t have much of lately, politicians who just say sweet words. We have challenges. We’re gonna confront `em...I don’t want to be phony. I don’t want to do what other people do. And if people don’t want the truth or …don’t even like my version of it, [they can support someone else.] … I don’t want to be a mayor [who] inherited major challenges and warmed the seat.”
Although his support among African-American voters has plummeted, Emanuel says County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, the challenger City Hall fears most, has privately assured him she has no intention of running for mayor.
Emanuel says he takes Preckwinkle at her word, even though she’s been the most outspoken critic of the mayor’s school closings, charter openings, school budget cuts and the seven-day teachers strike that Emanuel’s bullying missteps helped to instigate.
“She has said that and I believe she’s a person of her word. … I believe she’s not running. I also believe more importantly what she has said why she ran for County Board president was the criminal justice system and health care and that her work is not done,” he said.
Last Friday, Early & Often sat down with the mayor to take stock of where he stands politically with the governor’s race fast-approaching and his own re-election bid less than a year away.
Q. This has been the winter from hell for Chicago. How do you think your administration has done? Do you think you’d be re-elected if the election were held today?
A. The election isn’t today.
Q. Are you glad that it isn’t today?
A. CTA never had any of the problems that other mass transit systems had — not just here, but around the country. And our streets were plowed and passable — not just for police and fire, but for everybody. It’s wreaked havoc on our streets …These are the old roads. One of the things you know if you’re a bit of a nerd like me, the recently-paved roads are better resistant to the moisture so when it goes hot-cold, hot-cold, it doesn’t crack. Which is why I’ve been [harping] about not just pothole-filling, but I want a very robust paving strategy to go beyond what we’ve done. We’ve met the basic service needs, [but] we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.
Q. So, you think you’d be re-elected today?
A. The voters will decide whether I’ll be re-elected. If you’re asking it in the historical context of a specific mayor Michael Bilandic, while this has been the fourth-most snowed winter, one of the most severe from both temperature [and snow], what we’ve done stands clearly in contrast to what happened to Mike Bilandic and what his absence of leadership did for the city.
Q. Anything you wish you had done better or quicker — like side-street snow removal?
A. There were complaints about the side-streets because you have to keep the main streets open and, when you have wind that keeps blowing it back, you can’t allow that to blow up. But, one little fact you should know: I make Streets & Sanitation … communicate to me when they’re hitting the side streets. …. At 2 or 3 in the morning, I’m not gonna second-guess the heads of Streets & Sanitation. But, [they have] to notify the mayor when they’re gonna hit the residential streets. They know that’s a pressure- point that I want to see that happen. They feel that sense of urgency like I do.
Q. There’s no opponent on the horizon. Yet, you’re raising money at a frenzied pace [with more than] $6 million already. Why are you raising so much money?
A. I’ve been around politics helping President Clinton get elected and re-elected, President Obama get elected and re-elected. I’ve done it, not just for myself but to help Nancy Pelosi become the first female speaker. You prepare — not for a candidate. You prepare for an election to tell the voters what you’ve done and also what you plan on doing because elections are about tomorrow. I plan on reminding people we’ve done a lot of things and brought a lot of change, but we have a lot more work to do.
Q. Is it a bit of paranoia or do you see opponents on the horizon who could give you a run for your money?
A. You asked me the modus-operandi. I’m doing for the election what I’ve done to help President Clinton and President Obama. No different.
Q. Preckwinkle seems to be the strongest possible candidate. She has been critical of a lot of things: charter schools, school closings, budget cuts, the teachers strike, the longer school day and how you forced it on certain schools. Is she a legitimate threat?
A. Day one, Toni and I started cooperating between the city and county. Everybody talked about it for years, but it had never been done. So, we set up a working group and saved taxpayers $73 million.
Q. I know what you’ve done to cooperate. I also know where she’s differed with you and that it’s rare in this city to step out and disagree with the mayor.
