CHICAGO — Rahm Emanuel’s bungling of the Laquan McDonald shooting case in 2015 so sunk his stature with the African-American community, Hillary Clinton wouldn’t be seen with him during her campaign stops in his city. With one crisis of violence in minority neighborhoods and another with police department morale, he had all but been silenced on national politics.
But 18 months after fighting off resignation calls and protests in the streets, the Chicago mayor has rediscovered his national voice — and with Donald Trump in the White House, he’s as emboldened as ever to use it.
Story Continued Below
He’s on CNN. He’s on the New York Times’ op-ed pages. He’s dispensing advice to top House Democrats on national campaign strategy. He’s jetting off to Milan and London to forge mayoral alliances while brashly picking fights with New York.
The biggest headlines have come from Emanuel’s decision to become the first big-city mayor to legally challenge Trump’s immigration policies.
“Chicago will not be blackmailed into changing our values, and we are and will remain a welcoming City,” Emanuel said last week when filing a lawsuit challenging the Justice Department’s threat to cut off federal funds to “sanctuary cities.” “The federal government should be working with cities to provide necessary resources to improve public safety, not concocting new schemes to reduce our crime fighting resources.”
His in-your-face resistance to the president prompted Trump ally Newt Gingrich to write an op-ed calling him the “Renegade Mayor of a Renegade City.”
And on Wednesday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions fueled the feud by repeatedly calling out Emanuel during a 30-minute speech on sanctuary cities in Miami.
“Rather than acknowledge soaring murder counts or the heartbreaking stories told by victims’ families, Chicago’s mayor has chosen to sue the federal government,” Sessions said. “For the sake of their city, Chicago’s leaders need to recommit to policies that punish criminals instead of protecting them. They need to protect their citizens and not the criminals.”
Emanuel shot back that he won’t “cave to the Trump administration’s pressure.”
“In a week in which the Trump administration is being forced to answer questions about neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and the KKK, they could not have picked a worse time to resume their attack on the immigrants who see America as a beacon of hope,” Emanuel said.
Emanuel has always been best understood through two lenses — one national and one local — and now is no different. The former chief of staff to President Barack Obama and prodigious fundraiser has long known how to capture the spotlight by capitalizing on his relationships with national media and political figures. But that hasn’t erased his political hurdles back home.
The most serious scandal that threatened to sidetrack his mayoral ambitions happened in 2015 when details of the McDonald shooting death came to light. His office refused to make public the McDonald video until after a judge’s order, with Emanuel insisting he hadn’t viewed it and didn’t purposely keep it under wraps until after his reelection. A deep-seeded anger, going back decades, toward the police department was unleashed and pointed at the mayor. Protesters showed up outside his home. Some carried caskets around City Hall. Demonstrators shut down Michigan Avenue stores on Black Friday.
Emanuel has since had to walk a tightrope of tamping down the unrest and distrust of police while assuring his police force he had their backs. Since then, murders have surged and his administration has struggled to get a handle on relentless gang violence.
While McDonald protests have quieted, the anger in the black community still simmers. Just last week, an Emanuel speech was interrupted by a protester shouting “16 shots and a cover-up!” — a reference to the McDonald case. And local rap hero Chance the Rapper — whose father has worked with Emanuel — told thousands of fans at Lollapalooza to pressure politicians to put them first, then called out: “Come at me, Rahm!”
At the same time, Washington Democrats are looking to Emanuel — the architect of the 2006 Democratic House takeover — for a different reason: how to defeat Trump.
Emanuel recently traveled to Washington and spoke before the Democratic Caucus about how to win back House seats in 2018 and about strategy for dealing with Trump.
“He came and I got to tell you, I was pleasantly surprised, he was very well-received,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a Chicago Democrat, said. “Given some of the residual — when he was chief of staff to the president — you know, Rahm’s not the warm and fuzzy type. It wasn’t a kind departure. And so I thought it was really good. As I’ve said, he’s improved.”
