"Mayor 1%" Rahm Emanuel of Chicago Faces Progressive Challenge in Heated Bid for Re-election

February 23, 2015
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Rick Perlstein

Chicago-based reporter whose recent article for In These Times is “How to Sell Off a City: Welcome to Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago, the Privatized Metropolis of the Future.”

The battle between Rahm Emanuel — a Democrat known as "Mayor 1 Percent" — and a host of challengers has reached a fever pitch in Chicago. Emanuel is struggling to keep his seat when voters head to the polls on Tuesday. Opponents say he has failed to improve the city’s schools and address gun violence. Emanuel’s re-election campaign has the endorsement of his former boss, President Obama, and a war chest of more than $15 million — about four times the amount raised by his four opponents. Most of his funds come from about 100 donors. Emanuel’s closest rival is Jesús "Chuy" García, a county commissioner who has support from the Chicago Teachers Union and other labor and progressive groups. We speak with Rick Perlstein, a Chicago-based reporter and author of several books, including "The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan" and the bestseller, "Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America."


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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The battle between a Democrat known as "Mayor 1 Percent" and a host of challengers has reached a fever pitch in Chicago. Mayor 1 Percent is what critics call Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who is struggling to keep his seat when voters head to the polls on Tuesday. Opponents say he has failed to improve the city’s schools and address gun violence. Emanuel’s re-election campaign has a war chest of more than $15 million, about four times the amount raised by his four opponents combined. Most of his funds come from about a hundred donors. About half of the money, more than $7 million, has been spent on television ads like this one.

RAHM EMANUEL CAMPAIGN AD: Chicago’s leading voices support Rahm Emanuel for mayor. The Defender backs Rahm, praising the largest job gains of any major city. The Tribune says, because of Mayor Emanuel, students spend more hours in the classroom and have full-day kindergarten. The Sun-Times called Rahm "bold" and "courageous." And President Obama says Emanuel is the mayor we need.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: He’s making sure every Chicagoan in every neighborhood gets the fair shot at success that they deserve.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Featured in that ad is President Obama, who visited Chicago last week to endorse his former White House chief of staff.

AMY GOODMAN: Emanuel faces five challengers in a nonpartisan race that requires him to win 51 percent of the vote or face a runoff in April. The city hasn’t seen a runoff since it adopted the nonpartisan system in the 1990s. His closest rival is Jesús "Chuy" García, a county commissioner who has support from the Chicago Teachers Union and other labor and progressive groups. Polls show about 20 percent of voters back García. The other three candidates are businessman Willie Wilson, Chicago Alderman Robert Fioretti and William "Dock" Walls, who is a former aid to the former Chicago mayor, Harold Washington.

Well, for more, we’re going to Chicago to speak with journalist Rick Perlstein. His recent piece for In These Times is headlined "How to Sell Off a City: Welcome to Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago, the Privatized Metropolis of the Future."

Rick, welcome to Democracy Now! Why don’t you lay out this race for people who are not closely following it, especially those outside Chicago?

RICK PERLSTEIN: Absolutely. It’s a strikingly stark choice for the voters tomorrow about who’s going to control the city. Is it going to be the citizens or the 1 percent or the .1 percent? Juan mentioned that he raised $15 million—I refer to Rahm Emanuel. That’s misleading. He actually raised $30 million, $15 for his political action committee that he’s used to basically create a new Chicago political machine. And the things he’s been able to get away with with that money is absolutely stark, absolutely horrifying. And we really face a crossroads for the city tomorrow.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Rick, why don’t you lay out some of the signature initiatives that Emanuel embarked on during his first term?

RICK PERLSTEIN: Well, it’s pretty striking. With a month to go before the election, when the advertising started, he basically made him sound like Eleanor Roosevelt. He did talk about things like some actually excellent work he’s done with the community colleges and a minimum wage hike that’s going to be phased in over 10 years. But the fact of the matter is his real work has been in things like privatization. He struck a deal with a bunch of investment banks to use the preschoolers of Chicago as collateral for a deal in which a bunch of bankers are going to get money if the test scores of preschool kids increase. He did things like privatize the janitorial corps in Chicago schools, and they did such a bad job—this is the company Aramark, the services company based in Pennsylvania—that parents had to come in a week before the school year and clean the schools themselves. And Aramark’s response to that was to cut a quarter of its workforce. It goes on and on and on.

There’s been some excellent investigative journalism by the very publications that have shamefully endorsed Rahm Emanuel. The Chicago Tribune found that of his top 106 donors, 60 of them had received favors from the city. The Sun-Times did a really amazing exposé on a member of the school board that he appointed—we have an appointed school board in Chicago, which is also a scandal—who is an investment—who runs an investment fund for school privatization companies, and discovered that her company had basically increased its billing with the Chicago Public Schools about 300 percent and that a lot of these contracts were for $24,999, because if they’re for $25,000 or more, then you actually have to have accountability. A final investigative report by the International Business Times found that he’s using a kind of secret slush fund, called "direct voucher payments," in which he’s able to shovel money to his contributors without contracts, without bidding and without any kind of paper trail about how they’re spending the money, whether they’re using it to provide services to the city or not. He is a—really, really, really been a strikingly corrupt mayor. And his ability to get away with it, if he gets away with it tomorrow, will redound to the shame of the citizenry of this city.

