Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (on left) and Cong. Bobby Rush (far right) celebrate the opening of the Englewood Whole Foods supermarket with company leaders on Sept. 28, 2016. (Whole Foods handout photo)

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (on left) and Cong. Bobby Rush (far right) celebrate the opening of the Englewood Whole Foods supermarket with company leaders on Sept. 28, 2016. (Whole Foods handout photo)

While Mayor Rahm Emanuel has been busy rolling out new policies, development programs and cutting ribbons across the city, his efforts have either been falling on deaf ears or gone unnoticed, say Chicago’s community leaders. Appetite for a third term for Mayor Emanuel remains low among these community-level political leaders, yet no contenders have yet to capture their imagination. Although the mayor’s credibility is low or almost non-existent in most parts of the city, many neighborhood political leaders say, a non-establishment leader with considerable funding has yet to emerge.

Various renditions of “he’s not doing enough for us,” were frequent in the dozens of interviews The Daily Line conducted over the past month, which included more than sixty pastors, not-for-profit leaders, former aldermanic campaign staffers, a popular local restaurant manager, activists, precinct captains, fundraisers and ground-level organizers from every corner of Chicago. And while an opposition movement in minority communities is growing, it is also fractured and poorly organized.

The Neighborhood Perspective: A Five Part Report From The Daily Line

Monday, Part 1 – Community Leaders: Frustrated With Emanuel Administration, But Waiting, Hoping For Improvements

Tuesday, Part 2A New Group Of African American Influencers Taking The Stage

Wednesday, Part 3 – Challenges For Mayor Emanuel: Trust, Violence And Development

Thursday, Part 4 – Chicago’s Wedge Issues And Emerging Challengers

Friday, Part 5 – Their Words: Raw Comments From Our Interviews With Community Leaders

Share this story using the social media links above.

Interviewees complained of increased property, sewer and water taxes, inequitable development, a school district on the brink, a lack of jobs, unsafe streets, mistrust of the police–and a perceived feeling that the fifth floor is not meeting the needs of the neighborhoods. The last year for Rahm Emanuel has been characterized by a collapse of trust following the shooting of Laquan McDonald, the drawn out fiscal balancing act for the city and schools, and the perceived deep divide in safety and opportunity between the city’s haves and have nots. 

“Rahm is not the Rahm he was during the election in terms of strength. And even in the election, his support was wide, but not deep. That was proven in how fast the black community turned on him once Laquan came out,” said Frank Avila, Jr, a Southwest Side activist and frequent office-seeker. Avila questioned whether the Mayor could build up a coalition that was key to his re-election in 2015: the so-called white lakefront liberals, a thin margin of African Americans, and more conservative voters, including city employees, in the 19th and 41st Wards.

Mayor Emanuel alluded to the same challenges he’s facing today during his first inaugural address in May 2011. “It is time to take on the challenges that threaten the very future of our city: the quality of our schools, the safety of our streets, the cost and effectiveness of city government, and the urgent need to create and keep the jobs of the future right here in Chicago,” he said. Those challenges weigh even more heavily on the mayor’s potential third term bid, a bid that is talked about with more frequency as 2019 draws nearer.

The mayor has argued that he has done much to deliver on promises he made in 2011. He has steadied the city’s fiscal ship: introduced long term financial planning and transparent budgeting, cut an annual deficit that threatened to balloon to $1 billion when he took office, found funding to reduce liabilities in city employee pensions, and eliminated irresponsible borrowing practices that crushed the city’s credit rating.

For economic development, he’s touted record corporate relocation, downtown construction, direct foreign investment, and startup opportunities. He’s brought Pullman the Method factory, Pullman National Monument, and a new Whole Foods Distribution Center, new Google offices in West Loop, a Mars/Wrigley confectionary, and McDonald’s Headquarters. He’s expanded transit oriented development, and grown the Divvy program and created more bike-friendly infrastructure, a rapid bus line around the Loop, a massive capital program for streets and sewers, strengthened affordable housing requirements, and launched plans to modernize and expand the city’s busiest CTA line.  

