Carol Felsenthal
On politics

A Talk With the Author of Mayor 1%, the Forthcoming Bio on Rahm

Journalist and teacher Kari Lydersen on what she reveals in her new book about Chicago’s mayor, in stores November 5.

Photo: Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune

Rahm Emanuel in his City Hall office on September 25, 2013.

Her subject wouldn’t talk to her, but Kari Lydersen, a Chicagoan by way of Denver and San Diego, wrote Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%, anyway. It’s in stores on November 5.

Mayor Emanuel’s not the only one who wouldn’t talk. As the author myself of unauthorized books and profiles, I understand the problem and the solution—it’s called a “write around” in the business.

And that’s what Lydersen did. A graduate of Northwestern’s Medill, she’s a dedicated triathlete who came to Northwestern on a swimming scholarship. She’s also a former staff writer for the Midwest bureau of the Washington Post, until the paper closed its domestic bureaus in 2009, and a former writer for the now-also-defunct Chicago News Cooperative. She currently teaches at Medill, as a research associate for Medill Watchdog Project, and Lydersen has shown herself to be a keen observer of the Chicago scene. Her book on Rahm is interesting, if not definitive, and is surely one of many to come.

We talked yesterday at my house. Lydersen, 37, who lives in Pilsen, told me she guesses she interviewed about 50 people for the book, a project she undertook at the urging of Chicago’s Haymarket Press. She claims in her “Notes on Sourcing” that the book is “based primarily on firsthand reporting and interviews.” But she also admits that, in the absence of talking to people close to Rahm, all the way from his childhood through his days as President Obama’s Chief of Staff, roughly the book’s first third, that she relied on “books and media coverage” to tell his story. When we met, the source she kept returning to was Ron Suskind’s Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President.

Lydersen also told me that when she sought an interview with the Mayor, his aide told her that the request raised some “red flags,” one of which presumably was her publisher, Haymarket Books, a feisty and decidedly left-wing house, which bills itself as “nonprofit” and “progressive.” About Haymarket:

“We believe that activists need to take ideas, history, and politics into the many struggles for social justice today … As Karl Marx said, `The philosophers have merely interpreted the world; the point however is to change it.’”

Publisher of such name authors as Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and Amy Goodman, Haymarket has jumped into greater prominence lately with books and pamphlets on the “Occupy” movement.

It also has several books on its list that present the struggle in the Mideast from the Palestinian point of view, and one coming in November, titled, Striking Back in Chicago: How Teachers Took on City Hall and Pushed Back Education “Reform.”

Mayor 1% is Lydersen’s fourth book. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation:

 

CF: If someone came to Chicago from outer space and knew nothing about Rahm Emanuel, what’s the one thing that stands out about him as reported in your book?

KL: Rahm co-wrote [with Bruce Reed, both aides in the Clinton White House] a book called The Plan: Big Ideas for America. They were really stressing how important ideals and being true to ideals was, not being expedient. That’s opposite of what Rahm really does. He’s famous for being for political, for discouraging Obama when he had an idea that Rahm determined wasn’t worth the political capital. … He’s motivated by politics and power.
 

CF: Does Rahm’s advice to the President not to spend precious political capital on a national health care plan fit this description?

KL: Yes. And the other major theme I discovered and try to debunk in the book, is there’s this legend about how ballsy Rahm is. The brass balls clanking as he walks down the corridor. I had come to think this myself, but he really doesn’t [have brass balls]. He seems afraid and/or has no desire to face the pubic or his detractors or journalists. That’s not tough and brave. If he were really tough and brave he would have been at school closing meetings to answer parents’ questions face to face.
 

CF: What has Rahm done right? What are his positives?

KL: He is extremely energetic and determined and a can-do guy, obviously really on top of things. … Plenty of mayors are incompetent and lazy and enriching themselves. He’s not scheming to increase his wealth. He has the ingredients of being a great mayor … But that makes it even more upsetting that he doesn’t use those qualities in way to help the 99 percent.
 

