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Once A Democratic Darling, Mayor Rahm Emanuel Suffers Political Misfortune


Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is in the fight of his political life. Some want him to resign. Others want a recall election. Allies, including the governor of Illinois, have distanced themselves from him. Things came to a head over the police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald in 2014. It took more than a year for the city to release a video of the shooting, which showed McDonald was walking away as he was shot. To talk about how Rahm Emanuel ended up in this bind, we called Jim Warren. He's the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune. And he says criticism of Emanuel goes way beyond that one shooting.

JIM WARREN: I think it's about sort of a visceral mistrust that people have and a lack of emotional connection they feel Emanuel has to them. He's Rahmbo, the smartest guy in the room, former chief of staff to the president of the United States. He makes clear that he knows what's best, thank you very much. It's a person who's, you know, famous for F-bombs. It's a person who would pick up the phone to me when he worked for Bill Clinton in the '90s during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and yell at me for various things. I think, at heart, his biggest problem is he just doesn't have what a good friend of mine calls the, quote, "protective issue" that his legendary predecessor, Richard M. Daley - he was mayor for 22 years - had. Even when Daley screwed up, there was a sense among many here that he had the city's best interest at heart. With Emanuel, right or wrong, too many people tend to think he only thinks about himself. That's the image. And I think it partly explains the media piling on right now. I mean, he's a two-legged political pinata.

MCEVERS: I mean, it's not just, though, his style and his personality. People are upset with his policies. I mean, he took on the Chicago Teachers Union. He lengthened the school day. He closed 49 schools. He increased property taxes, right?

WARREN: Yeah, he did all that. And, you know, you can argue whether he's made tough decisions or he's made a whole bunch of decisions that were absolutely, totally unavoidable. I think it's perhaps the latter, and a lot of those were things that miffed a lot of people. And when you throw in the personal style and people not cutting him any slack because of that, you've got a mess.

MCEVERS: I mean, it's an approach that worked for him for years in Washington. This is a guy who could raise a lot of money, who could push things through Congress, which is - we all know is no small feat - and who can run a White House. Is this just not how it works in Chicago?

WARREN: It's not how it works if you're an elected official. It's one thing to be a take-no-prisoners chief of staff for the president of the United States. But now, having perhaps the toughest job one can have in America - a big city mayor - and then when you throw in all the systemic problems and institutional conditions which he inherits, fueled in many cases by poverty, segregation, it's way, way different.

MCEVERS: Let's talk of this video of the shooting of Laquan McDonald. Doesn't the buck stop with the mayor?

WARREN: Yeah. I mean, I think so. I mean - and this, again, is all a window onto very systemic problems - the police code of silence, using endless alleged investigations as some bone-wearying way to cover things up, private financial settlements by governments to avoid a larger public scrutiny. That's all stuff that's part of the governmental fabric in Chicago, which he inherited. And while he didn't create the basic problems in the department, it's still verged on the absurd to stand up, as he did, at a press conference after that video was disclosed, and say, I've never seen this video. He knew exactly what was in that video, whether he'd actually watched it or not, which is why he got the Chicago City Council to approve a $5 million payment to the victim's family just a few days after his own reelection runoff victory this year.

MCEVERS: What does he have to do to survive?

WARREN: You know, he's a guy who thinks what's, you know, good for him is good for the city, rather than the other way around. I think he now has to change, step up and be part of what amounts to an incredibly painful, profound process of truth and reconciliation when it comes to the relationship between the police department and the communities that have felt aggrieved, notably poor black and Latino ones.

MCEVERS: That's Jim Warren, former managing editor for the Chicago Tribune. He's now the chief media correspondent for the Poynter Institute and a columnist for U.S. News & World Report. Thank you so much.

WARREN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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