Emanuel says CPS graduation rates, attendance, and academic performance are improving. The city’s summer youth jobs program has doubled in size since he took office. There’s a longer school day and expanded early childhood education. Plus, targeted, jobs-ready programs and record applicants for Star Scholarships for free City Colleges tuition for good CPS students. The city is steadily raising the minimum wage to $13, and a citywide earned sick leave policy kicks in this summer.

Still, there remains wide dissatisfaction with Mayor Emanuel, a Democrat one far South Side political operative was quick to point out. “If you are a Democrat and you pay attention, you know Rahm Emanuel is not a bread and butter Democrat. He is a business Democrat. Southeast Side is mostly blue collar, union workers, folks that are doing whatever they can to get by, and that’s not the lifestyle Emanuel is used to.” 

In the eyes of many, Mayor Emanuel is not a champion of progressive ideals; he is a plutocrat who does what is politically necessary to curry favor, prioritizes the central business district over the neighborhoods on the periphery, and speaks at length in platitudes but comes up short on results. 

“I think he needs to put real meaning behind his words, he gives these great speeches, but you have to live your words. I don’t think he does that,” said Ray Hanania, a Southwest Side columnist. Said one South Side organizer, Ja’Mal Green, “He’s one arrogant guy that doesn’t listen to anyone. It’s his way or the highway.”

“For all his power and all his contacts, all his influence, what has he really done to improve this city?” asked Avila. “The city is still on the brink of financial disaster…homeowners and taxpayers have had enough.”

During the month of December, The Daily Line interviewed dozens of organizers from every corner of Chicago, in an effort to obtain a sense of Chicago’s biggest political challenges, and whether or not Emanuel has turned a corner over the year since the Laquan McDonald shooting video exploded across the nation. We asked about Emanuel’s chances if he were running for office today, the biggest issues in Chicago’s neighborhoods, and whether new leadership was emerging where they lived, worked, and voted.

The Daily Line sought out neighborhood-level political leaders and organizers who had a track record of community involvement. We avoided interviews with elected officials, with a few exceptions for those who recently won office. While only some of these people will become leading strategists for Chicago’s future, all of them are actively shaping communities around Chicago, or will be relied on by future political campaigns to organize their community. They are results-oriented people, with a keen sense of politics, and are all influencers in their parts of Chicago.

The vast majority of the interviews were on the record, but some who are still working in political spheres requested to remain anonymous so they could speak candidly without fear of retribution. As one South Side nonprofit leader who relies on city funding put it, “A few dollars can buy you a lot, and I have seen some close associates take a total reverse in their political viewpoints because their money has been cut off, and they need the money.”

A number of consistent themes emerged from every corner of the city. First, Emanuel’s handing of the McDonald video and his subsequent lack of transparency about who knew about the video and when has done lasting, if not irreparable, damage to his credibility.

Second, the city’s ongoing violence problem has become a worry in all parts of the city, but in Chicago’s black communities, it blots out every other concern.

Third, Chicagoans have no patience for further tax and fee hikes, and many feel they have yet to see a return on their investment.

Finally, while there is a great deal of opposition or apathy to the idea of another Emanuel term, no clear challenger has emerged and neighborhood-level leaders are unsure what direction Chicago should take, how it should get there, and who should lead the opposition.

These interviews will be the focus of this story, as well as a series of reports to follow later this week. The conclusion of this series will include a digest of some of our sources’ most insightful comments.

Because of this project’s self-imposed strictures–no interviews of elected officials and no interviews of Emanuel administration staff–it was difficult to find many outright pro-Emanuel operatives to interview. Many organizers who supported Emanuel in 2015 have since turned sour, or were city staff on leave who have either returned to the administration or left town for other opportunities. We did identify leaders who counseled patience to see if Emanuel could improve the city, but none exhibited outright confidence that the mayor was on the right track.

The Emanuel Administration was contacted for comment, but none was provided by publication.

