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The Rise of Chicago's 99% Against Rahm Emanuel, "Mayor 1%"

Will Rahm Emanuel's effort to establish a privatized neoliberal outpost in Chicago succeed? Not if the ongoing uprising brushfires turn from kindling wood into a contemporary Chicago fire of political resistance. Kari Lydersen, author of "Mayor 1%," tells Truthout Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is representative of the neoliberal wing of the Democratic party, and he's getting significant pushback in his efforts to expand privatization and limit protests.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel,NYC Educator

You can read about the largely untold story of Saul Alinksy tactics being resurrected against the man who earned his spurs as a political fundraiser for Mayor Richard M. Daley - and went onto high level positions in two Democratic administrations and Congress. Truthout talked with journalist and author Kari Lydersen about her newly released exploration of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's disconnect with the needs of the city he governs.

Mark Karlin: I think you state your position on where Mayor Rahm Emanuel stands in terms of the Occupy Movement standard when you titled the book "Mayor 1%."  In that sense, does he represent the ascent of the neoliberal corporate wing of the Democratic Party?

Author Kari Lydersen in Chicago. (Photo:Haymarket Books)

Kari Lydersen: Yes I would say he represents the ascent of the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party . . . but the way that the nickname "Mayor 1%" is used in Chicago and the way I see it, it is also more than that. It's clear that Emanuel's political philosophy and his approach to solving Chicago's problems centers around shifting public resources to the private sector. This isn't necessarily all bad, though it is problematic, especially in terms of the impact on public sector jobs, public education and public services for the most needy. Even more disturbingly, I see "Mayor 1%" as referring to the feeling among many people - especially low-income African Americans - that the city is being reshaped in a way that doesn't include them; that the symbolic and literal structures that make up their neighborhoods and daily lives are being dismantled as the city's resources are being shifted to cater to the "1%" or at least a much smaller percent of the current populace.

MK: Didn't Emanuel pull in something like $18 million in a few months as a rainmaker for a Chicago finance firm after leaving the Clinton administration, before his successful run for Congress?

KL: Though he had no academic credentials or formal professional experience in the field, he made about $18 million in about two years, brokering a handful of high-profile deals. This could clearly be seen as a statement on both the nature of high finance and politics. Emanuel is undoubtedly smart and knows a thing or two about money, but ultimately he was being paid for his connections past and future.

MK: Your book appears quite fair to Emanuel in assuming the premise that he sincerely wants to improve the lot of working people and the poor, but he wants to do that through the corporate privatization model and to reduce deficits.  How is he different in that respect from, let's say, Peter Peterson, for instance, or the Senate Republican leadership?

KL: I definitely strove to be fair to Emanuel, so I'm glad it came across that way. I wouldn't claim to know what he actually thinks and feels, but I actually definitely do not think his actions indicate any sincere concern for, or interest in, poor and working people. I am sure he does want to improve their lot in as much as he wants to be a successful and popular politician, but if he truly cared deeply about such Chicagoans, I think he would at least take a little time to listen to their concerns and show up at forums where they are pouring their hearts out - things like the hundreds of meetings about school closings, the hearings on the budget, the various town halls and events organized by various community groups. But he has been notably absent from nearly all such venues, declining to even step outside his office on various occasions when parents and grandparents and mental health activists who wanted to talk to him were camped out in the lobby of City Hall.

It probably makes sense to say his financial approach has much in common with Petersen's and Senate Republicans'. And an efficient and hard-nosed approach to Chicago's budget was definitely needed. But in cutting both public services, and more importantly, public sector jobs, from teachers to call center workers, he pulled the rug out from many Chicagoans when he should have known there was not an adequate safety net to catch them nor enough private sector opportunities or services to meet their needs.

