News & Politics » Ben Joravsky on Politics

Mayor Emanuel: A tough leader for a tough city, or just an a-hole?

Possible explanations for why Rahm sees fit to bulldoze buildings and opponents



During the 2011 mayoral campaign, I kept hearing a refrain from voters, especially relatively well-to-do north-siders: a tough town needs a tough guy for its mayor.

Or, as one put it as we stood in line at a Starbucks on Montrose: "We need an asshole."

Well, Chicago, considering Mayor Emanuel's antics of the last week—bulldozing a field house and then an alderman—I'd say mission accomplished!

Let's consider the case of the little field house at Whittier school in Pilsen—which the mayor had destroyed on August 17—in the larger context of the mayor's first two years of educational policy.

He took away a promised teachers' pay hike, lengthened the school day without providing much in the way of new resources, cussed out the head of the teachers' union, instigated a teachers' strike, all but eliminated teacher tenure, closed 50 schools, and then, having promised a fresh new start, implemented a new round of budget cuts that cut 1,500 jobs and left principals scrambling.

All while he was gearing up to take at least $55 million in property tax dollars—over half of it diverted from the schools—and spend it on a new basketball arena and hotel in the South Loop.

It's a deal he snuck through the City Council so quickly that many aldermen didn't know they'd approved it.

Having done all that, the mayor went on vacation. And while he was wherever he was, he dispatched the bulldozers to Whittier school in Pilsen to raze the little field house—known as La Casita—that had become a symbol of resistance for many of the activists, parents, and teachers most upset by the aforementioned cuts, closings, and TIF deals.

One of the few victories these activists could claim is that some of them managed to fend off Mayor Daley's efforts to bulldoze La Casita after a 43-day sit-in three years ago.

Now they don't have that. Once again Mayor Emanuel has outdone his predecessor.

The mayor had the field house razed without so much as notifying the local school council or getting a demolition permit. When he returned from vacation, he told reporters he had no choice because the structure was falling apart. He promised to replace it with a soccer field.

Great! Except that the field house doubled as the school's library. So we'll have to see if the mayor abruptly orders in a construction crew to build Whittier a new library some Friday night when no one expects it.

Mayor Emanuel didn't end his curious approach to public relations there. He followed up the field house razing by giving 2nd Ward alderman Robert Fioretti the royal snub at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new Jones College Prep High School, which is in Fioretti's ward.

As you may know, the new Jones building is next to the old Jones building at 606 S. State. Ironically, about a year ago, Mayor Emanuel was thinking about demolishing the old Jones, in part because developers were interested in the site.

But Fioretti joined an insurrection of South Loop residents that eventually forced Mayor Emanuel to save the old building.

It's not being used as an open-to-everyone neighborhood school, as Fioretti and the residents wanted. Instead, CPS is using it as an extension of Jones so they can increase the school's enrollment. Jones is a citywide magnet whose student body is largely limited to kids with the highest scores on standardized tests.

Still, by not demolishing the old Jones, Mayor Emanuel won the gratitude of parents there.

And so in the spirit of conciliation, you'd think he might want to reach out to Fioretti before the ribbon cutting, if only to say, "It's customary for the mayor to invite the alderman to press events in his ward, and while we may not see eye to eye on everything, at least we agree on Jones.

"Even if you are thinking about running against me in 2015. In fact, why don't you join me so we can start a new effort to work together on behalf of the city?"

I know—there aren't enough F-bombs for that to sound like Rahm. And so the mayor didn't try to make peace or sweet-talk Fioretti—he didn't even invite the alderman to the event.

Fioretti found out about it roughly 45 minutes before it started, when he got a text from an aide. "He'd seen a press release that had been issued by the mayor's office," Fioretti says.

Never one to shun the limelight, Fioretti dashed over to the school, thus setting off an absurd and amusing chain of events.

"The mayor's aides saw me coming and they started freaking out," says Fioretti. "You never saw so many people texting so much—what's he doing here? What do we do?"

That's when Fioretti was approached by Erin Cabonargi, the executive director of the Public Building Commission, which oversaw the school construction. "Alderman, you really should see the school," she told Fioretti.

We have two Chicagos—one for Mayor Emanuel, and one for everyone else.

The alderman wound up getting an exclusive room-by-room tour led by the architect and Maria Guerra, the mayor's liaison to the City Council. "It was hilarious," Fioretti says. "It was like, 'Isn't this room lovely?' and 'Look at this view' and 'Here's the storage room.' I knew what they were doing—they were stalling for time until the mayor left."

Yet Fioretti got through the lengthy tour before the mayor finished his press conference—so there was still enough time for him to make an appearance.

"But they had this aide posted at the door where the press conference was going on, and he said, 'We can't let anyone in while the press conference is going on.' That had to be a first," says Fioretti. "I said to Maria, 'Good job.' And then I left."

When asked by Sun-Times reporter Fran Spielman about the matter, the mayor laughed it off. "He can come if he wants," Emanuel said. "Given what I know about the alderman, nobody's ever gotten in his way."

A few days later, Jones held a second ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by dozens of residents. The mayor didn't show up—and neither did any high-ranking CPS officials. But Fioretti spoke.

It's the latest sign that we have two Chicagos—one for Mayor Emanuel, and one for everyone else.

Of course, for the mayor, there's a larger collateral benefit to nasty behavior. Whether it's tearing down a field house or snubbing an alderman, it sends a message to prospective opponents: don't even try.

That raises an important question. Does the mayor do really nasty things—like raze a field house without telling the locals—because he's a brilliant strategist pursing a larger objective?

Or is it just that he's, you know, an asshole?

For a different perspective, I turned to a gentleman who happens to be a friend of the mayor's. I know—I can't believe he still speaks to me either.

"I personally don't think he's an asshole," the friend said. "He can be a really decent guy."

Like when he demolished the Whittier field house without even telling the local school council?

"I wouldn't have done that."

And keeping Fioretti out of the press conference at Jones?

"OK, Ben, I wouldn't have done that either. What can I tell you? The mayor's very, very ambitious—relentlessly ambitious. But you knew that."

I guess I should look on the bright side—at least he didn't bulldoze Jones high school.

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