“Perception Trumps Fact” – Emanuel’s Credibility Problem

Everyone recognizes the power of the mayor’s office, but few community activists and neighborhood organizers seem to believe that Emanuel is putting his power to work for them. For many, his management of the McDonald video release was his second strike–the first was the closure of 50 public schools and mental health clinics, the majority of which were in minority communities.

“Before the Laquan video, from what I was hearing, people still had a bad taste in their mouth from the school closings. That never went away. It may have minimized, but for many people in the black community, it has left a bad taste,” said former aldermanic campaign manager Wendell Hutson.

A belief that the mayor has abused the city’s Tax Increment Finance (TIF) program–a program created specifically to spur development in blighted neighborhoods with local property tax dollars–was a point of frustration for many. Althought sometimes speaking in exaggerated tones, critics pointed to the millions of dollars in TIF money that has helped bankroll projects in well-off neighborhoods, while others remain food deserts with blocks of boarded up buildings and widespread unemployment. For them, it is an example of the the mayor’s misplaced priorities.

Some, like Jennifer Ritter, executive director of ONE Northside, referenced the new transit TIF district the city created around the northern portion of CTA’s Red Line. City officials said the district was imperative to raise needed revenue to capture a billion dollar federal grant. “The city could have made a lot of choices. They figured out how to fund the Red Line through a TIF, but that kind of creativity isn’t coming across for funding the schools.”

And then there is the disappointing rollout of the Chicago Infrastructure Trust, a private-public partnership the mayor created in his first term as a way to offset the cost of capital spending. What was sold as a breakthrough financing tool–even former President Bill Clinton attended the official launch–has turned into a footnote: none of the projects envisioned have come into fruition, yet after winning his second term, Emanuel doubled down on the project, revamped the board and dubbed it the Infrastructure Trust 2.0. The Trust is just now rolling out a pilot of its smart lighting project. “That was his big shiny startalk piece when he ran the first time against Miguel del Valle,” said one far South Side political operative. “He certainly knows how to raise money for political purposes, why isn’t he raising money for the trust? People need to hold him accountable for that. What movement has there been on that?”

The famous “sweater commercial” the Emanuel campaign used to close out the runoff campaign was interpreted by many as a request for a second chance.

“Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on you,” said activist and South Side pastor Jedidiah Brown. “The African American community gave him a second chance. He wore the sweater in the video, but it hasn’t brought anything to the benefit of the black community. We have suffered way more.”

“I think it will always be difficult for him to be the cashmere sweater leader; I think the central problem is trust. I don’t know how he gets over that. In my estimation he’s not come close to offsetting the trust factor,” said Rogers Park activist and radio host Thom Clark, who is white.

In his first major address after the Laquan McDonald video release on December 9, the mayor acknowledged it would be a long road to rebuilding those bridges. He used the word trust in his prepared remarks 14 times, in reference to himself and the police department. “I know that I – personally — have a lot of work to do to win back the public’s trust and that words are not enough,” he said. “I will not rest until we take the concrete steps that are necessary to confront these issues — comprehensively and effectively – there will be many doubting our efforts.”

That doubt came up during interviews. Over the past year, Emanuel has stumbled in multiple ways in the eyes of many community leaders. Crime and violence in certain parts of the city seems out of control. While the mayor has replaced his police superintendent, recruited a more diverse crop of CPD candidates, convened an accountability task force that released a scathing report, established two new police oversight bodies, adopted new video release policies, and acknowledged a code of silence on the force, in the eyes of leaders in minority communities, Emanuel was too slow to embrace reform, and now that he has, the fruits of reform are slow-coming.

Read Our Special Report from May, 2016: Chicago Government’s Resistance To Police Reform

Across the city, property tax increases, as well as the creation of new city fees, has many leaders asking, “Where’s it all going?”