MK: Emanuel cut his teeth and first came to political staffer prominence raising money for Mayor Richard M. Daley in the '80s.  Daley changed Chicago from a union city into a corporate white-collar international center, most infamously privatizing the parking meters of Chicago through a deal brokered by his brother Bill Daley (when he was Midwest chair for JP Morgan Chase).  Emanuel ended up paying the piper for that one when the parking meter owners sent the city a bill for "owed time" in the millions of dollars. Yet, Emanuel is continuing to privatize where he can.  He almost sold Midway Airport, but had to recently cancel the effort when only one bidder remained in the running. He's also a big charter schools supporter, among other corporatization moves.  How can he believe that he is supporting working people without backing a strong public sector workforce?

KL: Yes the Midway privatization deal fell through as did Emanuel's plans to privatize Chicago's port. These situations are interesting; to his credit Emanuel killed his own deals when they were obviously not working, rather than stick taxpayers with another disastrous situation like the parking meters. At the same time, the failures of these deals show that even in his element, Emanuel isn't all-powerful. In aggressively pushing for nonunion, privately run charter schools and demonizing the Chicago Teachers Union, Emanuel has aligned himself with far-right wing organizations and pundits - even working with Breitbart protégé Kyle Olson on a scurrilous so-called documentary called Tale of Two Missions, attacking the teachers union. Anyway it is really aggravating to hear his frequent announcements about all the private sector jobs he's created, while arguably many more public sector jobs are being destroyed. While the new private sector jobs he announces often may or may not actually materialize and may not even be filled by people who live in Chicago, the loss of public sector jobs has immediate and serious effects on regular hard-working Chicagoans.

MK: Now we get to the subtitle of your book: Rahm Emanuel and the rise of Chicago's 99%. Except for the teacher's strike, not many people nationally are aware that the Windy City has become a hotbed of resistance to the abandonment of the public commons. Let's start with how Emanuel was taken to school by the Chicago Teacher's Union and its savvy president.  Can you discuss a little about that ongoing battle and how Emanuel may have won a few skirmishes, but lost that public relations battle?

KL: People on all sides of the education issue generally agree that Emanuel essentially "lost" the teachers strike of 2012, both in terms of public relations and the actual outcome. The teachers did not get everything they wanted, and Emanuel did achieve the longer school day, which had been one of his main goals all along. But the battle showed massive public support both for the teachers union and the very concept of public education, and Emanuel and his appointed Board of Education came out looking really bad - like petty bullies, changing their message erratically and ultimately conceding more than the teachers in the contract. Then-schools CEO Jean Claude Brizard became the fall guy for that debacle. The new CEO, Barbara Byrd Bennett, at least started out with better relations with the union, but the recent closing of almost 50 public schools and the heavy-handed way the process was carried out over the past year became basically an extension of the battle with the teachers union and parents . . . and it continues. Not only were all those schools closed, infuriating and saddening many parents and students and meaning hundreds of layoffs . . . then the schools that "survived" the closings suffered massive budget cuts. Schools in relatively well-off north side neighborhoods were among those sustaining severe budget cuts, so Emanuel managed to alienate a whole contingent of white, upper-middle-class parents who might not have been as opposed to him last year.

MK: Then we have the uprising against mental health clinic closures and a strong anti-foreclosure resistance movement in Chicago, don't we?

KL: Yes, these were both powerful and inspiring grassroots movements that started under Mayor Richard M. Daley but became even more prominent since Emanuel took office. I see the Mental Health Movement as the perfect antithesis to Rahm Emanuel. While he is rich, powerful and privileged in so many ways, the members of the movement are vulnerable and disenfranchised on various economic and social levels - yet they have the energy and courage to stand up to the mayor in ways that are truly creative and thought-provoking, to essentially say "my needs are just as valid and important as those of your wealthy backers, and you better listen to me."

MK:  What about the 2012 protests against the planned G8 and NATO meetings in Chicago, which Emanuel had hoped would celebrate Chicago's arrival as an international city? Protests got President Obama to cancel the G8 summit, but Emanuel was able to get a very anti-protesters' rights ordinance passed in the City Council.  Was Emanuel surprised by the strength and depth of the opposition he faced in sponsoring these two global meetings?

