Rahm Emanuel Has a Problem With Democracy

The Chicago mayor is big on executive power. Not so much on transparency or accountability.

rahm emanuel
Frank Polich/Getty Images
Rahm Emanuel is sworn in as Mayor of Chicago.
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Rahm Emanuel insists it’s no biggie. Yes, when it was announced last summer that Chicago would host unprecedented back-to-back summits in May of 2012 of the G8 and NATO, the new mayor raved about his "opportunity to showcase what is great about the greatest city in the greatest country." And yes, when President Obama abruptly announced last month that the G8 would instead take place at Camp David, after the city had already committed millions of dollars for preparations, he gave his chief of staff one hour's notice. But Rahm generously said he took "at face value" his former boss's explanation that the presidential retreat in rustic Maryland would provide a more "intimate" setting for the leaders of the world’s eight largest economies. No embarrassment at all.

Here in Chicago, of course, no one believes a word of it. Cartoonist Jack Higgins of the Sun-Times nailed the prevailing view with not one but two burlesques of Rahm’s humiliation: In the first, a tall jug-eared black man hands a paper reading "No G8 in Chicago" to a little man run over by a presidential limousine: "Sorry I didn't run into you sooner, Rahm," the caption reads; in the other, a runtish Rahm is handed a note reading "Sorry Rahm no G8." It’s tied to a giant screw rammed straight through him from behind – a merciless reference to the White House’s frequent avowals, when Emanuel decamped to Chicago, that they would "have Rahm’s back."

So: Poor Rahm? Not so much. I’d argue that his humbling has been good for the city, and not just because the event would have been a riotous disaster. It’s also good because it’s been clarifying, having flushed out for the public something that reporters covering City Hall have known all along: Rahm Emanuel is no friend of democracy.

You may have heard about the unprecedented restrictions on protest for the G8 that Emanuel rushed through the City Council – the "sit down and shut up ordinances," Occupy Chicago calls them – granting the mayor the power to deploy surveillance cameras across the city without approval or oversight, and quadrupling, to $200, the fine for rallying without a permit (and making said permit almost impossible to obtain). But did you hear about the nearly $200,000 contract for new full-face police shields – Emanuel’s first deployment of his new power to purchase goods and services for the summit without City Council approval or competitive bidding? How about the solicitation of bids for medieval joust-style riot armor for police horses, or the provisions to deputize to the Chicago police "other law enforcement agencies as determined by the superintendent of police necessary for the fulfillment of law enforcement functions" – a possible wedge for the introduction of private security firms like Xe Services (now called Academi), the former Blackwater.

The cops sure do love their new masks. Which has long-memoried Chicago lefties freaking out.  "People have been known to throw bags of urine, human feces, and also inflammatories at officers," claims Mike Shields, the aptly named president of the Chicago police union, and the old shields "allow for fluids to drip through." In 1968, the city justified the beating of peaceful protesters at the Democratic National Convention with just such piss-and-shit claims, which were almost certainly urban legends, according to Chicago investigative journalist Lewis Z. Koch, who produced all the street footage at the convention for NBC news in 1968. Koch also finds contemporary parallels in the games the city played then with protesters' requests for permits to march near the action. People who want to protest will protest anyway, permits or not – that's what happened in 1968 – but by complicating the permitting process the city ensures that the protesters who show up will be mainly the most committed extremists, raising the likelihood of violent confrontations. Perhaps that’s why Obama pulled the plug: He grasped that Mayor Emanuel's macho bullshit made an apocalyptic smackdown during "Occupy Spring" almost inevitable.

And so, no G8 summit for Chicago. And yet, whadya know, the restrictive ordinances are still in place, with no hint that they'll go away – leading Bernard Harcourt in the Guardian to wonder whether this wasn't the point all along: "It's almost as if Rahm Emanuel was lifting a page from Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine," Harcourt writes. "In record time, Emanuel successfully exploited the fact that Chicago will host the upcoming G8 and NATO summit meetings to increase his police powers and extend police surveillance, to outsource city services and privatize financial gains, and to make permanent new limitations on political dissent...very rapidly and without time for dissent." Or, as Rahm himself said, in a different context (the economic meltdown that Obama got landed with in 2009), "You never want a serious crisis go to waste." Indeed.