“People on the Southwest Side feel the burden of paying water bills for [poorer communities]. A lot of people feel water isn’t billed fully. You go the Southwest Side, we’re paying 100%. And what do we get for it? Crime is spreading all over the place. That’s scary. The worst trend is spreading of crime into the Northwest and Southwest Side neighborhoods that didn’t get it in the past,” said Southwide resident and journalist Ray Hanania.

Immigration has been a concern of late as well. Though Mayor Emanuel has pushed Chicago’s status as “Welcoming City”, encouraged President-Elect Trump to maintain the DACA program, and established a legal fund to help protect undocumented immigrants within weeks of Donald Trump’s election, the mayor’s past characterization of immigration reform as a “third rail” has stuck in some Latino parts of the city.

“Perception trumps fact all day long,” said Jerry Brown, President of the South Area Civic League, and a long time, self-proclaimed Democratic foot soldier in the 8th Ward. “So if people have a perception that you are not a reformer, and you come in and tell them you are a reformer and then the things that you do gives off the perception that you are not, you’re not going to change that.”

Is Emanuel Disconnected From Neighborhoods?

While Chicago’s downtown has boomed–a recent report showed that the central core area has added over 42,000 residents–and construction cranes dot the skyline, many neighborhood leaders feel Emanuel’s policies are still giving short shrift to their communities.

One union organizer whose members are mostly African American, Latino, and immigrants residing on the city’s South and West Sides, said if she had to canvass for Emanuel in those neighborhoods, her skills would get her in the door, “but I think people would laugh at me and shut the door on my face.”

“It’s very clear who he represents and who he supports,” she said, “and it’s not working families, it’s not women. It’s not people of color, people who need social services. Not teachers, not students.” The mayor has done little to build trust or deliver on a promise of change, she said. “He hasn’t delivered on anything that really impacts our communities… He delivers for corporations, rich folks. There’s so many things he could do that he doesn’t do.”

There were also plenty of complaints that Emanuel has been using official events as a screen from voters–like his prime time anti-violence speech this past October or his radio town hall in November broadcasted over 40 local stations. Many community leaders counseled Emanuel to hold more informal, public meetings in neighborhoods, not unlike his predecessor Mayor Richard M. Daley. The meetings might be rocky at first, but eventually he’d build trust, they said.

“Going out with the electeds is one thing, but having a presence and people seeing you, that can go a long way,” said South Side campaign manager Omari Prince. “Just by being a presence more, by showing, ‘Hey, I’m trying. Let’s have a dialogue. Help me help you.’ The same thing for some of the aldermen, that’s how you stay connected with people and get elected.”

“I think Laquan was very telling, about how he responded politically to a deep, systemic issue. Regaining his credibility will be fundamental,” said Byron Sigcho, a one-time 25th Ward aldermanic candidate and activist in Pilsen. “I think a lot of people distrust his leadership when it comes to public schools, police accountability, housing. I think the biggest challenge he faces is his lack of credibility.” Sigcho says people perceive the mayor as committed to “donors, close allies, corporations… and tourists” over neighborhoods. “Everyone else has been basically squashed.”

One South Side community leader with decades of experience, who requested anonymity, said the fifth floor’s disconnect is evident in the staff, “It was part of the mayor’s plan to change out the old regime, all the way to the mid-level. [As a result,] this is the most un-Chicagoan City Hall we’ve ever had. Everybody used to come from somebody, in this town. There’s more out-of-towners running City Hall than any other time in my lifetime,” he said.

“I’m really amazed at the number of people under the age of 35 that are running around running City Hall. If you had a [Mayor Richard M. Daley-era directors of Intergovernmental Affairs] John Doerrer or a John Dunn running things, it would be a different place.”

“When’s the last time we’ve seen Rahm Emanuel in the 41st Ward?” asked Chris Vittorio, a one-time 41st Ward candidate and now chief of staff for for Ald. Anthony Napolitano (41). “When he had a meeting at a local grade school to talk about the possibility of an annex, and to basically say I’ll include the annex if your alderman approves the budget.” Vittorio said while some in the ward are encouraged with increased funding for pensions, it will be a steady climb to make a ward full of police and firefighters feel like the mayor “has their back.”

