I’m no fan of Rahm Emanuel. I’ve never voted for him. In 2011, while writing a political blog for a local TV station, I gave him the nickname Mayor 1%, which later appeared on protesters’ buttons and the cover of a scathing biography. But now that Chicago is under attack by Donald Trump, who loves to portray it as the poster city for urban dysfunction, I’m glad Emanuel is mayor.
Why? Because he’s equipped to fight for us. All the qualities that make him insufferable to so many—his arrogance, his contempt for critics, his willingness to jettison any principle that might interfere with political advantage—are virtues in a battle against a president who is, arguably, cut from the same cloth. To use a Chicago term, Emanuel may be a jagoff, but he’s our jagoff.
One of Emanuel’s mottoes is “Never let a crisis go to waste”—and he shouldn’t with this one. It’s in his own self-interest. For a politician whose reputation is in tatters following the Laquan McDonald scandal, rebranding himself as an anti-Trump warrior offers a way out: an opportunity to win over skeptical progressives. It might
be his only chance, come the 2019 election, to ward off another left-wing challenger like Chuy Garcia (or maybe even Garcia himself, who forced a humiliating runoff last time). And it gives Emanuel a shot at something that not long ago seemed unthinkable: being a genuinely popular mayor, not just a leader who’s tolerated because he’s got enough chutzpah to run this town.
The enmity between Trump and Chicago is mutual, of course. Trump won just 12 percent of the city’s vote, one of his worst showings in the nation’s 10 largest cities. Whites are a minority in Chicago, and its foreign-born population is around double the national average. For many Chicagoans, Trump’s isolationist, ethno-nationalist vision for America is inimical to their way of life.
So the resistance is in place. The question is, Does Emanuel want to lead it? Democrats who call for total war against Trump are disappointed that the mayor told party activists to “take a chill pill” and pick their battles against the president because Democrats are unlikely to win control of Congress in 2018. As the engineer of the Dems’ last congressional takeover in 2006, he’s probably correct that such a power swing isn’t coming to D.C. anytime soon. That just puts more pressure on big-city mayors to step up.
Emanuel will have to move left if he wants to position himself squarely against Trump. So far, he seems to understand this: Shortly after Trump’s election, the mayor promised that Chicago “will always be a sanctuary city”; Trump then threatened to withhold federal funding from sanctuary cities. If Emanuel caves, he’ll outrage Latinos and Chicagoans who interact with immigrants daily, as well as hand his opponents a defining issue on which to attack him in the next campaign.
Then there’s the gun problem. Trump ran as a law-and-order candidate, which hit home particularly hard in Chicago; he’s since told ABC News that police here are being “overly politically correct.” Emanuel responded with a subtle challenge to the idea of freer police rule in minority communities, calling for Trump to send FBI, DEA, and ATF agents to fight the gangs—oh, and how about stronger gun control laws and money for youth mentoring? And when Attorney General Jeff Sessions indicated that the Department of Justice would not pursue an Obama administration consent decree ordering Chicago to reform racially discriminatory police practices, Emanuel promised to do it anyway—a necessary step in regaining trust after the McDonald shooting.
But where can Emanuel go from here? Thomas C. Bowen, a public affairs adviser at the political consulting firm Mac Strategies Group and a former Emanuel aide, says Trump’s leadership will continue to have trickle-down effects for Chicago that the mayor will have to confront. “We’ve seen immigration, jobs, and criminal justice,” Bowen says, “but that’s just the beginning.”
Trump’s proposed 2017 budget calls for eliminating $6 billion from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, $72 million of which was earmarked for Chicago to build affordable housing, among other things. Plus, the proposed $2.6 billion slash to the Environmental Protection Agency would wipe out the bipartisan Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Emanuel has already denounced the cuts as threats to Chicago’s future. But if the budget that passes in any way resembles the one proposed, he’ll have to attack Trump with more than a sharp tongue to prove to Chicagoans that these truly are his priorities.
As a pragmatist with roots in the Democratic Leadership Council of the 1990s, Emanuel has been out of step with the wave of progressive big-city mayors elected in this decade. Being seen as Trump’s No. 1 urban adversary could win him points not just locally but nationally with a Democratic Party that has become more liberal, even as he’s clung to the center. (Remember, it was Toni Preckwinkle, not Emanuel, seated next to Bill Clinton at the last Democratic National Convention.)
The mayor likely won’t fight Trump on everything, but if he doesn’t bend on big issues he’s already staked out—immigration and police reform—I’ll vote for him in two years. I’ll even start calling him Mayor 88%, since he stood up for the majority of Chicagoans who voted against the president. As a crass political calculation, it’s better for Emanuel’s reelection prospects that Trump won. Every hero needs an antagonist, and our mayor has found his.