Meet the new boss in Chicago

October 22, 2013

He claims he's working to make Chicago a "global city," but more and more residents have come to loathe him. Mario Cardenas reviews a new book about Rahm Emanuel.

"THIS IS Chicago, this is America." Those were the words of Mayor Richard J. Daley in 1968, pronounced in defense of police rioting against anti-Vietnam War protesters that erupted during the Democratic National Convention in 1968.

In a way, the legendary big-city "Boss" and his cryptic words about the quintessential American metropolis ring true nearly 50 years later in the Chicago of Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

There are many differences between the city overseen by the father and son of the Daley dynasty and the so-called "global city" run by the man who has become known as Mayor 1 Percent. But the similarities remain, too: A deeply segregated city, home to some of the world's wealthiest individuals and institutions, as well as thousands of working-class people living in extreme poverty, enduring violence and political disenfranchisement.

And Mayor 1 Percent is determined to keep it that way.

Emanuel is well-known beyond Chicago as a leading figure in the Democratic Party--he was part of the Democratic leadership in Congress in the 2000s, before going on to serve as Barack Obama's chief of staff when Obama started out his first term.

Chicago's Mayor 1 Percent
Chicago's Mayor 1 Percent

But Emanuel has already made national headlines for his aggressive style as mayor of Chicago for the past two and a half years. One of the lowest low points of his reign: In May 2013, Emanuel and his handpicked school board closed 50 public schools they claimed were underutilized--the single biggest schools closure of any U.S. public school district to date, and part of a corporate school "reform" project spearheaded by millionaires who claim they care about the nation's children.

In her book Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago's 99%, journalist Kari Lydersen weaves together the contrasting stories of everyday Chicagoans and Emanuel's rise to power in a narrative that exposes the growing inequality between the 1 Percent and the rest of us, and the political agenda that is driving that inequality.

THE PICTURE of Emanuel that emerges from the book is of a tireless warrior in the fight to reshape the Democratic Party as more pro-business, to dismantle the social safety net at every level of government, and to sustain the financial and corporate powers that shape Washington's agenda.

Lydersen shows how Emanuel's personal story provides a perfect way to understand the role of American liberalism in Washington's highly partisan, yet thoroughly pro-corporate, atmosphere. From his rise to political relevance, to the millions he earned as an investment banker, to his role as a national powerbroker, Emanuel's is a political career that was perfectly suited to thrive during the age of neoliberalism.

The son of Jewish immigrants--his father was a pediatrician and his mother a psychotherapist--Emanuel, the middle child of three, grew up in a stable middle-class household in the wealthy North Shore Chicago suburb of Wilmette. Lydersen describes his hometown's "rarified atmosphere of mutual self-confidence, based on liberal social values, yet permeated with the sense of insular superiority."

Emanuel attended a private grammar school, and then went to New Trier High School, a top public school in one of the country's richest zip codes. He studied at a liberal arts college in upstate New York where, he first became involved in politics.

Emanuel rose quickly in the Democratic Party, first standing out as a young and fierce fundraiser and political strategist. As Lydersen explains:

Emanuel...returned to Chicago to set up the DCCC [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] Midwest office, and he was named the committee's national campaign director for the 1988 elections. While at the DCCC, Emanuel notoriously sent a dead fish in the mail to pollster Alan Secrest, whose work he blamed for the loss of a congressional seat in Buffalo, New York.

Emanuel's tenacious approach proved valuable to many politicians, especially those seeking to change the Democratic Party's (inaccurate) image as serving liberal interest groups over big business. In 1989, Emanuel raised $13 million to help Richard M. Daley win the mayor's office in Chicago for the first time, inaugurating a 22-year reign.

THAT'S HOW he came to the attention of then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, an ideological leader of the pro-business "New Democrats," who was planning to run for the White House. Emanuel's fundraising skills came in handy for the 1992 presidential campaign. Once in the White House, Clinton appointed Emanuel to be a senior advisor, where he played a central role in pushing the president's far-from-liberal agenda.