Others said the mayor’s community efforts seemed superficial. “He still does this parachuting big projects into the neighborhood. Whole Foods going into Englewood, that’s all well and good, power to them, I hope it works. But it doesn’t deal with unemployment or lack of infrastructure, or deeper issues,” said Dion Miller-Perez, a political organizer and consultant based in Little Village.

Over the last year, the Emanuel Administration has touted a series of investments, long in the pipeline, that have finally come to fruition on the South Side, including a new Mariano’s in Bronzeville, a Whole Foods grocery store in Englewood, factory developments in Roseland and Pullman, as well as dozens of smaller victories, like keeping smaller manufacturing or warehouse operations in the city using property tax incentives, opening or rehabilitating local parks, and modernizing the Cottage Grove Retail Corridor.

But despite these efforts, it comes across as too little too late for many we interviewed.

“This is his second term. I’m looking out my window and I’m looking at dilapidated homes, tons of vacant property, not many policy changes to address that. But then downtown I see the exact opposite. Looking out our window, we haven’t seen that become a reality yet. It’s great to have Whole Foods and all that, but he has a long way to go.” said Asiaha Butler, Executive Director of RAGE Englewood.

“[Emanuel] has given no focus on the communities, no focus on the neighborhoods. At least Rich Daley did that. He would talk to the little people, the small groups, but Rahm Emanuel gives no credence to the little people. Nothing,” said Jerry Brown. “If you’re not a big donor he has nothing for you. If you are not coming in talking about how you can swing thousands and thousands of votes, he has no time for you.”

The Emanuel Administration has struggled to combat perceptions that he’s unfocused on neighborhoods, even after rollouts of his more ambitious programs. Under the guiding hand of new DPD Commissioner David Reifman, the city revamped the city’s Zoning Bonus Ordinance to create a new Neighborhood Opportunity Fund to “help distribute the benefits of downtown growth on a more equitable, neighborhood level.” And in this year’s budget, he included a $100 million investment program, the Chicago Community Catalyst Fund, “to provide targeted investments in businesses and community projects in the City’s neighborhoods most in need.” But many in minority communities associate the program with its original proposer, Treasurer Kurt Summers, who went on a tour of the city’s neighborhoods pitching a nearly identical idea, which Summers dubbed Fund77. No matter–many we spoke to don’t understand the program, or think it goes far enough.

“Like this $100M investment. That’s really the work of Kurt Summers. But when you look at the details, you find out they lack the ability to matriculate down to the average person. And people feel that. See that,” said Rev. Jedidiah Brown.

Not everyone agrees that Emanuel is disconnected, or that he’s been ineffective. Long-experienced managers of community development organizations tend to take a longer view: that progress takes time.

“My community is looking for examples that are very transparent. There is a level of misinformation and there is a gap in the understanding of how politics works for several people to think there should be a quicker return that there is,” said Frankye Payne, Executive Director of the Southwest Chicago Chamber of Commerce. “This community wants more tangible examples of what’s happening, but a lot tangible things take a long time to come to fruition.”

“From a neighborhoods perspective, whether he gets it or not, I think he does? But he’s really put an effort into it. The city is built on neighborhoods and he gets that. He’s hasn’t found a solution, but he’s not Jesus Christ. At least he’s given the attention it needs.” said Craig Chico, executive director of the Back of The Yards Neighborhood Council.

“I think Rahm is working extremely hard. I think the mayor has the kind of perseverance in terms of character. It might mean some very good things for the city if we can combine what he has with some more warmth and sensitivity for these places of great pain, that would be a good thing,” said Rev. Marshall Hatch, pastor of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in West Garfield Park.

“I truly believe that with the Presidential Obama Library coming to the South Side of Chicago and with the new office of economic development headed by [Deputy Mayor] Andy Zopp, I’m optimistic. For the first time in a long time there’s an agenda for our community and we have the right people in place to make the economic development we’ve been too long deprived of,” said Rev. Torrey Barrett, Executive Director of the K.L.E.O. Community Family Life Center in Washington Park.

