Photo by Daniel X. O'Neil

The Chicago experiment with meritocracy is failing. The quintessential American city— “the city that works”—is in chaos. Its municipal corporate bonds are are at different levels of junk status and going south. Teachers are poised to strike. Petty corruption continues to surface.

The overarching story is the broad failure of Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

To be fair, Emanuel was handed a nearly insolvent city in 2011, after twenty-two years of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s misappropriations of Chicago’s finances. At Emanuel’s first inauguration, he said of Daley, “nobody loved Chicago more or served it better.” (Emanuel was Daley’s primary fundraiser.)

As chief of staff and senior advisor to Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, respectively, as well as stints as a congressman and investment banker, Emanuel proffered an impressive résumé. In 2011 his background might have indicated to some a new day for Chicago, a promise for a meritocracy run by the most capable and skilled. Now it looks like a promise unfulfilled.

 Emanuel’s trademark arrogance is much subdued since losing the trust of 75 percent of Chicagoans. A full 40 percent wants him to resign over his stonewalling of the release of a dash-cam video showing the sadistic police shooting of Laquan McDonald in October 2014.

Officer Jason Van Dyke fired 16 shots into McDonald from close range, most of them while the African American teen was already prone in the middle of a street after trying to walk away from a police cruiser. Emanuel exacerbated the problem by keeping the video out of public view for 14 months. (He claims not to have seen it until November 2015, when a judge ordered its release, though his aides were well aware of it.) Emanuel managed to win reelection in April 2015; then a supine Chicago City Council promptly approved a $5 million settlement with McDonald’s family, before it even filed a lawsuit.

Chicago is setting a national bar for police abuse, prompting a federal Justice Department investigation. Shootings in 2016 are already on pace to exceed the previous year, and homicides are at the highest level since 1997. As Saul Bellow's Charlie Citrine says in Humboldt's Gift, "No realistic, sane person goes around Chicago without protection," and apparently not only from criminals. In the last two years Chicago has paid $106 million to cover police-related legal settlements, judgments, and fees. In the eleven years between 2004 to 2015 the cost was $642 million.

Chicago Public Schools teachers are ready to strike for the second time in Emanuel’s tenure, perhaps in April. The school system currently faces a $480 million deficit, and layoffs in administration are already underway. Just two years after Emanuel ordered the closing of fifty public schools on Chicago’s primarily minority south and west sides—even as he continued to create more charters—the administration cannot account for some 5,600 computers, 36,000 desks, chairs, and tables, and no one is sure how many books are missing.

Emanuel’s third public school CEO in four years, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, is on her way to prison after pleading guilty for guiding approximately $23 million in no-bid contracts toward her former education consulting firm employer—which pledged a 10 percent kickback to Bennett. The contracts were for principal training, which most principals reported was useless.

In related meritocratic financial shuffling, the school’s administration is issuing $725 million in bonds with a promise to pay back at 8.5 percent, a significantly high rate further adding to the debt burden and three times what a creditworthy municipality would pay today.

The city is looking to the state legislature and governor for a school bailout but that seems unlikely. Governor Bruce Rauner, a former investment banker and Republican—also formerly a close business associate of Emanuel—will not help Chicago’s schools or the city unless the overwhelmingly Democratic state senate and house of representatives (traditional allies of teachers and other unions) agree to his so-called “turnaround agenda.”

This agenda, à la Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin, is Rauner’s playbook for busting unions and eliminating collective bargaining for teachers and other municipal and state employees. A staunch supporter of charter schools, Rauner terms this tack as “pro-business,” and is now maneuvering to take over the nation’s third-largest school district through bankruptcy. For its part, the state of Illinois is looking at a potential $6 billion deficit in the fiscal year beginning in July.

Chicago’s woes are as ubiquitous as its potholes, the fixing of which used to be a marker of how well a mayor was handling the daily exercises of government. Emanuel’s corporatist style of government is coming under increasing fire, and demands for his resignation are growing. His legacy is failure.

Ronald Litke is a Chicago-based journalist.