AMY GOODMAN: Rick Perlstein, we’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. Rick Perlstein is a Chicago-based reporter whose recent piece in In These Times was headlined "How to Sell Off a City: Welcome to Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago, the Privatized Metropolis of the Future." This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back with Rick Perlstein in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: That’s John Legend and Common performing "Glory" at the Oscars last night. That song, the theme song from Selma, won for Best Song. And a slight correction on the headlines: Yes, the Oscars were the whitest in many years. There was no black actor or director who was nominated. The Mexican director, Alejandro Iñárritu, won for Best Director. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we continue on the Chicago mayoral elections. Last week, President Obama traveled to Chicago to designate the city’s Pullman area a national monument. He used the occasion to bolster Rahm Emanuel’s candidacy for mayor. This is part of what he said while speaking to a crowd of students and teachers at Gwendolyn Brooks College Preparatory Academy.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Before Rahm was a big-shot mayor, he was an essential part of my team at the White House during some very hard times for America. And I relied on his judgment every day and his smarts every day and his toughness every day.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama, speaking Thursday in Chicago. Last month, he also recorded a radio ad endorsing Rahm Emanuel.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You know, even though I’m working in Washington right now, Chicago is my home. It’s the place that made me who I am. That’s why I care so deeply about who leads our city. Before Rahm Emanuel was mayor of Chicago, he was a key part of my team at the White House. And let’s be honest: At times the guy can be a little hardheaded. But there’s a reason Rahm fights as hard as he does: He loves our city, and he believes every child in every neighborhood should have a fair shot at success. Chicago had the shortest school day of any American city, until Rahm insisted that our kids get the same educational opportunity as other kids. He delivered full-day kindergarten to every Chicago child. That’s not all. He raised the minimum wage, and he helped create thousands of Chicago jobs by bringing new businesses to town. If you want a mayor who does what’s right, not just what’s popular, who fights night and day for the city we love, then I hope you’ll join me. Vote for Rahm Emanuel on Tuesday, February 24th.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was President Obama in a radio ad endorsing Rahm Emanuel. We’re joined once again by Rick Perlstein, Chicago-based reporter. Rick, talk about, specifically about, education and the—what Emanuel has done in education, what it meant that Karen Lewis, the Chicago Teachers Union president, had to drop out of a potential race against him.

RICK PERLSTEIN: Yeah, the president, in his commercial, said, you know, Rahm Emanuel is fighting for all the kids. And, you know, that’s nonsense. In the first meeting that Rahm had—we call him Rahm here, it’s kind of silly—with Karen Lewis, who’s the very progressive and very tough and very brilliant head of Chicago’s teachers’ union, he said 20 percent of the school kids in Chicago just can’t be saved. And she was shocked. I mean, she was aghast. And right then and there, she decided that this guy was a malevolent force for the schools in Chicago.

And she was vindicated in that judgment. The first thing he did in announcing that he was going to try and extend the school day, which everyone supported, was announce that he was not going to pay the teachers any more for extending their workday, and took away an already negotiated 7 percent pay increase. Of course, then they went on strike. And Karen Lewis and the Chicago teachers, in a great show of people power—Chicagoans all remember the vision of thousands of Chicago teachers in their red T-shirts at the Auditorium Theatre and then marching into streets—they humiliated him. They beat him in a strike that he went down to Springfield to rig the laws to prevent. He basically helped pass a law saying that a strike couldn’t happen unless they had 75 percent of the membership voting for it. Well, they had about 98 percent of the membership voting for a strike. And his response was to lay off teachers, which he’s allowed to do. The idea that teachers are hard to fire is certainly a myth when it comes to Chicago. He does it all the time, or, I should say, his appointed school board, answerable only to him, does it all the time.

And then, the coup de grâce was this absolutely shocking act of closing 50 schools, without any citizen input. I went to a meeting in which his school officials were standing on the stage, being cried to by adolescents who were begging them not to close their schools. And there was a police officer on stage, as if these 12-year-olds were going to somehow rush the stage. And when he announced he was going to close the schools, and he gave his explanation, and that explanation turned out to be threadbare, and he gave another explanation, the Chicago public radio station, WBEZ, did an analysis, and they found all eight explanations for why they were closing these 50 schools were all factually false and often contradicted each other. It was a complete power grab. And what he’s done is he’s emptied out the core, the skeleton of these communities in this divide-and-conquer strategy, and he’s basically used the resources that were created by closing those schools to strengthen the schools in kind of the white, yuppie neighborhoods. It’s absolutely scandalous.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about—

RICK PERLSTEIN: And Karen Lewis, of course—yes.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What about the candidate that Karen Lewis supported, Chuy García. Could you tell us something about him, as well?

