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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Is Rahm, Like the Cubs, Planning an Epic Comeback?

The Cubs win the World Series, hell freezes over—and Rahm Emanuel re-emerges from political exile.

Biding his time.  Photo: Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune

If our raccoon-eyed, thin-skinned, and bony mayor sometimes looks like he could use a good night’s sleep and a chocolate milkshake, there’s an easy explanation: he has one of the toughest jobs in politics—trying to govern this bullet-ridden, bankrupt city as it sinks into the mess of a bankrupt state.

His five years in office have been a nauseating roller-coaster, for sure, but things are smoothing out for Rahm Emanuel. One recent poll shows his approval rating at 44 percent; it had dropped as low as 18 in the wake of the delayed release, a year ago this month, of the video showing 17-year-old African American Laquan McDonald shot 16 times, on October 20, 2014, as he walked away from a white cop.

The Cubs bringing home their first World Series win since 1908 will surely help to restore Rahm’s image—if not quite back to the magic days of May 2011 when he debuted as a rock-star politician, a savvy, energetic, idea-a-minute wunderkind spouting his vision of a global city, his face and high-speed personality celebrated far beyond the city limits. The national press, especially the New York Times, couldn’t get enough of him; on at least one occasion,  early in his tenure, running three wet-kiss stories on the same day.

He flew to Cleveland yesterday to be on hand for Game 7 of the World Series, basking in the television cameras, and likely reveling in visions of himself, in full Cubs regalia, heading the ticker-tape parade he plans in the team’s honor. (More below on Rahm and baseball.)

Yes Rahm is arrogant and ridiculously self-confident, but he is also tenacious. He has dialed down his brashness and imperiousness. He has persevered in the wake of some truly terrible decisions—closing 50 public schools, mostly in poor neighborhoods, for example. He has learned from his mistakes, changed as much as he had to, and he has emerged a chastened, more approachable figure.

Mayor One Percent, as his critics call him, has recently ventured more often into West and South Side neighborhoods. He has brought with him programs aimed directly at helping residents where they live, as opposed to the old style of pouring dollars into downtown for the benefit of the rich and the suburban and hoping some coins trickle down to the poor and urban.

He has pushed the Greater Chatham Initiative to bring jobs, businesses and housing to neighborhoods on the South Side. He has visited Malcolm X Community College to announce a $36 million mentoring program. He has promoted his plan to put libraries in three CHA complexes including a “Teacher in a Library” to help kids do their homework.

He’s even paid heed to rats (the four-legged furry variety), with a plan to start the Bureau of Rodent Control to reduce the city’s exploding population. On Halloween, the mayor took a ride on a bells-and-whistles bus, promising that by the end of 2019—election year!—every bus and subway car will be new or totally rehabbed in an effort to make the CTA “a 21st century transportation system that serves all parts of the city.” Oh, and the Red Line will be extended south to 130th Street.

To improve police relations with African Americans, he’s behind the new agency to investigate police shootings, a policy about timely release of videos of police shootings or misconduct, and more training for cops in how to deescalate situations in which shooting might otherwise seem an option. As Chicagoans await the release and implementation of a report by the Justice Department in the wake of the McDonald shooting, the mayor has put in place a plan to hire 970 uniformed officers.

Early in his first term, Rahm famously told Chicago Teachers Union president Karen Lewis “Fuck you, Lewis,” and took a seven-day strike that hit parents and students hard. In  2016,  Rahm and his new CPS CEO, Mr. Fix-It Forrest Claypool, avoided a strike minutes ahead of the stroke of midnight deadline by giving the union, in a four-year contract, enough of what it wanted.

Rahm gave up a trophy he wanted—a selective enrollment high school on the North Side named after Barack Obama. A charter school supporter, Rahm also caved to the charter-hating CTU by agreeing to a cap on the number of charters in the city. He also backed down from requiring current teachers to pay the full 9 percent of their pension contribution.

Lewis, who planned to run against Rahm in 2015 until she was diagnosed with brain cancer, seems to have grown fond of Rahm 2.0. He and she are now texting buddies. “I can ‘just run [my ideas] up the flagpole by Rahm,’” she told me in an interview. He has been “very open” and “much more polite.” She added that relations between CTU and CPS are “so much nicer than before.”

If Rahm had once figured that Hillary would take him with her to D.C. as VP or as an important cabinet member, those dreams are dead for now. Most signs point to his running, in 2019, for a third term.

Rahm’s rehab hasn’t been easy. By the time he was forced into a runoff election in February 2015 against a little known and lightly funded county commissioner named Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, many Chicagoans were out of love with Rahm. Still, he held on, beating Chuy in the April runoff.

During the last dispiriting days of that race, President Obama starred in Rahm’s closing ad, helping him with African Americans by traveling to Chicago to bestow national monument status on the far-south-side community of Pullman. The ad features the President hugging the mayor and assuring voters, “He’s making sure every Chicagoan in every neighborhood gets the fair shot at success that they deserve.”

