How Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel reached the end of the honeymoon

Just two months into office, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel faces criticism from labor and teacher unions, the city’s inspector general, and the local media. Why was the honeymoon so short?

By , Staff writer

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    Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks at the opening of the Clinton Global Initiative America meeting on June 29, in Chicago.
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Two months into office as Chicago’s 55th mayor, Rahm Emanuel is already under scrutiny – by labor and teacher unions, the city’s inspector general, and, now, the local media.

Mr. Emanuel rode into office with a huge margin of victory, but his tidal wave of popularity may be showing strains, observers say.

“If you’re looking at this as a baseball game, he’s had a very good first inning. But there are eight innings to go. The challenges get a lot more intense,” says Andy Shaw, who leads a civic watchdog group.

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In his first media flap, Emanuel stormed out of an interview with NBC affiliate reporter Mary Ann Ahern, showing his famous temper for the first time since leaving Washington. Ms. Ahern had pressed the mayor to explain why his three children would be attending The University of Chicago Lab School, one of Chicago’s most elite and costly private schools, despite calling public school reform a priority of his administration.

After stating that his “children are not in a public position” and that he was “making this decision as a father,” Emanuel dropped the microphone and walked off. On the video he could be heard saying, “I’m done. Especially after that.” The mayor’s office declined to comment on the incident.

Some City Hall watchers point to this incident as the end of the honeymoon period for Emanuel, who entered office pledging more transparency in city government, a promise he has kept in spades.

The City of Chicago website now has a searchable database of employee salaries and all lobbyist activities, including campaign contributions, gifts, and loans. Emanuel also eliminated all petty cash funds and slashed 94 percent of the city credit cards. Reforms to the city’s contracting process now put the bidding online, in an auction format.

Open government was hardly a hallmark of his predecessor, Richard M. Daley, so any movement to modernize city hall in that fashion is “a slam dunk,” says Mr. Shaw, president of the Better Government Association, a civic watchdog group in Chicago. These transparency measures “were all very easy,” he says. “Almost anybody could have written that script.”

The more complex issues, like solving the city’s $31 million budget hole and rescuing its embattled public school system, have less obvious solutions, Shaw notes.

In his opening salvos, Emanuel has taken the offense against the city’s teacher and labor unions. In June, the Chicago Board of Education – under his purview – axed a 4 percent pay raise for the city’s teachers, arguing that union members had received two similar raises since 2003 while their students “got the shaft.” The city’s public school system is saddled with a $724 million deficit, Emanuel says.

Emanuel is also threatening the city’s labor unions with a 625 job cuts unless they agree to work changes that he says will save the city $11 million by the end of the year.

Henry Bayer, executive director of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31 said neither Emanuel nor his legal team made any attempt to negotiate with union leaders – a claim the mayor rejects.

Emanuel's "attempt to blame union work rules for the city’s massive deficit is mere public-relations gimmickry,” said Mr. Bayer in a statement.

Another power struggle is igniting between Emanuel and Inspector General Joe Ferguson. On Tuesday, Mr. Ferguson issued his quarterly report – accompanied by a letter complaining that his agency, tasked with overseeing waste and corruption in City Hall, is dangerously understaffed. Twenty of 72 positions are vacant, he wrote. He also highlighted a legal battle where the Emanuel administration was fighting to keep documents from the inspector general’s office.

This week, the city announced six new hires, three of which are investigator positions. Chris Mather, the mayor’s communications director, says the positions were approved at the time the report was made public. Ferguson told the Chicago Tribune he was “grateful” but said he “shouldn’t have to play a game of chicken” to get a response.

There will always be a “natural tension” between the mayor’s office and the inspector general’s office, says Chicago Alderman Joe Moore, but in this case, it seems unnecessary, as the watchdog agency is “most likely investigating incidents under the watch of his predecessor,” Mayor Daley. “There’s no potential for embarrassment, given that he’s only been in office two months.”

Emanuel’s loyalty to Daley dates back to 1989, when Emanuel served as the former mayor’s fundraiser. That loyalty between was tested this month, after revelations about Daley’s five, 24-hour police bodyguards sparked public outcry. Critics say the security wastes taxpayer dollars, especially as the city cuts services and lays off police officers.

Last week, Emanuel said Daley’s security detail will be reevaluated later this summer. He also reduced the police protection of Alderman Edward Burke and City Treasurer Stephanie Neely.

Emanuel “is now beginning to enter the end of the honeymoon period,” says Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman who now teaches political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

His challenges will only increase later this year when his first city budget is due and the mayor must raise taxes, cut services, or lay off more workers, Professor Simpson says.

“In the first 100 days, he will still mostly be able to get his way,” he says, “but he will begin to [face] pushback, not just from unions, but from the city council.”

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