Behind the Scenes of Rahm Emanuel's Poor Mayoral Strategy
Photo Credit: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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The following is an excerpt from Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago's 99%. Copyright © 2013 by Kari Lydersen. Reprinted with permission of Haymarket Books, Chicago, IL.
March 4, 2012, was Chicago’s 175th birthday, and the city celebrated with a public party at the Chicago History Museum. The event promised actors portraying famous Chicagoans including Jane Addams, founder of Hull House and advocate for immigrants, children, and factory workers. Little did the organizers know that the show would be stolen by a woman some viewed as a modern-day Jane Addams—more eccentric and irascible, less renowned and accomplished, but just as willing to raise her voice and speak up for the weak and vulnerable.
Mayor Rahm Emanuel grinned broadly as the Chicago Children’s Choir, dressed in red, sang a lively version of “Happy Birthday.”
He had reason to smile.
Ten months earlier he’d been inaugurated as leader of the nation’s third most- populous city, taking the reins from legendary Mayor Richard M. Daley. And while his term hadn’t been a cakewalk, so far things seemed to be going well. He had inherited a nearly $700 million budget deficit and attacked it with an aggressive round of cost-cutting and layoffs. The labor unions had resisted, but ultimately Emanuel was able to strike some deals and come out on top. Meanwhile, he was moving forward with his plans to institute a longer school day, a promise that had gained him positive attention nationwide. He was already assuming Daley’s mantle as the “Green Mayor”: in February he had announced that the city’s two coal-fired power plants would close, and miles of new bike lanes were in the works.
Emanuel had even snagged two important international gatherings for Chicago: the NATO and G8 summits, to be held concurrently in May 2012—the first time both would be hosted in the same US city.
There had been sit-ins and protests by community groups and unions related to the summits, school closings, and other issues. But Emanuel had shown a knack for avoiding and ignoring them, and so far he didn’t seem to have suffered too much political fallout.
As Emanuel watched the swaying, clapping singers at the birthday party, he didn’t seem to notice a crinkled orange paper banner bobbing in the crowd of revelers. It said, “History Will Judge Mayor 1 Percent Emanuel for Closing Mental Health Clinics.” He’d gotten the moniker early on in his tenure. As Occupy Wall Street–inspired protests swept the nation, it was a natural fit for a mayor known for his high-finance connections and brief but highly lucrative career as an investment banker.
A staffer for the mayor or the museum did notice the banner, and told the man holding it to put it away. Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle, a lanky longtime activist, com- plied, partially folding the banner and lowering it into the crowd. The song ended, and Emanuel began shaking hands with the singers and other well-wishers near a colorful multitiered birthday cake.
Then a shrill, rough voice cut through the chatter, causing heads to turn as the orange banner was unfurled and raised again.
“Mayor Emanuel, please don’t close our clinics! We’re going to die. . . . There’s nowhere else to go. . . . Mayor Emanuel, please!” cried a woman with a soft, pale face, red hair peeking out from a floral head scarf, and dark circles around her wide eyes that gave her an almost girlish, vulnerable expression.
It was Helen Morley, a Chicago woman who had struggled all her life with mental illness but still managed to become a vocal advocate for herself and others in the public housing project where she lived, and for other Chicagoans suffering from disabilities and mental illness. For the past fifteen years she’d been a regular at the city’s mental health clinic in Beverly Morgan Park, a heavily Irish and African American, working- and middle-class area on the city’s Southwest Side. It was one of six mental health clinics that Emanuel planned to close as part of sweeping cuts in his inaugural budget. He said it made perfect economic sense—it would save $3 million, and the patients could move to the remaining six public clinics. But Morley and others pleaded that he didn’t understand the role these specific clinics played in their lives and the difficulty they would have traveling to other locations.