Gee, Ron, I guess you think Rahm is a failure. Please consider that Rahm might be like the little Dutch boy who put his finger in a leaking dike. Rahm has managed the "leaks in the dike" that expanded during the "twenty-two years of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s misappropriations of Chicago’s finances." The Dutch boy stayed at the dike all night despite the cold, and like the Dutch boy, Rahm is continuing to manage the City's problems despite being criticized as a failure. In the morning, the adults saved the Dutch boy's town, but who will save Chicago? Perhaps someone with some business sense and who is wealthy so he (or she) does not need to take political contributions could save Chicago (e.g. Michael Bloomberg). P.S. thanks for the article and the opportunity to say "hello" after all these years.
Rahm definitely should resign before he gets indicted for obstruction of justice in the Laquan McDonald shooting by a Chicago policeman. The 1% mayor has been totally ineffective in every department of city government especially in his disastrous governance of the schools. Not to mention his inability to curb the extreme violence in "Chiraq". Did I mention his total arrogance & closing of many schools mainly in African-American neighborhoods?
Thanks for the comments, which are appreciated. To Mr. Parker I say hello and glad to find you in The Progressive space. It's important to realize that the downgrades to all of Chicago's municipal bonds are in Emanuel's portfolio, and that Daley, who of course endorsed Emanuel, plunged him into the situation, which is why Daley resigned when he did. For his part Emanuel tried risky derivatives trades that didn't work and his financial people are scrambling to stabilize the city's overall finances with even more borrowing just for operations -- following an unprecedented property tax hike -- and will pay considerable penalties to do so. Mr. Roth is part of the growing chorus of folks who would like to see Emanuel resign. But an ego such as his only seems to grow. We can remember when Emanuel was Obama's first chief of staff and said, "You shouldn't let a crisis go to waste," meaning to be bold in reform. But it seems Chicago still ain't ready for reform from the corporatist mindset. Emanuel is a brilliant fundraiser; many of us wish he would take up some good causes and get them the resources they need instead of strangling them as mayor of Chicago.
Hi Ron. Great article. Strong insights in a wrap of wonderful writing. You were always the most literate of Philip's friends. Also loved the Bellow reference.
I very much appreciate folks I know reading The Progressive. Glad to be a part of the community.
Rahm is failing Chicago because he adheres to the liberal notion that the protesters have a right to disrupt Trump rallies which have acquired legal permits to gather. Rahm's liberal policing ideas have the police suggesting to Trump to disband because Rahm's liberal stance doesn't want to incarcerate the protesters who have taken it to the lawless level. Rahm's liberal agenda is to allow disruptions of anything that is Republican, while saying the protesters have their rights, but he forgets that by having the Police "suggest" to Trump that Trump should leave, he has taken away Trump's rally rights to gather safely. Chicago always seems to favor the lawless when push comes to shove. Note to Chicago: Arrest the rioting lawbreaking protesters and let an American Presidential campaign continue.
Rahm is implementing his Freddie Mac strategy of bundling loads of bad debt into bonds to prop Chicago up, promising high yields, all the while his investor compadres make a killing on commissions selling these crap bonds. But then, when the gig is up and the bonds slip to junk status, he'll increase property tax revenues to cover these investors returns. I bet he's even got some skin in the short game on these bonds-- betting against the city he's running. It's a win-win for him, not so much for the tax paying citizen. Just review how Clinton/Emanuel engineered the housing bubble.
To suggest that Rahm is a liberal indicates you don't know what you're talking about. Giving to the rich and taking from the poor is a pure conservative way of operating. Rahm ran as a Democrat, but he's no Democrat. This is beyond Democrat/Republican. The distinction between the two groups are negligible as both parties bow to the mighty dollar. Look at the devastation that this person is incurring on the poor and the minority. This is not a Democrat. This is a person who loves money. Just look at the TIF program. What a joke.
You liberals, if you could only do basic math.

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Trump's politics are not the problem.

The fiery Milwaukee Sheriff is on the shortlist to head the Department of Homeland Security.

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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