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Now It’s Time to Talk About Chicago’s Tale of Two Cities

Rahm Emanuel’s economic politics put him at the far right wing of the Democratic Party and out of step with the current breed of populist big-city leadership.

Rahm Emanuel,Spencer Irvine/AIM

Rahm Emanuel has a favorite four-letter word for members of the labor movement. When Emanuel was White House chief of staff, he was told that tens of thousands of autoworkers could lose their jobs if General Motors and Chrysler didn’t receive a federal bailout. His response: “Fuck the UAW.” As mayor of Chicago, Emanuel became so enraged during negotiations with Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers’ Union, that he shouted “Fuck you, Lewis.” (The teachers went on strike for seven days, claiming Emanuel had “disrespected” them, as well as tried to force them to work longer hours after reneging on a promised pay raise.)

Few political figures contributed more to the Democrats’ realignment from a party of working people to a party of Wall Street than Emanuel. The New Democrats of the 1990s responded to the weakness of the labor movement by shifting their donor base from unions to socially liberal financiers. Emanuel was Bill Clinton’s point man on shepherding the North American Free Trade Agreement through Congress. After leaving the White House, he earned $16 million in a two-and-a-half year career as an investment banker. In 2006, as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he helped the party win control of the House of Representatives by recruiting anti-abortion, anti-gun control Democrats in swing districts. 

When Michael Bloomberg announced he would retire after twelve years in charge of New York City, it looked as though Emanuel would take his place as the nation’s pre-eminent mayor. Then came Bill de Blasio, whose campaign slogan—that New York has become “two cities,” one for the wealthy and one for the poor—was a repudiation of the governing style shared by both Bloomberg and Emanuel. By campaigning as the candidate of the 99 percent, de Blasio not only ensured he would step out of his successor’s shadow, he set himself up as Emanuel’s rival in influencing Democratic politics. De Blasio was sworn in by Emanuel’s old patron, Bill Clinton. Also on hand was Hillary, who may be forced to repudiate Clintonomics if she wants to win the presidential nomination of a party taking up the cause of those on the wrong side of an economic divide widened by the Great Recession.

Emanuel is firmly in control of Chicago, where he has already raised $5 million for next year’s mayoral election. His only plausible opponent, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, has announced she’s staying in her current job. (The teachers’ union has vowed to recruit a pro-labor challenger, but no one has stepped forward yet.) But even as he consolidates power at home, Emanuel is in danger of becoming an anachronism in the Democratic Party, and among big-city mayors. 

In the fall of 2011, during the height of the Occupy movement, I wrote a blog post labeling Emanuel “Mayor 1%,” for his embrace of the financial industry. The nickname caught on, first appearing on buttons, then as the title of a biography by Chicago journalist Kari Lydersen. Lewis, the teachers’ union president, blurbed the book: “Mayor 1% provides the reader with the ability to understand the hard line, neoliberal mindset that blinds the man to the harsh realities of entrenched poverty and disenfranchisement.”

The term neo-liberalism was coined by University of Chicago economics professor Milton Friedman, and Emanuel has made it the city’s governing philosophy. His mayoralty been characterized by antagonism toward the labor unions who now constitute his political opposition. And he’s been accused of practicing “gentry liberalism,” an economic development strategy that consists of pouring resources into the wealthiest parts of town, in hopes of attracting professional talent, while neglecting poor outlying neighborhoods. Last year, Emanuel instituted a bike share program that serves only the lakefront, while closing 53 schools on the poorer South and West sides. He is also planning to spend $92 million on a basketball arena for DePaul University. The mayor’s civic investments are deepening the economic divide in a city that has been losing middle class jobs and residents since the steel mills closed in the 1980s.