Many people remember the Clinton presidency fondly today, as a more prosperous and peaceful era before George W. Bush took over, and presided over massive tax cuts for the rich and the launching of the worldwide "war on terror." But the reality of the Clinton years is very different, as Lydersen writes:

Welfare reform, NAFTA, and aspects of the 1994 and 1996 crime and immigration bills would for years to come be blamed for negative impacts on regular Americans--especially African Americans, who disproportionately were caught up in the criminal justice system, and poor people, who struggle to survive with reduced public aid options...

[A]ll three measures do fit with the known and consistent aspects of Emanuel's approach: his dedication to business interests and the free market; an emphasis on personal responsibility and choice; and his willingness to forge ahead with policies even in the face of intense opposition from labor unions, civil rights groups and other interests that traditionally made up an important base of the Democratic Party.

As if to underline his allegiance to the 1 Percent, Emanuel briefly went in a different career direction after his tenure in the Clinton White House: a short but lucrative career in the financial sector. He joined the investment banking firm Wasserstein Perella in 1998. Two years later, Clinton appointed him to the board of directors of the mortgage company Freddie Mac. As a Washington insider, he was a perfect fit to broker deals between the government-sponsored lender and giant private banks. As Lydersen writes:

Although he had the political savvy and financial smarts to earn some $18 million in investment banking in a few years, those same qualities didn't prevent him from standing by while people purportedly under his watch took a big gamble involving billions in taxpayer money and homes of millions of Americans.

Conveniently for Rahm, making millions in the private sector and operating in Congress seemed to require the same job skills.

In 2002, Emanuel won election in the Chicago congressional district previously represented by Rod Blagojevich, who left the House to become governor--Blagojevich was later impeached and removed from office for a variety of corruption charges, including trying to sell Barack Obama's Senate seat to the highest bidder after Obama left to become president.

Emanuel went to Washington as a very powerful Democrat and soon became part of the party leadership in the House, despite his rookie status. He continued to exercise his ability to raise big-time campaign contributions and broker deals with bankers and financial institutions.

Emanuel's appointment as White House chief of staff after Obama won election was further proof that the first African American president of the U.S. was a conventional Democrat, squarely planted in the political mainstream. As the savvy political operator running the White House, Emanuel was associated with the betrayal of Obama's campaign promises of immigration reform and meaningful climate change initiatives--and with shaping Obama's signature health care law to serve the health care industry. He was an advocate of adopting the Bush administration's Wall Street bailout wholesale--Corporate America recovered its profitability, while working people paid the price.

MAYOR 1% gives us a snapshot of the first two years of Emanuel's mayoral administration in Chicago, a tumultuous time filled with a national movement against class inequality in Occupy Wall Street, an international summit for leaders of NATO, the Chicago teachers strike of 2012 and the struggle for education justice, and a growing fightback against privatization of public assets.

Lydersen investigates local stories to depict the impact of neoliberal economic policies on ordinary Chicagoans. In this way, Mayor 1% describes trends present in other U.S. urban centers undergoing the neoliberal makeover.

Emanuel's bitter clashes with unions suggest what is really behind common buzzwords like "choice," "responsibility," "efficiency" and "reform." At the heart of the neoliberal agenda is a drive to break up any type of security that working people may have achieved through labor unions or other means.

Activists in workplaces, especially public-sector workers, as well as community leaders fighting for social justice should read Mayor 1% to understand who and what we are up against. The book outlines the political project of neoliberalism and gives a sense of how it can be challenged and who will do it.

Ultimately, the future of Chicago is still being fought over, as Lydersen writes:

How would Emanuel's tenure as mayor be judged through the lens of history? Would he be seen as popular and effective? Or autocratic and brutal? Or both? Would he be remembered for remaking Chicago in his own image: a fast-moving, efficient city driven by high finance and cutting-edge technology; the brawny working man's big shoulders of yore replaced by a triathlete's sleek pinstriped ones? And what would happen to the people who didn't find a place in the new Chicago?

School closings were a clear sign that certain residents were no longer welcome in Chicago, that they weren't part of the future plan. Emanuel and his supporters continued repeating their talking points about creating schools where all students would have equal opportunity, about allowing low-income minority youth to fulfill their dreams. But increasingly, many Chicagoans were not buying it.

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