You're suprised? Don't be. For that is how Rahm Emanuel rolls: underhandedly and opaquely, without consultation, obsessed with finding ways to expand his executive power.

Consider the seemingly mundane matter of speed cameras. Rahm wants to make Chicago the world's capital for systems that automatically send motorists tickets that start a $100 for going five miles over the speed limit within an eighth of a mile of schools and parks. That covers 47 percent of the city's streets. Chicagoans balked, suspecting a revenue grab to help close Chicago's budget deficit of three-quarters of a billion dollars. The mayor said, no, it was all about safety: He claimed that traffic deaths had fallen by 60 percent near the city's already existing cameras that cite people for running red lights. The Chicago Tribune tried to verify the numbers – but City Hall claimed they were "confidential." They used publicly available source data instead, and found a 26 percent reduction in traffic deaths "that mirrored a broader accident trend in the city and around the nation." When confronted, a city bureaucrat "acknowledged the claimed reduction in fatalities was based only on an informal analysis of traffic statistics." "Study’ is a bit of a term of art," he dodged. "We had many meetings to discuss the best and most fair way to gauge the effectiveness," he told the Tribune, including a "judgment call" to count fatalities as far away as a quarter mile from red-light cameras. "He declined to say who was involved in the meetings," noted the paper. "Asked who he meant by 'we,' he said he meant 'the royal we.'"

Lovely. The kicker? The manager of Emanuel’s 2002 congressional campaign consults for the company that will supply the cameras, Redlex Traffic Systems of Australia. His name is Greg Goldner, and he currently runs For a Better Chicago, an Emanuel-aligned political action committee that raised nearly a million dollars in secret cash to funnel to Rahm-friendly candidates for alderman.He also runs something called the "Traffic Safety Commission," which is funded by … Redflex Traffic Systems. Emanuel refused to answer questions about the relationship. Instead, a spokesman replied, "As the mayor has said, this is about doing the right thing for our children and keeping them safe."

Ah, the children. Rahm Emanuel just loves the children. "I'm going to stick with it. Because it's the right thing for our children" – that was his response when the state labor board criticized his plan to extend Chicago's school year and stretch the school day to seven-and-a-half hours and pay teachers only 2 percent more for 20 percent more work. After teachers at three elementary schools agreed to consider the plan, he said, "I can't be prouder of people who decided to do what's right finally for our children." That was in the face of accusations from Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis that the teachers were offered extra cash and iPads for their schools in exchange for their support.  Meanwhile, the Chicago Public School's inspector general is investigating allegations that a local pastor paid busloads of people $25 to $50 each to pack public hearings in favor of Emanuel's education plans, and that the pastor, Roosevelt Watkins, has received cash from Greg Goldner's consulting company. Goldner denies knowing anything about payoffs. "What [community groups] use the money for and how they do it is their business, not ours."

Here’s the flipside of that logic: Rahm’s daily doings are none of the community groups’ business. Nor the business of ordinary constituents. The mayor’s office sends out a nightly document to reporters entitled "The Public Schedule for Mayor Rahm Emanuel"; it frequently reads only "There are no events scheduled at this time" (when the mayor's office wants coverage they call reporters moments before an event).  Ben Joravsky, the indefatigable City Hall reporter for the alternative weekly Chicago Reader got so fed up with this that he used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the mayor's private schedule. What he found: The amount of time a constituent spent with the mayor was robustly correlated with how much money that constituent contributed to the mayor. Meanwhile, Emanuel had hardly met with community groups, social service organizations, or neighborhood activists at all. His predecessor Mayor Daley, hardly known as a paragon of small-d democracy, met with such people all the time.