A. I brought an idea to her [recently] we’re gonna probably work on. I think we should expunge juvenile records of misdemeanors [that are] non-violent. Today, you have to apply for it. You shouldn’t apply. If you have a minor misdemeanor and you’re a juvenile, clear the record. Don’t hang on these kids for a lifetime a problem. So, she said she wanted to cooperate on that. Even while you said [she’s been leveling] the criticism.
Q. But, what about your differences with Preckwinkle?
A. There’s differences of policy. It’s OK to have differences. I believe in school choice. I ran on these things. ... I knew that other people had different views. ... I was up-front, and I delivered. The worst thing about politics is politicians who say something in an election, then do something different when they’re governing because it just became too politically hard.
Q. Your standing in the black community has dropped. You know that. You’ve seen the polling. You have your own polling. What’s it about, and what do you plan to do about it?
A. I’m gonna continue to talk about … making investments in “Building a New Chicago” like the Red Line South. People talked about it for years. Never delivered. In a couple months, I’ll be breaking ground on the new 95th Street station. I brought two kids from Sarah Goode on the South Side and Michelle Clark on the West Side — the new schools I created — to see the President because what we’re building with the new digital hub is their future.
Q. But, what about your plummeting black support?
A. There is no doubt when we had to consolidate schools, it was gonna have a ripping effect. I understand why people in the past didn’t because it was too politically tough. But, what is really tough is allowing kids to get locked and warehoused in schools that, year-in and year-out, are failing. … I don’t want to be mayor and do that. Trust me, I don’t want to close schools. I’m opening new schools. I didn’t want to be do it in the sense it was gonna be hard. But, what is harder is not what happens to me politically. It’s what happens to those kids…I knew when you did that it was gonna feel like an abandonment. But, there’s another abandonment. Abandoning kids to a school that wasn’t succeeding. It was tough. And I asked a lot of the public.
Q. Jane Byrne faced a CTA strike, a teachers strike, a firefighters strike and a school budget collapse. It was a set-up for a one-termer. When you look at the problems you inherited and the decisions you have to make in the year ahead, it’s almost a similar set up? Are you prepared to be a one-termer?
A. I’m not ready to say that’s what’s going to happen. You don’t go into an election saying you’ll be one term. I go into it with a different mindset: Act as if you’ve run your last election and make the decision that’s right. I don’t try to govern to say, “What would this do to my re-election?” I try to act [as if] I’m done running for politics. What would you do that’s right if you were freed that way?
Q. But, the juxtaposition of closing schools and opening charters, closing schools and building new schools. It didn’t go down well. People didn’t see how could you do both. Was that a mistake? You didn’t have to do both.
A. I have one pledge and every decision is [based on] that: 100 percent college-ready, 100 percent college-bound. Part of that means consolidation where we had failure. We [also] have over-crowding. It’s been documented. You’re right. I could have said, universal kindergarten, which we did. Full school day. No school actions in the sense of either building new ones or consolidating. We’ll just let the same problems exist because it’s too politically tough. That was an option.
Q. Or you could have closed schools and not built new ones right away. Wait and let people swallow what you had just done.
A. You could look at it like that. And that meant a lot of kids stuck in under-performing schools. I could have also said, we will do ten minutes a year and build slowly. Why? We all know that other kids — not just in the United States, but across the world -- were getting much more education. I don’t think it’s right for the children if they’re gonna give their full potential that I shrink from my full responsibility.
Q. Do you ever second-guess how you did some of the things you did?
A. We now have a full school day and full school year. People may not like the way I implemented it. Somebody could run for office and say, `I want to roll it back.’ And we’ll have a debate about it. The question isn’t how I did it. The question is, do we finally have it?
Q. Your relationship with city unions is very difficult. Police and fire have been waiting two years for a contract. Teachers are on the warpath. They’re all bracing for pensions cuts.
A. You’ve highlighted police and fire. I have a lot [union] support because I’ve actually made changes at McCormick Place. ... We have more hotels coming, more people, more shows coming. UNITE [HERE], a labor organization that represents hotel workers, didn’t endorse me last time. But, they’ve already supported [his re-election] Why? Because they see the tough decisions I was willing to take on to bring changes that have helped. ... I made a lot of changes so we can get recycling citywide and people have now added more jobs. When you say you have a problem with labor, that’s not accurate, and you know it. There’s a lot of support I have from working men and women because they see the jobs they have gotten because of the changes we have brought.