“He needs to show that he is serious and is putting his time, energy, and the city’s money behind inclusive economic growth in Chicago neighborhoods. I think you see that with the Catalyst Fund, sometimes called Fund 77, which was sought after jointly with Mayor Emanuel and Kurt Summers,” a young leader within the Democratic Party in Chicago said. “I think if the Mayor can show that we have serious efforts that are yielding tangible results in economic development for Chicago’s neighborhoods, I think he’ll get a lot of support.”

What’s The Alternative?

While there are plenty of gripes about Mayor Emanuel’s policies and administration, community leaders also struggle with a lack of viable alternatives to Emanuel Administration policies. A rising group of activists in Latino and black communities, which have successfully led protests across the city, have had trouble agreeing on solutions, and tend to distrust many existing leaders and institutions. Opposition leadership is fractured, and rising new leaders are mistrustful of one another and of existing institutions.

“There is this deep-rooted, deep-seated distrust of people’s motives and the benefits to them,” says Rev. Jedidiah Brown, activist and pastor of the Chosen Generation Church in Woodlawn. “We’ve not been able to reclaim the success of the Laquan McDonald event because now we’re concerned about who is your partner, who is going to come with you. Rather than what issue are we working on. And people can’t agree on what solution we’re working on. There’s a skepticism and paranoia that plays out in every meeting. A lot of fighting.”

Asked to name a potential challenger in 2019, most offered the familiar: Cook County Comm. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, City Treasurer Kurt Summers, Cook County Board of Review Comm. Larry Rogers, Jr., Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle. But many felt unsure of those prospects’ viability and expressed doubt that any of them would actually want to challenge Emanuel. The looming gubernatorial race in 2018 has partially to do with a lack of certainty, “There’s going to be some musical chairs going around,” as one North Side aldermanic aide put it.

“It is big outreach,” said another aldermanic staffer from the Northwest Side. “The black communities hate it when a Latino candidate comes to them at the last minute, the Latino community hates it when a black candidate comes to them at the last minute.”

“Unfortunately in Chicago, we deal with name recognition before we deal with anything else,” said Richard Wooten, a retired Chicago police officer and one-time 6th Ward aldermanic candidate.

“When are you gonna get your hero that’s going to come out and that’s not going to have that name recognition but that’s going to have the solution and the people are going to honestly say, ‘I support this person.’ You know, that’s a long shot,” Wooten added.

“I don’t know who’s out there,” a union organizer working on the South and West Sides said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, is Chuy gonna run again?’ I think he’s great, he’s got some good policy stuff… but he lacked the charisma and the populist support that we need… We have to work on developing leaders. Not just candidates, but leaders who are really in it for the long haul and want to do good work… The progressive community has to get our s— together.”

Yet, there is wide agreement that a new opposition movement is brewing among African American youth and progressives.

“That upsurge was first sprouted and pushed by our young people, when Black Lives Matter and our youth began to realize. And [Black Lives Matter] is a movement. If it weren’t for grassroots movements like this, Anita Alvarez wouldn’t have been defeated and Dante Servin wouldn’t have been indicted, and on and on. We would never had the task force on police accountability,” said Frank Chapman, a field organizer for the Chicago Alliance Against Racist and Political Repression.

When asked if they thought Emanuel could win if the election were today, almost every person interviewed said what really mattered was who would be the opponent, and what their policies would be.

“There hasn’t been anyone strong to step up to the plate to talk about alternative plans to move the city forward. Does he wear the jacket for all the police brutality? Yes. But when you look at the larger picture, I haven’t seen no one that can say ‘Hey, if I ran…’ I just haven’t seen any concrete plans,” said Victor Robeson, a former South Side constituency director for Gov. Rod Blagojevich who assists with various campaigns.

“Would he win? That’s a great question. Probably so, because groups haven’t organized money or fostered a new leader for Chicago,” said Asiaha Butler.