But if Rahm doesn’t spend a lot of time and effort cultivating non-moneyed constituents, he is an aggressive and tireless courter of the media. The Emanuel press operation, admittedly, is stunningly effective. On February 23, for instance, the story that Emanuel was closing seventeen "underperforming" school dropped. Rev. Jesse Jackson took the occasion to point out that of the 160 CPS schools without libraries and 140 of them were south of North Avenue – where the black people live: "That's apartheid," he said. That same day DePaul University announced it was closing its downtown campus for the G8 summit and county officials said they were considering closing the civil courts – directly contradicting Emanuel's claims that the event would not be disruptive. Neither made the front page of the tabloid Sun Times that day. What did? Rahm gazing sweetly at his wife Amy Rule, for an article on her charity activities.

Rahm seems to have worked the same ol’ black magic on the veteran journalist/pundit Jonathan Alter, judging by Alter’s fawning profile of him in the current issue of The Atlantic. Alter wants us to swallow that Emanuel is the avatar of a new (for Chicago) brand of clean, public-spirited politics, the very first mayor produced by the city's long-lived but perennially also-ran reform tradition. "Sitting in his cavernous office on the fifth floor of City Hall," he gushes, "Rahm lowers his outstretched empty palms, then raises them above his waist. 'If you have your hands above the table you can't deal from the bottom of the deck.'"

Alter then passes along Rahmpraganda with a kind of goofy glee. Concerning speed cameras, Alter claims the Tribune "virtually ignored a study showing that cameras had cut fatalities by 60 percent in the areas where they'd been tried." (That would be the "study" for which the administration refused to produce the data.) His "stature as a national figure helped him prevail without the support of the usual party hacks" and "plugged-in local contractors." (But his buddy Goldner’s main job in 2002, the Trib says, was "marshaling the patronage troops," from his base as former head of the Department of General Services, which operates and maintains city facilities.) "His policy has been to treat demonstrators as gingerly as possible." (Actually one night 175 arrestees including a nurse collared while administering first aid were hauled off to jail, fingerprinted, and had bail set – all before learning that the city had decided their offense was a civil, not criminal, matter.)

"Rahm wants to end patronage not because it offends his conscience but because it is costly and inefficient," Alter writes, credulously. But an old hand like him shouldn’t be gulled. Autre temps, autre moeurs: Chicago is a town where machines always morph, with patronage, favoritism, and corruption taking new forms with each passing generation.

What Rahm seems to be doing is building a new machine for our age of union busting and austerity. His budget, which the City Council passed 50 to 0 like it was some Soviet Party Congress (maybe it had something to do with the hundreds of thousands Goldner's PAC had to spend), killed six community mental health clinics, saving $2.3 million dollars, and proposed to carve $10 million and 110 union jobs from Chicago’s libraries; in the face of protest, he restored $5.3 million and 55 workers to the system, which Alter claims shows how flexible and magnanimous he is. As the progressive Chicago journalist Curtis Black points out, it’s instructive to compare that $7 million in precious, precious budget savings to some of the free public money he’s handed out to corporations. An animal testing company that serves Big Pharma, Experimur LLC, got $3.7 in "tax increment financing" — basically a loan given with little public accountability that’s supposed to be paid back by the tax revenue future growth creates – to save their 26 jobs: "It does appear that, job-wise, libraries get you a bigger bang for your buck," Black wrote in the Community Media Workshop’s publication Newstips. And he offered his second biggest campaign contributor, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange  already a very profitable corporation, a TIF grant of $15 million for office renovations, including a luxury bathroom. (The CME turned the grant down.)

Welcome to the new machine: cuts to schools, libraries, and mental health; cash to corporations. And should you have the insolence to protest it – well, you’d better be able to afford a damned good lawyer.

Rick Perlstein is the author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. He writes a weekly column for RollingStone.com.

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