Rahm Emanuelstormed back to Chicago from Washington in 2010 as a political force of nature, ready to swoop in and lead the city with his legendary drive and deep connections in the national political landscape.
And almost immediately, Chicago pushed back.
Emanuel quickly and memorably found himself in a windowless room in the Loop before a hearing officer for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners, as a ragtag group of local objectors to his candidacy argued he hadn’t even lived in the city long enough to run.
They wanted to know if family heirlooms were still in his North Side basement after he left to assist President Barack Obama as his chief of staff. They wore “Indict Rahm” buttons and shouted at him. Then in true Chicago form, the man renting Emanuel’s house launched his own campaign for mayor.
He arrived as a political all-star ready to remake Chicago into a 21st century global metropolis, but in the end, he found himself bogged down with the granular issues of the old Chicago that have derailed many political careers: failing schools, dragging city finances, and a street violence problem that remains the scourge of a great city.
Although some of Emanuel’s accomplishments helped critics label him as “Mayor 1 percent,” he will leave his mark on a Chicago that now, perhaps more than ever, looks the part of a titan in American business, culture and tourism. He may be remembered as the mayor who brought a Whole Foods to Englewood, but not the one that ended decades of disenfranchisement there and in other neighborhoods like it.
He will leave a city skyline dotted with cranes. The city’s third-tallest building — which Emanuel personally pushed for and is backed by Chinese investment — is now rising along the Chicago River.
His pet project, the Chicago Riverwalk, is the envy of many cities across the country. Locals and visitors alike now flock to restaurants and bars on the banks of what was once more a smelly open sewer than a gem of urban planning.
He has boosted Chicago’s profile in the tech world, bringing humble startups and giants of the industry alike to the West Loop, which has transformed from a meat-packing district to a catalog-ready brick hub of swanky lofts and offices.
But to many, his missteps are just as numerous, and before his stunning announcement Tuesday, a small army of challengers was circling, sensing weakness.
His decision to close dozens of city schools led to months of outcry from neighborhood parents, and cast a pall over the mayor’s efforts to turn around the long-troubled system.
His tenure may long be noted for a reversal in Chicago’s historic role as a place of welcoming for African-American families, many of which made a home here after the Great Migration from the South. Census data shows many tens of thousands of black residents have left city neighborhoods for good.
He has been unable to reform the Chicago Police Department. A federal judge will oversee a coming overhaul after a scandal touched off by the 2014 shooting of a black teenager,Laquan McDonald, by a white officer,Jason Van Dyke. A blistering federal investigation found systemic failures in accountability and training.
Emanuel’s announcement comes on the eve of the Van Dyke case playing out in a criminal courtroom, as the officer becomes the first in memory to be tried for murder in connection with an on-duty slaying. Among Emanuel’s many challengers for mayor is Garry McCarthy, a former New York police leader who was hailed by Emanuel as the man to fix city violence, only to be fired by him in the wake of the McDonald shooting and allegations of a coverup.
Jaime Dominguez, a professor of political science at Northwestern University, agreed Emanuel’s legacy is, in a way, bifurcated.
There is the Emanuel who lured corporate headquarters here, and the one who enlisted Elon Musk to build a futuristic, if far-fetched, transport to O’Hare International Airport.
“But really it was more of the haves and the have-nots,” Dominguez said, noting Emanuel had trouble with the “nuts and bolts issues” of the city.
He “took a knock” in the community with his school closings plan, he said, and struggled with the image that he was not a Chicago neighborhood person, and did not have everyday people as his focus.
Even his predecessor, Daley, was from Bridgeport, while Emanuel was viewed as a kid from the North Shore, where he grew up.
There were issues on which Emanuel was favorably viewed by people in the neighborhoods, such as his stance on immigration and making Chicago a so-called sanctuary city, Dominguez said.
But in the end many of the city’s problems had the biggest impact on minority areas, Dominguez said. In particular, the violence problem and the closing of schools hurt Emanuel with a key constituency — the African-American community, he said.
The Van Dyke case was only going to exacerbate that.
“If you look back at his last campaign, he spent a lot of time and resources and energy trying to placate that constituency,” Dominguez said.
“I think he’s going to be known as a mayor who had a very difficult time bringing the issue of violence under control,” he said. “That is weighing heavily on him. And it is damaging his image. He wants to be seen as a mayor for all of Chicago.”
Even so, some close to Emanuel said that election math had been looked at well before the mayor made his announcement Tuesday. A prolific fundraiser who was able to bring in contributions particularly from the corporate world, he already had raised millions.
Even with his damaged record and a host of challengers, “every way we looked at it that was the answer,” one said. “He wins.”
One adviser noted Emanuel has only one speed, and that is a high-energy attempt to tackle city problems quickly. It may be that Emanuel was not ready to dig in for another four years, the adviser said, and he would not settle for slowing down.
Policy initiatives have been coming from his administration in rapid-fire succession in recent weeks. For example, questions about how the city has tried to add affordable housing in a time of growth was answered with no less than an announcement that an entire city department was being set up to handle it.
It will be up to Emanuel to detail his choice in the coming days.
Meanwhile, his Chicago will start to settle in for its future without its latest boss. And it could take some getting used to, because Emanuel is not exactly known for backing away from fights.
That’s how it was at the hearing challenging his residency years ago, when he sat with a tense smile as witness after witness told him to go back to Washington.
One lawyer asked him whether the publicity might actually be better than a campaign commercial.
“It’s actually cheaper,” Emanuel said without missing a beat.
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