Q. But, city unions are bracing for what you’re about to have to do. A $600 million payment [to shore up police and fire] pensions. You haven’t been willing to discuss revenue because you say it has to come with reform. Yet, union leaders tell me if you put revenue on the table, reform would come because they would see you were serious.
A. I said revenue and reform and that’s exactly what we did at the Park District. And every worker at the Park District now has a secure pension. I’ve already said revenue is part of the solution. I already met `em half-way. The other half is to come forward with the reforms. ... I want our public employees to have a secure retirement, which they don’t have today. And I want our taxpayers and our economic base to have something they can afford. We just are slowly but surely finally emerging out of this recession. You jam taxes up too fast or too high, you’ll throw this entire economy into a recession. And it doesn’t matter what digital new hub you have, people will flee.
Q. You also need, not just property taxes. You need a new revenue source. What about the “Rahm tax”? What about the sales tax on services that you talked about during the campaign?
A. Remember what I said then. You lower the rate if you broaden it. I remember what I said. I do not think a mother buying school supplies should pay a higher sales tax when other people are joining clubs and don’t. [But], the goal here is to put revenue and reform [together], not put all the burden on taxpayers. And the problem is, [union leaders who’ve said], “Here are all the taxes. We want them to pay 100 percent. Not a single idea of reform.”
Q. Will you use some of your millions to help people who’ve helped you in the City Council and go after some of your critics?
A. I’m gonna help people. I’m gonna talk about what I’ve done. They should talk about what they’ve done.
Q.You have endorsed Gov. Quinn with whom you’ve had a not-so-hot relationship. Kirk Dillard says it’s all by design to help Bruce Rauner, your buddy. He thinks it’s Machiavellian because it hurts Rauner to be perceived as your friend.
A. I’m a life-long Democrat. The governor and I have differences. I’m not gonna hide from it. It’s on the record. But, we’re not disagreeable. And we have more places we agree on things than we disagree. No governor and mayor, regardless of party, have agreed on things 100 percent. So, take that assumption and presumption and slap it aside because it’s not accurate.
Q. But, what about your relationship with Rauner — the claim that you’re really trying to help him. That you two vacation together, that he helped make you rich?
A. I’m helping Gov. Quinn. Not just endorsing. Helping him get re-elected because we have a lot in common and share common goals. Bruce and I are friends, [but I] totally disagree with him 100 percent on policy. ... This idea that there’s some Machiavellian thing? I’m supporting Gov. Quinn. And I’m not just supporting him with lip service. I’m gonna help him get re-elected because I think he’d be good for the state.
Q. And your relationship with Rauner? What is it?
A. I met him for the first time when I went into the private sector after working for President Clinton.
Q. He helped you.
A. He didn’t help me. We worked on a transaction together. We worked on a SecurityLink transaction. ... We developed a friendship from there. But, we disagree with things.
Q. And you really, really want Gov. Quinn, whom you’ve disagreed with on a lot of things?
A. Do we have to do a signing again just to make you happy?
Q. I was going to bring up the signing because I do have that piece of paper [from Emanuel pledging not to run for any office other than mayor]. Will I be able to wave that in your face some day?
A. It’s gonna be worthless to you because I am not running for President.
Q. And you’re not running for anything ever again [other than mayor]?
A. This is it.
Q. And will one more term, if you get re-elected, be your last term?
A. You’re so ahead of [yourself]. I have a year left in this term. I’m not gonna give a moment or a minute or dime of breath not focusing on making sure we bring the type of reform and changes we need to help the people of Chicago achieve what they need to achieve.
Q. Will you serve out the four years of a second term?
Q. And that piece of paper is not gonna be worth a damn thing? You’re not going to make me famous?
A. I’m sorry. I know that you only wanted me to sign it so you could say, “I told you so.” ... I think you’re famous now without the paper. But, if you think that gives you that extra boost rocket, go ahead and use it.