As Chicago’s schools struggle with de facto bankruptcy and our police department reform slows to a crawl, it’s important to remember that Mayor Rahm Emanuel has never been accused of being an ideological man. Throughout his career he has focused on obtaining and consolidating power, rather than the application of power for the purpose of ideological achievement.
This isn’t to say Mayor Emanuel lacks political values, because judging from his record, he clearly adheres to general progressive principles such as promoting public welfare programs and using government to improve lives. But leaders guided by ideology use their core beliefs to guide decision-making. Over time, their decisions illustrate their ideology.
Now that Emanuel is midway through his second term, he’s had enough time to settle into a mode of thinking, so I’d like to suggest three examples that illustrate his focus on power, rather than ideology.
#1 – Emanuel’s Dealings With DOJ On Police Reform
The first is the most recent: Last Friday’s end-of-the-workweek announcement that the Emanuel Administration would be shucking its promise to seek a consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice for police reform. Instead, we’re told Chicago will seek an “agreement” with DOJ to install an independent monitor with no enforcement power.
While the agreement reportedly (called so because it has not been released to the public) provides the DOJ with the power to force changes at CPD, it is a ridiculous assertion, since the DOJ official who would oversee the agreement, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Tom Wheeler, one of the authors of North Carolina’s “bathroom bill”, seems to have little interest in minority communities.
Emanuel’s team has justified their decision to seek a contractual agreement with DOJ by saying it would be just as good as a court-enforced consent decree, and DOJ wouldn’t sign off on a consent decree anyway. Yet, another city that eschewed an consent decree for an agreement like Cincinnati, which former CPD deputy chief Charles Ramsey cited as an example Chicago should follow, include other enforcement mechanisms that give community groups legal powers to make police department changes during the reform process.
Looked at in isolation, it’s a head-scratcher of a political move on Emanuel’s part. Chicago’s black community, which can make or break a mayoral reelection campaign, is demanding police reform, and black leaders I’ve spoken to say Emanuel totally lacks credibility on the issue. Rather than hand over authority to a court-appointed monitor with enforcement power, Emanuel is proposing a system where he maintains all control, so that only he is able to affect change. And so far, change has been coming slowly.
#2 – Emanuel And The Elected School Board Debate
The second example is Emanuel’s record on an elected school board. Two versions of the concept have each passed the Illinois House and Illinois Senate. The concept is perilously (for Emanuel) close to becoming reality. Although Gov. Bruce Rauner has said he opposes an elected school board, the idea of snatching power away from the mayor of Chicago could be a mightily attractive idea to many downstate Republicans. Enough votes could be rustled just to tweak Emanuel’s nose, under the right circumstances.
Yet Emanuel has had minimal public engagement with supporters of an elected school board, even to just hear them out. A more constructive approach would be for him to recognize that many Chicagoans believe the existing mayor-appointed school board is flawed, and use that to shape a solution more to his liking.
But he hasn’t done that. Instead he’s resisted giving up any power. So he’s getting boxed in by a growing political movement that just might actually take from him all school control, leaving him with crumbs.
#3 – Emanuel And The Teachers Union
Finally, there’s Emanuel’s relationship with the Chicago Teacher’s Union: It has been needlessly antagonistic. One could argue that Emanuel and CTU occupied opposing camps, starting with the 2012 teachers strike, fueled by the 2013 school closings, and solidified by last year’s contract negotiations. But now that’s in the rearview mirror. So, what stands between them when both are fighting for the same end–stable funding for education.
CTU says it won’t take Emanuel seriously until he identifies $500 million more in annual city revenues to fund schools. Considering CPS has had a roughly $1 billion annual operating deficit for the past three years, this is not as crazy a number as it sounds. But instead of engaging with CTU and its union allies to find creative solutions in Chicago and the state legislature, Emanuel and CPS CEO Forrest Claypool have shut out CTU, choosing instead to go it alone.
Why is a power struggle even necessary here? Isn’t the art of politics about co-opting and compromise?
Unlike years past, where tax receipts flowed from a horn of plenty and Democratic allies controlled state government, Chicago is now under pressure from multiple angles. What’s called for in these circumstances are finesse and coalition building. It also means sharing power with new allies, in order to win successes.