KL: I think Emanuel was definitely caught off guard by the strength and extent of public support for the teachers. I don't know that he was necessarily surprised by the strength of the NATO/G8 protest movement, but I think he assumed he could steamroll it by passing ordinances and otherwise use policing powers to keep the protests tightly contained, while also scaring people away by hyping the threat of violence and implying strict law enforcement crackdowns. It's impossible to say if the protests were the reason Obama moved the G8, but the strength of the protest movement likely did play an important role, maybe including just the awkwardness factor since former Obama supporters were among the organizers. Emanuel was forced to revise the ordinances he had originally planned to pass, which showed he doesn't always get his away. And I think the most significant thing about the summit protests was that while they were about global issues of militarization and war, in reality they were as much or more about the Emanuel administration and the future of Chicago.

MK:Your book covers Emanuel's career and even upbringing.  You place him at the center of many neoliberal compromises, including the Republican-fashioned "reform" of welfare under President Clinton.  Do you think Emanuel is just being pragmatic, as he has claimed, or that he basically believes in such governmental actions contracting the social safety net?

KL: It is tricky to say how much he is motivated by pragmatism and how much by deep-seated beliefs about the role of government. During his time in the White House and Congress, you could make a strong argument that it was primarily pragmatism. But as mayor of Chicago, I think he's shown his true colors more because giving more credence and respect to the idea of a strong public sector and a safety net in Chicago - not to mention respecting the roles and rights of labor unions - would really probably be more pragmatic than the way he has done things.

MK:  Returning to Chicago, is it too early to say that we are seeing enough spikes of popular resistance to declare that we are witnessing the revenge of Saul Alinsky?  That being said, due to internal Chicago politics, Emanuel appears likely to be re-elected because of a divided black and Latino electorate.

KL: There's definitely a rising tide of strong and increasingly organized opposition to Emanuel in Chicago, plus widespread disapproval, disillusion and anger even from less engaged, unorganized people.  It appears likely he'll be re-elected because of his money alone, not to mention the perpetual difficulty that Chicagoans seem to have in putting forward a strong opposition candidate. I don't know that the black and Latino electorate are necessarily going to be "divided," either within those communities or divided from each other. In the 2011 election, there was a black consensus candidate - Carol Moseley Braun - but she kind of self-destructed. The strongest Latino candidate, Gery Chico, wasn't seen as "really Latino" by many. The "Take Back Chicago" movement, which is gaining steam, is a great example of people of all races being united. So I think Chicagoans of various races could unite behind a strong opposition candidate with enough money and credentials to credibly challenge Emanuel - but right now it's not clear if any such candidate will emerge.

MK:  When it comes to personality, Emanuel is known for his profanity-laden style of getting things done.  Is there a basic personality problem with his style of leadership, which is "I know what's best for you so listen, do it, and shut up" vs. a political leader who might listen and learn from citizens?

KL: Yes there's definitely a personality problem, and you summed it up. The profanity in itself isn't a problem - Chicagoans are used to such talk - but he shows profound impatience and even contempt for regular people and very little desire to listen to, and learn from them. Actually his approach isn't even so much "listen, do it and shut up," as you said, but rather just "shut up," because in too many situations he avoids telling people what he is doing or planning at all and then acts defensive and angry when people have the gall to ask for information. That attitude is one of the things people are sick and tired of.

[Mark Karlin is the editor of BuzzFlash at Truthout.  He served as editor and publisher of BuzzFlash for ten years before joining Truthout in 2010.  BuzzFlash has won four Project Censored Awards. Karlin writes a commentary five days a week for BuzzFlash, as well as articles for Truthout. He also interviews authors and filmmakers whose works are featured in Truthout's Progressive Picks of the Week.]

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