RICK PERLSTEIN: Well, briefly, Karen Lewis was ready to announce for mayor and tragically was struck by a brain tumor, an absolute blow for social justice, for everyone who cares about social justice in America. And she kind of handed the torch to a very competent reformer named Chuy García, who has held all kinds of offices—state senator, alderman, now he’s on the county board. Every time he goes to work for the people of Chicago, the machine basically goes after him. That’s why he’s held so many offices. And he’s an excellent public servant.

With Toni Preckwinkle, who many of us had hoped would run, because she’s done such an excellent job as the president of the county board, together they were able to balance a very big budget deficit, while lowering taxes—they got rid of a sales tax—just by doing the thing all politicians claim they’re going to do: eliminating waste, fraud and abuse from the budget. They did it very effectively. And by the way, when the Chicago Tribune endorsed Rahm Emanuel for delivering balanced budgets, which I think he’s done using all kinds of budget chicanery, they ignored the fact that Chuy García, in addition to being a very strong reformer and a very compassionate man and a very competent public servant, had done the same thing for Cook County. He would be an excellent mayor.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And where is the most prominent Latino politician in Chicago, Luis Gutiérrez, in this race?

RICK PERLSTEIN: Well, I don’t believe—I am not aware of who he’s supporting, but he is not running. He, you know, is happy to be in Congress. And that would be an interesting question.

AMY GOODMAN: We played President Obama’s endorsement of Rahm Emanuel. Can you talk about how President Obama, of course, who lived in Chicago for many years, how his endorsement plays?

RICK PERLSTEIN: Yeah, it’s really striking that he’s won that endorsement. I mean, if Rahm Emanuel had his druthers, we wouldn’t have the—of course, the Affordable Care Act, because, you know, this idea that Rahm Emanuel is this tough, fighting politician who’s really courageous is, of course, nonsense. When he was the chief of staff in the White House, he advised Obama not to take on any fights that he didn’t know he could win in advance. And that’s why he thought universal healthcare was a bad play for him. And Nancy Pelosi had to talk Obama into it. And, you know, he’s a loyal guy, is Barack Obama, so he’s doing the announcement.

And Obama certainly doesn’t cover the kind of sway that he had in Chicago when he was elected. You don’t see the Barack Obama kitsch in the Walgreens, and you don’t see the kind of family portraits in the barbershops that you used to see, but certainly he does still command a lot of loyalty among the portion of the population that Rahm Emanuel is weakest with. African Americans abandoned him in droves because of the school stuff. They knew exactly what was going on. And no mayor can get elected in Chicago without African-American support. In fact, black voters were the backbone of the old Daley machine. So, this will shore up some of that crucial support, without which Rahm Emanuel’s re-election bid would be hopeless.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And one of the things that you’ve mentioned that most people are not aware of is the big issue that has arisen in Chicago over cameras and traffic lights—

RICK PERLSTEIN: Right.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —and what Emanuel has done. Can you explain that, in terms of traffic tickets?

RICK PERLSTEIN: It really speaks to the mendacity and corruption of this administration. Basically, he has claimed that he has instituted red light cameras at street corners all over Chicago for the safety of the city. Well, the first vendor actually lost the contract because one of the city officials had been bribed to the tune of several million dollars. And another consultant, actually, a guy named Greg Goldner, is a very close associate of Rahm Emanuel’s. Now, it turns out that the red light cameras are a revenue grab. They’re basically a regressive tax on the drivers of Chicago. And what he’s done is he’s shaved the time for yellow lights, so they could give out more tickets.

And he claims—his City Hall has claimed that it has lowered accidents of cars crashing into the side of other cars by 47 percent. Well, the Chicago Tribune did a study and found that it really had only lowered accidents 17 percent and increased rear-end accidents by a great deal. So he’s basically endangering the safety of the city of Chicago, giving the drivers of Chicago a huge hassle that they have to deal with, and he’s been increasingly dishonest about it. And he’s been called on it. And he’s been able to get away with it because he’s been able to buy $30 million worth of mailers and TV commercials and D.C.-style political consultants.

AMY GOODMAN: So, tomorrow, explain what happens. It’s an unusual election. A lot of cities don’t have a system like this, a nonpartisan election.

RICK PERLSTEIN: Right, right. We have a nonpartisan election. And it’s first past the post, if you get to 50 percent, and then it’s over. So, Rahm Emanuel—it’s basically Rahm Emanuel against everyone else. So, if he gets to 50 percent, he has another term. If he gets 49.9 percent, then there will be a runoff with the second-place finisher, who is likely to be Chuy García. And then, between February and April, we’ll have a real conversation about the future of this city. And that’s why progressives in Chicago absolutely have to get themselves to the polls. It’s 4 degrees today, it might be 2 degrees tomorrow, but this is a life-and-death situation for the citizens of Chicago.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you, Rick Perlstein, for being with us, Chicago-based reporter whose recent piece for In These Times is headlined "How to Sell Off a City: Welcome to Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago, the Privatized Metropolis of the Future." We’ll be back in a minute.


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