Mayor Rahm Emanuel is the mayor Chicago residents love to hate, and at times, hate to love; but begrudgingly, critics of his politics sit on the fence. He has learned some hard lessons in his seat, serving the third-largest city in the U.S. and one of the most historically segregated ones that encompasses race and class.
After inheriting a massive budget deficit in 2011, the former Chief of Staff of President Barack Obama delved in, making significant radical changes. The closing of 52 CPS schools was a hard pill for parents, especially in predominantly Black communities across the city, opening up a duel battle between the mayor and Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis. Between pension pay-outs, threats of a teacher strike and the growing tension between communities of color and the Chicago Police Department–Emanuel called on community stakeholders for help.
His narrow win in a mayoral runoff against Cook County Board Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia in 2016 elections would be an “eye-opener” on the concerns of Black and Brown Chicago residents. But, what would follow directly after his victory lap would send tremors throughout the community and put city council and the Chicago Police Department under a microscope. The court-ordered police dashcam video of CPD officer James Van Dyke shooting LaQuan McDonald 16-times was released the week of Thanksgiving in 2015. What would come next was a barrage of scrutiny and questions centered around the 19-year-old’s murder, the family’s approved settlement by the city council and whether the mayor was aware of the video before the mayoral election.
What followed was a year of administrative turnovers within the Chicago Police Department with the mayor’s appointment of Eddie Johnson as the new department’s Superintendent; a bevy of non-stop community forums; economic development initiatives; anti-violence and youth summer job programs; minority and business meetings and a great deal of behind-the-door damage control.
The changes are evident as construction begins for the new Presidential Barack Obama Center this fall; real estate developers swallow up more land moving South, and Chicago remains a top international tourist destination. For the last 18 months, the mayor and his administration have done lots of overhauls–trying to bridge the wedge between his office and the African-American community. With the addition of former Chicago Urban League President and former U.S. Senate candidate Andrea Zopp as his Deputy Mayor, the move has made the ride less “bumpy.”
The Defender sat down with the Mayor to discuss a few key recent issues.
What are your thoughts on the recent School education funding bill signed by Gov. Rauner last week?
It’s historic because the state’s history is one of discriminatory funding. It reverses that. I think you have to the put the finances in the context of academics. In the face of one of the worst funding levels inequitable funding, Chicago children led the country in 8th-grade math gains. Our fourth graders were one of the leaders in reading gains. Our graduation rate, every year for the last five years, has tripled the national average. Imagine if you didn’t have those type of headwinds financially? That was without the financial support of the state. The funding has finally increased and the equity around the funding has been a creative parody. The state is going to contribute to the Chicago teacher’s pension which they’ve been doing ever since the beginning for downstate and suburban teachers. Our teachers will be treated equally. Our taxpayers, who’ve been paying for other people’s pensions, are now going to get money back to our teacher’s pensions.
Chicago property owners currently feel the stress of some of the country’s highest property taxes; with this new legislature in place, it comes with an additional increase of 2.5 percent.
I don’t take the $83 property tax increase lightly. Let’s put it this way, why are we here? How did we get here? In 1983, the teachers were given a holiday not to contribute to their pension. What was supposed to be one year has existed since 1983. The state never contributed to our teachers’ pension like everyone else. Around 2000, the city stopped providing aid–they created a train wreck. We’ve averted that train wreck.
Do you feel moving in this direction will also prevent additional future school closures?
What I do know is that we have a moratorium, but we don’t have a moratorium in increasing our grades and academic performance. We’re going to continue academic gains, and we’re stabilizing the CPS finances.
Will there be any school closures in the foreseeable future? Most of our readers have concerns about the current stability of our neighborhood schools.
There’s no way to answer that. So right now, we don’t have to worry about it. Most people also carve out, will the state create equality? Every mayor before me– from Richard J. Daley, Jane Bryne, Harold Washington, Richard M. Daley, Mayor Sawyer– have all asked the state to be an equal player in Chicago’s children’s education. For the first time, on Tuesday that will happen.
Why do you think it has taken so long for this type of school education funding bill to take place among state legislators?
[He laughs] There’s always been a hostile environment from the state to the city. The truth is CPS in the past–the far past–weren’t always honest about certain things. What’s changed is that we’re transparent and our academic performance has changed. The state wants to be a party to the school performance. I’m willing to have them be a part of it. Come and be a part of holding our kids up rather than tear them down.
I understand that you’ve increased your position on holding more unions and constructions accountable for hiring more people of color.
We did a couple of things. A year ago, we raised our numerical goals for minority women-owned businesses for the city–if you’re doing business with the city. About three years ago, we said: “If you’re a private or a non-public sector and can show us you’re a minority woman-owned businesses and it matches what you do with us, we’ll give you credit when you bid on our work. We want you to have minority women business goals not only in the public sector but the private sector.”
Will the goal be to make more CPS schools more trade-friendly like previous years?
We made Dunbar the vocational school for trades. I told all of the building trades–carpenters, electricians, painters, and bricklayers–you have to be a part of the curriculum. You got to get over here. The good news, for the first time for a long time–those trades are at full employment. The age of their workforce is older so they have their own self-interest. It’s one thing to badger them into this position; they see down the road unless they start recruiting kids of color–they will have a real hard time. They’re in Dunbar. In two weeks, we’re opening up a new plumber’s training facility–the first one in 40 years in the city. A new electrician training facility. We just opened up the new People’s Energy training facility and Exelon training facility. Things that never existed in the city. That’s where the places where kids of color and minority kids will have total access to good paying jobs that you cannot send overseas.
The Chicago Police Department released statistics that show the number of homicides and shootings are down. There is still lots of concern for residents who deal with high crimes in their neighborhood. What do these numbers mean to the African-American communities across the city?
To certain people, it’s esoteric; for other people, it is essential. You can look at the numbers, who wouldn’t be happy if you down 45 or 47 percent for August. August to August declines. In Englewood at the 7th District, it has seen the biggest decline in the city. Now the city as a whole fell on shootings at 16 percent. Baltimore had a horrible year last year like us, and they’re up. We’re down. When you’re living in Woodlawn, it doesn’t make you feel any better, but there’s a context to this. Here’s the thing that I think, and it gets another part of public safety. I have been adamant since day one, we’re going to make reforms, and we’re not going to do it to our police department where they have to get defensive.
We have better leadership that’s more attuned to community policing and more attuned from leading from the front to the troop. If our officers are doing well and making significant gains in August in the summer, then I’m going to say, “way to go!” Way to go to our officers. Way to go to our communities, way to go to creating a partnership, way to go working together, our summer job programs. Our community engagement works. At 45 percent it is not an error. Do we have more work to do? Yes, 100 percent we have more work to do. When you’re about to say we have more work to do, you have to ask–what’s working and not working? We made a dent.