Chicago Teachers Union rally

Photo: Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune

A Chicago Teachers Union rally on March 27, 2013

Chicago's school closings (briefly) made national news, though nothing like the uptick in homicides last year. Not much of it has been particularly encouraging for the mayor. He got a coveted "Worst Person in the World" from Duncan Black; Scott Lemieux wrote that he "has been even worse as mayor of Chicago than I would have thought, which is really saying something."

Both refer back to sportswriter Dave Zirin at The Nation (who was on WGN this morning to talk about the DePaul-anchored arena at McCormick Place), who excoriates the mayor on the school closings and their timing with the DePaul announcement. But Zirin misreads the political atmosphere in Chicago, in ways that are significant:

"If you want to understand why Mayor Rahm has approval ratings to rival Rush Limbaugh in Harlem, you can point to priorities like these."

I do not know what Rush Limbaugh's approval ratings in Harlem are, but I don't think that 50 percent approve and 40 percent disapprove. It is true that Emanuel's disapproval ratings climbed, from 29 percent, while his approval numbers remained steady. It's also true that his approval numbers among black voters flipped over the past year, from 44-33 to 40-48.

That last bit of data is important; Emanuel won every black-majority ward, and won every 90-percent-black ward by at least 58 percent. Assuming —and, yeah, it's a big assumption—that he gets a quality challenger, he needs that vote, and the trend lines are bad.

But 40 percent disapproval to 48 percent approval is more worrisome than drastic. And I suspect that this misreading, this shock, comes from people who aren't as familiar with Mayor Daley and who are just now noticing how Chicago politics has worked for decades, likely because Emanuel is a nationally famous politician and something of a bete noir for progressives. And they should look at it from the perspective of a newly elected mayor (one with ties to Daley) in Chicago: his predecessor closed schools; his predecessor doled out TIF money to private entities for decades; his predecessor was generally popular, consistently reëlected by substantial margins without notable competition.

And was widely credited, in the national press, for Chicago's status as not-Detroit. When Daley decided not to run for re-election, the New York Times editorial board argued that, well, the trains ran on time: "He seized control of dismal public schools and built a stunning (though way overbudget and long-delayed) Millennium Park. His metropolis avoided Rust Belt rot. If it took, say, demolishing a lakefront airstrip in an authoritarian fit, at least his has been a city that works, that sets and achieves an ambitious agenda (his)."

It's possible Chicagoans are reaching the end of their rope; "I fell out of love with this city a few years ago and I'm trying to get out," wrote Steve Rhodes after the CPS decision. But it's also not exactly a wild misreading of the people's will.

Take the school closings. 50 in one year is unprecedented, but:

[2002] was Chicago’s introduction to “renaissance” schools, which became a full-fledged strategy under Daley’s Renaissance 2010 plan to close 100 low-performing schools and open new ones, mostly charters. The hope was that a new school or an outside entity other than the school district could create higher-performing schools from the ashes of those shuttered.

Since then, CPS has closed or completely re-staffed more than 100 schools. The announcement of “school actions”—closings, consolidations, turnarounds—has occurred annually since 2002, and has provoked anguished criticism that has still not dissipated.

As for TIFs going to private businesses in nonblighted parts of the city:

About $100 million of last year's expenditures [in the Central Loop TIF district] went to close the books on TIF deals approved before 2008, including grants to at least eight corporate giants rebuilding their offices. Among them were CNA Financial, which got $13.7 million; United Airlines, which got $5.7 million; and Careerbuilder, which got $2.5 million. A consortium led by John Buck, one of the city's most prominent developers, received $7 million for a piece of property they're turning into a park on Randolph.

So I'm skeptical that even a strong challenger could knock off Emanuel, even discounting the mayor's massive campaign fund and total absense of strong challengers (if Mick Dumke can't find one, I'm not sure one exists). The Chicago Teachers Union is gunning for Emanuel, along with "aldermen and members of the Illinois General Assembly who 'have failed to listen to the voices of thousands of parents, educators, students, school employees and activists.'"

If they can't come at the king, a promising model is UNITE HERE in New Haven, which Harold Meyerson describes in a long, fascinating piece in The American Prospect. The union represents hotel and restaurant workers, but it's also a powerful political force in the city that's built community policing and economic development programs. And they did it without challenging the mayor—by intentionally not challenging the mayor and focusing on City Council instead. See if any of this sounds familiar:

A political scientist looking at New Haven’s government might conclude that any group seeking to transform the city should run a candidate for mayor, not for the aldermanic slots. Historically, New Haven has had a strong mayor and a weak board of aldermen, and by 2011, DeStefano, who’d been in office for 18 years, had overstayed his welcome. He had upset the union and other progressives by his failure to press the union’s case more strongly in its unsuccessful attempt to organize Yale–New Haven Hospital in 2005. Moreover, New Haven was beset by a crime wave, in part because the mayor had reduced the number of officers and discontinued the city’s community-policing program. New Haven experienced 34 murders in 2011, a sharp increase over previous years and a startlingly high number for a city of 130,000.

Mayor DeStefano survived, but UNITE HERE won a veto-proof supermajority on the council, and then used that as leverage against the city's economic powerhouses (particularly Yale University) to promote community job development. After DeStefano retires, the union doesn't plan to unite behind a sole mayoral candidate; "the coalition sidestepped whatever tensions," Meyerson writes, "racial or otherwise, that selecting a single candidate might have caused." Instead of becoming the power broker in the city, they've built a counterweight to the powers that be in the city, which may help them avoid the corrupting and dividing effects of power.