Rahm Emanuel’s 2011 election as mayor of Chicago ended a tenure for Richard M. Daley that had spanned over two decades. The former White House chief of staff won the city’s highest office largely on a platform of reform. Numerous scandals and allegations of misconduct plagued the Daley era, with a 2012 University of Illinois at Chicago study finding that the Windy City had more public corruption convictions than any other federal jurisdiction between 1976 and 2012. In a campaign advertisement, Emanuel said, “We’re at a crossroads,” and pledged “to make city government more accessible to everybody.” Recent trends, however, suggest that the Emanuel Clan might not be so different from the Daley Democrats.
Not So Transparent After All
Midway through Mayor Emanuel’s first term, some critics claim that his administration has lost sight of the principles that enabled his election. Months after Emanuel’s May 2011 inauguration his office seemed to backtrack on its recent promises for increased transparency. A Chicago Tribune Freedom of Information Act request was denied by the mayor’s office, the paper reported in November 2011. The Tribune sought access to Emanuel’s emails and key communication with top aides, but “the newspaper was told that almost all of the emails had been deleted.”
Although limited access to city records became commonplace under Mayor Daley, a Tribune analysis found that other U.S. cities were more receptive to similar requests. Often with a phone call or email, the paper gained access to such records in numerous cities, including Atlanta, Boston, and Seattle.
Emanuel responded to concerns of a lack of transparency in a February 2012 interview with Chicago Tribune reporter David Kidwell. Asked about an alleged necessity for privacy in certain government communications, the mayor said, “You have the right to ask for information. We have a responsibility to get that information. I am consistent with my pledge no matter what you will opine upon it. … I am consistent with this pledge and I am not done yet. And it is consistent given the history of this city.”
Despite these vows, it seems that Emanuel’s press team carefully manages his media presence. As just one (albeit limited) example, in the two weeks since the HPR initiated contact with his office, the mayor offered 22 press releases on topics ranging from his appearance on the Food Network to record tourism levels. Meanwhile, his office failed to respond to repeated phone calls and emails from the HPR seeking comment.
Marching to the Beat of His Own Drum
Despite allegations that his office lacks transparency, Mayor Emanuel has pushed forward with far-reaching legislative measures. These changes, from proposed cameras that would ticket speeding drivers to new parking meter schemes, have attracted considerable controversy. A spring 2013 Chicago Tribune poll found Emanuel’s approval rating continued to hover at 50 percent, but those disapproving of his job leaped 11 points from last year to 40 percent.
Perhaps fueling this opposition is Emanuel’s contentious battle to revamp the city’s schools. Last September, the mayor’s plan to expand faculty evaluations while limiting salary increases in Chicago Public Schools prompted a seven-day strike by teachers. The Chicago Teachers Union eventually ratified a contract following the dispute, but Emanuel drew controversy in calling for school closures to balance the CPS budget. This spring, the Chicago Board of Education voted to close 50 schools across the city.
Many Chicagoans impacted by the closings felt that the mayor had ignored their voices. Some of these CPS parents, with the backing of the Chicago Teachers Union, filed two class action lawsuits to halt the closures, claiming they disproportionately affected African-American and disabled students. In August, a federal judge denied class action status to these suits, the Chicago Tribune reported.
Bruce Katz, director of the Metropolitan Policy Institute at the Brookings Institution, said in an interview with the HPR that the controversy arising from Emanuel’s bold legislative moves should come as no surprise. “Change is never easy,” he said, “and I think that what we can ask of our public leaders is to really put out a vision, make the hard choices that have to made. … I think when you’re dealing with issues that mayors are dealing with, whether it’s the economy, whether it’s schools, whether it’s crime, I think it’s naive to think that there’s going to be consensus on everything.”
Cracks in Emanuel’s Foundation of Support
Emanuel has relied on the backing of the City Council and other Chicago leaders to achieve such measures as the CPS closures or new gun regulations. Some members of his support network, however, have begun to echo their constituents’ grumblings, claiming that Emanuel has not acted in the public’s best interest. When Alderman Richard Mell retired from his long-held position in July, Emanuel appointed his daughter, Deb Mell, as his replacement. Mell, as it happens, is the sister-in-law of ex-governor Rod Blagojevich. As reported by WLS, Alderman Bob Fioretti was the only member of the City Council to vote against her appointment. He said, “I voted against the process, it is not a monarchy, it is a democracy.”
Katz, however, praised Emanuel’s ability to arrange a strong, multilateral support network for his policy platform. “He’s really pulled together a very interesting group of corporate, university, or even civic leaders,” he said, “to help design and then deliver some game-changing economic initiatives.”
Yet Emanuel’s apparent hold on the reins of the City Council may continue to slip. A current of opposition has formed, gravitating toward new coalitions. In March 2013, nearly twenty aldermen broke from the mayor’s wall of support as they coalesced around two opposition groups, the Progressive Reform Coalition and the Paul Douglas Alliance, the Chicago Tribune reported. The groups have pursued legislative measures to enhance governmental transparency, such as the formation of an independent budget office.
Alderman John Arena, a member of the Progressive Reform Coalition, explained to the HPR that the group’s reformist agenda initially attracted a following of Council members seeking personal ends. He shared, “You could put your name on some resolution or on an ordinance that’s being introduced full well knowing that it’s going to go to the rules committee to die.” Over time, however, the group has established a more solid foundation: “Now we have a stronger collective voice as a voting bloc that can convince some of those aldermen that these issues are not just for show, that these issues can have real effect, positive effect, for Chicago.”
Meanwhile, Mayor Emanuel allegedly does not seem to be taking these initiatives. “The response from his administration,” Alderman Arena shared, “has been basically, ‘We won’t talk to [Arena].’ … It trickles down to his [intergovernmental affairs] people, there’s certain ones that won’t make eye-contact with me, they pretend like they lost my phone number. … It’s a certain amount of high-school-ishness [sic] that I didn’t expect from this mayor.”
No amount of crafty politicking will change the reality that Emanuel faces reelection in 2015. Chicago may not be mired in the same level of corruption that lent the saying “Vote early and vote often,” but it is nonetheless far from the open and transparent government promised by candidate Emanuel in 2011. If Chicagoans desire a serious overhaul of the city, they will likely have to search for leaders far outside the walls of the City Council.
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