Emanuel is socially liberal, endorsing gay marriage and fighting the National Rifle Association’s attempts to weaken Chicago’s gun laws. But economically, he stands at the far right wing of the Democratic Party. That puts him out of step with the current breed of populist big-city leadership. This does not just include de Blasio, who has promised to expand New York’s living wage, provide more affordable housing, and stop the use of credit scores in hiring decisions. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray wants a $15 minimum wage. The Washington, D.C., City Council raised the minimum wage to $11.50 an hour and extended the city’s sick leave law to restaurant workers, and an ordinance before the Los Angeles City Council would raise the minimum wage for hotel employees to $15.37 an hour. Emanuel would quash any such proposal by the Chicago City Council, just as his predecessor, Richard M. Daley, did when he vetoed an ordinance that would have required “big box” stores to pay their employees a living wage and benefits.

Chicago’s divisions are microcosms of the globalization that is creating a two-tiered society in this country. Thirty years ago, the city was a run-down industrial center that seemed headed for the same Rust Belt ash heap as Cleveland and Buffalo. Today, it’s an Alpha World city, a financial and consulting capital with some of the nation’s best theater and restaurants (not to mention the home town of the most powerful man in the world). But only a third of the population lives in that Global Chicago. The Second City has its own Second City—black and Latino, occupying run-down, underserved neighborhoods far from the lake, interacting with the well-off only to bus their tables or drive their cabs. The city lost 200,000 residents in the last decade, mainly due to the demolition of public housing. But the Loop, the downtown neighborhood with a median household income of $78,124, nearly doubled in population. Chicago may have fewer people, but it has more of the people Emanuel wants.

That divide shows up in the maldistribution of violence, too. In West Garfield Park, a monolithically African-American drug marketplace on the West Side, where the city is mordantly called “Chiraq,” the murder rate is 85.2 per 100,000. In Lincoln Square, the mayor’s North Side neighborhood of bakeries, bookstores, used record shops, and eyewear boutiques, it’s 1.7. A study by a University of Chicago graduate student found that in the early 1990s (when Chicago had 900 murders a year), the most dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago were six times more violent than the safest neighborhoods. Today, the most dangerous neighborhoods are 15 times more violent. Last year, Chicago had its fewest murders since 1965, but most of the gains in safety are taking place in areas that are also thriving economically.

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Emanuel is so solicitous of Chicago’s global citizens because he’s one of them. The product of a wealthy North Shore suburb, he moved to Chicago after college, the same journey taken by so many of the city’s young professionals. He made his bones not in ward politics, but in Washington, D.C. As the first elected mayor in over a century who didn’t grow up in Chicago, Emanuel’s political career would have been impossible in an era when Chicagoans sized each other up by asking, “Which parish are you from?”

One of the mayor’s closest friends is Bruce Rauner, a billionaire investor running for governor of Illinois on a platform of breaking the power of public employee unions. Rauner helped swing a deal that made Emanuel wealthy in the early 2000s, and later introduced Emanuel to fly-fishing at his Montana ranch. Officially, Emanuel is supporting the incumbent Democratic governor, Pat Quinn. But the Sun-Times’s Michael Sneed wrote that he’s backing Rauner “in his heart,” and Chicago magazine’s Carol Felsenthal predicted, “I bet Rahm pulls the lever for his buddy, Republican Bruce Rauner, former CEO of the private equity firm GTCR.” 

Emanuel will not be the first Chicago mayor who remains all-powerful at home as his influence outside the city wanes. Richard J. Daley helped put John F. Kennedy into the White House in 1960. In the decade that followed, Daley reacted to his party’s leftward drift by becoming ever more reactionary, culminating in his beat-down of protestors at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Four years later, he was such an embarrassing atavism that George McGovern kicked him out of the convention, replacing his Illinois delegation with a slate headed by Jesse Jackson. Yet Daley remained mayor until his death in 1976.

Chicagoans love a strongman. Ever since the Council Wars of the 1980s, which pitted Mayor Harold Washington against a bloc of white alderman, the city has feared the disorder that accompanies democracy. So Emanuel can stay in office as long as he wants. And his connections to Hollywood and Wall Street mean he’ll be a sought-after fundraiser. But as a figure from the Democrats’ post-Reagan, pre-Recession era, he’s unlikely to have much influence on the party’s national direction, or even on municipal governance. Emanuel has turned out to be Bloomberg’s successor, but only as the leading practitioner of the theory that the way to improve a city is by feeding the rich, and ignoring everyone else.