But has Emanuel turned the corner in his city? Gutierrez hesitates before answering: “I think he works hard. He gets up every morning … It’s very hard for me to tell that it’s having an impact on Rahm Emanuel and the city of Chicago. I just haven’t thought of it that way — it’s just kind of day to day, you work. Day to day you grind it out,” Gutierrez said. “You know that third term is always tough. It’s a tough one for him to go at. I think right now, I’m happy what he’s doing in standing up.”
Numerous Illinois Democrats contacted by POLITICO had the same review: they say he’ll likely out fundraise his opponents in 2019 but his polling numbers in the African-American neighborhoods remain lackluster.
Asked if he had yet healed the wounds in that community, U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, (D-Ill.) answered: “No, I don’t think so. Overcoming the history of law enforcement in the city of Chicago and its relationship to the communities — I think that is going to take a lot of work. I don’t know that there’s even been enough time,” Davis said. “I think that there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done, that’s been needed and perceptions that people have with law enforcement, that remains to be seen.”
Still, Emanuel has made strides in drawing national business headquarters to Chicago, is celebrating an increase in the city’s high school graduation rate, and last week announced huge gains in student test scores.
“He’s in better shape than he was a year and a half ago,” says former U.S. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, whose brother and father both served as Chicago mayors. “People today, if you’re an incumbent running for a third term, I don’t care who you are — there is a bad mood for incumbents and for people who run multiple times. It’s a year and a half away, he has time. But it’s a tough climate out there.”
As for Chicagoans, they don’t give a hoot about their mayor’s Sunday morning television sparring with the likes of Fareed Zakaria, they just want the violence to stop and their schools to open, says LaShawn Ford, a Chicago state legislator who introduced “Recall Rahm” legislation after a video of the McDonald shooting became public. That bill went nowhere, Ford said, stuck in a committee controlled by House Speaker and Illinois Democratic Party Chair Mike Madigan.
“If he wanted to make Chicago a sanctuary city — he would eliminate the violence, deal with mental health and drug intervention. If he wants to repair his image, that’s what he should be focusing on. While we’re starting a fight with the federal government, people are dying in the City of Chicago,” Ford said. “He wants to put himself on a national stage — that’s not what this city needs, the city needs someone who is going to dedicate himself to the city. Mayor Daley never, ever worried about that stuff.”
Emanuel takes stories to the national press because, supporters complain, he can’t get a fair shake in the local media. And they say, he gets regular invites from cable channels but is selective in which ones he actually appears in. The city voters he’s after may not subscribe to national publications or even watch CNN, but the coverage has another life on social media, which does get the mayor’s message to his target audience, according to one of the mayor’s strategists.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said Emanuel remains engaged in national issues but always from the standpoint of his city.
“Rahm is one of the smartest people I know, and for him, it starts and stops with Chicago. He’s always calling me up with great ideas that are relevant to Washington, but it always goes back to helping Chicago — particularly on issues like infrastructure and healthcare,” Schumer said in an email.
Emanuel supporters are hopeful his role as a Trump foil on issues like the environment (the city of Chicago posted the EPA’s deleted climate change information on its web site) and in the sanctuary city fight could be what breaks through to his constituencies.
Days after a train derailment in New York and ongoing transit delays in Washington, D.C., Emanuel penned an op-ed for The New York Times in which he exalted Chicago’s “modernized” transportation system and boasted of a 85 percent passenger satisfaction rate. Further calling out the differences between the three metropolitan cities, he pointed to Chicago’s modernization of existing transportation as “one reason Chicago’s economy has expanded faster than the economies of New York and Washington, and faster than the national average for the last five years.”
New Yorkers immediately took offense to Emanuel’s comments, criticizing him for going after other cities’ transit snafus — on a national platform — while he faces increasing rates of violence and homicide at home in Chicago. “Congratulations to Chicago for having a transit system that’s so popular with its passengers. Now try getting them home without anyone getting shot,” the New York Daily News responded, running the headline “DUMB TRACK MIND” next to a photo of Emanuel.