Seven months later, a year ago this month, Rahm’s fortunes reached their nadir. Even people who supported and still admired him wondered if there was something to the widespread allegation that he had deliberately withheld, for more than a year, the horrifying Laquan McDonald video.

The mayor denied any such motive, but, no matter, he was charged and convicted in the court of public opinion. It was easy for suspicious minds to grasp. He had national ambitions—perhaps even first Jewish President—and he needed the African American vote to avoid the career-ending one-term stigma.

He was pilloried by the press and pronounced dead, politically speaking, by pundits and politicians. Some who would have stepped on their grandmothers’ necks to get in the same photo frame with Rahm treated him as if he had a highly communicable disease. He was the pariah, unloved, unwanted, uninvited.

When Barack, Michelle, Bill Clinton, Joe Biden came to town to campaign for Hillary, Rahm was, figuratively, locked in his bedroom or chained to his desk.

High-priced Democratic fundraisers, which would have headlined Rahm, excluded him. Network TV bookers for Sunday morning and late night shows stopped calling.

During the Democratic convention in Philadelphia last July,  Rahm was humiliated in a video tribute to Obama in which he is depicted as being on the wrong side, not only of history, but of humanity, by advising his boss against putting his political capital behind healthcare reform.

Things have improved. When Obama was recently in Chicago, Rahm reclaimed his place on the tarmac greeting committee. He and Bill Clinton no longer have to confine their communication to the telephone. They can be in the same room, the same restaurant, kibitzing, strategizing, just like in the old days.

True, he’s not yet on Meet the Press countering Donald Trump’s insulting description of Chicago as a city of “ghettos” where moms and grandmoms get shot walking children to school. And he’s still too risky for Hillary, or even for Tammy Duckworth in her U.S. senate run, to clasp their hands in solidarity before cheering campaign crowds.

And, unfortunately, Chicago keeps getting in the national news for the wrong reasons. During the last couple of days, for example, stories in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post focused, not on the romance of the Cubs and their weekend battle with the Indians, not on the wonders of Rahm as the mayor of the city finally casting off the curse, but instead on the fact that while Wrigley Field hosted this historic match, 18 people died in Chicago, including 17-year-old twins on a street in Old Town.

Six hundred and fourteen homicides so far this year—a shocking 45 percent increase over the same period last year—well over the casualties in much more populous New York and Los Angeles combined. “Shooting gallery” (shootings skyrocketed to 3,000 so far this year) and “war zone” are the phrases of choice these days to describe Chicago. Oh, and “wild west,” without the majestic scenery, to describe reports of gunfire from one car to another on the city’s ugly expressways.

And then the budget and pension numbers, still malignant—the latter nearly $34 billion underwater—perhaps not metastasizing but not yet in remission. And what about all those  budget “hidden costs,” editorializes Crain’s.  Property tax hikes of $838 million and new fees for basic services—a 29.5 percent increase in the tax on water and sewers; a just proposed hike in parking fees at O’Hare and Midway, a tax on paper and plastic bags, hikes in CTA fare cards, hikes in cell phone and land line telephone taxes.

And no one has offered a good explanation about how to pay for all those new cops.

As for Chicago Public Schools, Crain’s Greg Hinz yesterday calculated that CPS “will be spending another $110 million a year on teacher compensation and benefits. This in a system that can’t afford what it has now.” He calls CPS’s claims of savings of $400 million “a page from Emanuel’s book of exaggeration.”

And, looking ahead, what about all those other guys who hope to run against him in 2019?  Guys like Kurt Summers, whom Rahm put in place to be city treasurer, but who has proven a genius at tooting his own horn and inept at hiding his ambition. And then there’s scarily likable three-term Cook County sheriff Tom Dart.

And Chuy Garcia and Scott Waguespack and Kwame Raoul and others, probably many others.

As promised, back to Rahm and baseball. In 2012, a year after taking office, Rahm gave an interview to White Sox play-by-play announcer Hawk Harrelson, who asked, "What’s the best moment that you can remember from Chicago baseball, whether it be South Side, North Side, whatever?”

“Well, you know,” said Rahm, sounding like the ballet dancer he once was, “I remember there was a great play, when [Cubs third baseman] Ron Santos [sic], on a line drive, just jumped, you know, I don’t even know what you would call it, leaped, jumped, just moved and caught a line drive. I forgot what game it was, but it was a tremendous play.”

“Santos?” The mayor made matters worse by naming “Wienie’s Circle” offerings as the Chicago food he most missed while living in D.C.

So authenticity might not be his strongest point, but he has made quite the comeback—kind of like the Cubs coming back from what looked to be an insurmountable, humiliating loss to the Indians.

Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.

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