CF: Let’s assume that he’s going to run for reelection in 2015. How he going to do?

KL: I think he has discovered that working in the White House where he was not elected, or even serving in elective office in Congress is different than being the head of a city. Things aren’t going so well for him. I imagine he’s surprised at the level of public discontent. He thought he could bring to this job his steamrolling leadership style. It does work and maybe even is appropriate when you’re White House Chief of Staff, but not as mayor. Not confronting people, impatient. … Maybe he doesn’t have time to listen to people. Then he’s in the wrong job.
 

CF: Any insight into how Rahm compares to his predecessor Rich Daley?

KL: When I interviewed “regular people,” I can’t count how many said, “I was no fan of Daley’s. Now I appreciate Daley more.” And alderman I talked to, as many beefs as they had with Daley, they would say something along the lines of, he was neighborhood guy, knew city workers. Rahm has never been that. He doesn’t relate to the working class, ethnic people in Chicago. Some of these people felt nostalgic for Daley.
 

CF: You don’t hide the fact that the section on Rahm’s early years comes not from interviewing his parents or his brothers, or others who knew him growing up, but from extensive reading of secondary sources, including his brother Zeke’s book, Brothers Emanuel: A Memoir of an American Family. So from your research, what insights do you offer about how his upbringing shaped the man Chicagoans have as their mayor?

KL: I see his family as the Chicago dream—immigrant family; mom is a civil rights activist, dad becomes a successful, well-loved pediatrician, civically active, intellectual stimulation in the house, debate and competition between the brothers. Rahm not a very good student, but the family was privileged financially and intellectually, charmed life. All three boys become successful; in Rahm’s case, disdain and impatience for those not as successful; attitude of you just have to take the bull by the horns, and he doesn’t have time for people who don’t have the success and energy and power that he does.
 

CF: Does he want his last elective office to be mayor, or is he choreographing his moves with the presidency in mind?

KL: He’s criticized for all the time he spends outside of Chicago, talking with donors and high finance people outside of Illinois. He’s definitely part of the rise of rock star mayors … Maybe he runs in 2015 and in 2016 runs for president or takes an offer to be vice president. I feel like now he is looking at his time as mayor to build and expand his reputation nationally. He definitely has problems here.
Violence in Chicago is making international headlines. He’s not to blame, but definitely making him look bad. Closing of mental health clinics, school closings, more the way it was carried out. African American disapproval, being seen as losing the teachers’ strike; definitely seen as underestimating the union. A common criticism is that he rushes into things without thinking them out.
The longer school day, yet the decrease in the ranks of teachers would mean the schools would be stretched thin even if there were still a shorter day. … Financial status of the city is a problem; a big problem before he became mayor, but seen as a negative for him because he hasn’t turned it around. The janitors at O’Hare, the problems with the comptroller, the fact that the Midway [privatization] deal failed, that’s a pretty big black mark … Downtown is good but on West and South Sides, heightened feeling of insecurity.
 

CF: Who do you see running against Rahm in 2015?

KL: [Cook County Board President] Toni Preckwinkle if Rahm’s popularity doesn’t pick up; maybe [Cook County Sheriff] Tom Dart, and definitely a place for a strong Latino candidate.
 

CF: When Rahm goes into the polling booth to pull the lever for governor of Illinois in 2014, who’s he going to vote for.

KL: I would assume Bruce Rauner. [Lydersen covers Emanuel’s returning to Chicago after leaving the Clinton administration and, with the help of an introduction to Rauner , who suggested that Rahm’s rolodex made him a natural as investment banker, and a deal they did together, accumulating $18 million in under three years, allowing him to run for office while comfortably supporting his family.]
 

CF: If you could wave a magic wand and get interviews with anyone you wanted, who would your top two be.

KL: President Obama and Bill Clinton. Obama could shed light on Rahm’s relationship with the black community; Bill Clinton could show us Rahm the political operative.
 

Share

Submit your comment

Comments are moderated. We review them in an effort to remove foul language, commercial messages, abuse, and irrelevancies.