- Baldur Helgason
Mayor Rahm Emanuel is notoriously hard to access for interviews, and notoriously evasive even when he does make himself available. As his next reelection campaign approaches, you'd hardly expect him to lay himself bare in lengthy recorded conversations with citizens. And yet that's exactly what the mayor has been doing since June on his podcast Chicago Stories.
Though it's been a near-weekly component of the mayor's public life for months, Emanuel's podcast—available on SoundCloud and iTunes and accompanied by lengthy promotional stories on Medium—has flown mostly under the radar. In episodes ranging from 15 to 45 minutes, Emanuel has conducted nearly 18 hours of interviews with some of the city's most powerful and influential people, along with a sprinkling of lesser-known figures. While Chicago Stories is billed as the mayor's conversations with "everyday Chicagoans," his guests are everything but. Stars (and buddies) from the theater, restaurant, and comedy scenes as well as prominent academics, business leaders, writers, and politicians have taken turns at friendly taped discussions on the fifth floor of City Hall. The lesser-known subjects tend to share stories of success achieved despite tremendous adversity.
Meanwhile, Rahm opens up about various hobbies (scuba diving and fly fishing), favorite authors (Goethe and George Saunders), and beloved bars (Four Moon Tavern and the Up Room). He also reveals some personal views: You have to "choose" to get out of homelessness, second chances are for those who show they want them, and there's insufficient "moral judgment" in public conversation about crime.
Emanuel tells the origin story of the podcast 32 episodes in, during an interview with Betsy Steinberg and Tim Horsburgh of Kartemquin Films. "[Chicago Stories] came about because Amy always listens to podcasts," he says, referring to his wife, Amy Rule, and adding that he frequently tells her about the people he meets over dinner. "At a certain point I said, you know what? Maybe we should just interview the people I meet and let them tell their stories, because . . . they're pretty extraordinary people. Or ordinary people doing pretty extraordinary things, or beating the odds, or doing something I think you'd like to know."
The mayor might have overestimated the public's interest in the people he finds interesting—or at least in their conversations with him. Despite the caliber of some guests—actor David Schwimmer, Congressman Luis Gutiérrez, Apple CEO Tim Cook, celebrity chef Graham Elliot among them—Chicago Stories has fewer than 90 followers on SoundCloud, its primary platform. According to records the Reader obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, episodes have sometimes garnered as few as 74 plays upon their debut.
But we listened to them all so you don't have to. What we found is an unexpected glimpse of the real Rahm—or at least a glimpse at his attempt to project authenticity. While Chicago Stories is part of Emanuel's never-ending effort to manage his image, the level of relaxed candor on display offers a rare opportunity to see how Emanuel thinks of himself and the city.
Rahm's world, through the lens of the podcast, is filled with family discussions over the dinner table, frequent outings to restaurants and bars, exotic vacations, and plenty of leisure reading. His subjects reflect and amplify his Chicago boosterism, laugh at his jokes (mostly about being Jewish), and often tell stories that make the city and the mayor's office look great.
The vast majority of the guests represent the city's cultural establishment, particularly its restaurant and performing arts scenes. The food and beverage folk help illuminate Emanuel's personal tastes as well as spotlight his efforts to make Chicago a drinking and dining destination.
"I can't think of a commercial beer I've ordered in the last five years," Emanuel tells Mike Gemma and Trevor Hagen of Haymarket Brewery during a rather dull first conversation on the podcast. It was released in tandem with the city's Friday Night Flights events, designed to promote local craft breweries. In a later episode (the first of many plugs of his Riverwalk development), Emanuel proudly tells Tiny Tapp & Cafe co-owner Mark William Johnson that the city has just awarded a grant to a couple to start a microbrewery in Englewood. He doesn't mention that the recipients are an architect from Seattle and a brewer from Milwaukee.
While interviewing Beverly Kim of Parachute and Charlie Robinson of Robinson's No. 1 Ribs, the mayor recalls his surprise upon learning that Kim and her husband had opened their imaginative Korean eatery in Avondale. "I was like, Avondale!? And now it's one of the hottest up-and-coming neighborhoods." While Rahm expresses his approval for how new restaurants can help make a neighborhood into a more attractive destination, there's no discussion of how they can also contribute to the pricing out of longtime residents.
In subsequent episodes of Chicago Stories the mayor touts himself as "a junior varsity member of the foodie class" while discussing Graham Elliot's Gideon Sweet, and gives shout-outs to other hip restaurant and bars such as S.K.Y. in Pilsen, Avec in the West Loop, and Scofflaw in Logan Square. While interviewing master sommelier Alpana Singh (who tries to convince him to give rosé a chance), Rahm indulges in a wine-themed anecdote: "The coolest thing I ever saw, I was in Paris, down in a basement, and there's this chef and he took a sword to the champagne." (The rare ceremonial practice of sabrage involves opening a champagne bottle by sliding the blunt edge of metal blade up the neck and breaking the glass at the collar.) He also tells Singh that he wants to host a cocktail mixing competition in the city: "Whoever wins, we'll give them $50,000 to start their own bar."
Lest all this talk of fancy restaurants and artisanal alcohol gets you feeling like Emanuel is living in a luxurious parallel universe, there's also the episode he devotes to Manny's, the legendary Jewish deli in the South Loop. If you'd like to eat like the mayor at a place you can actually afford, Rahm recommends: "onion kaiser roll, half corned beef, half pastrami, three pickles, one potato latke."
The mayor's tastes in the performing arts are no less eclectic—he seems equally interested in poetry slams, storefront theaters, and movie stars. He frequently expresses his love of the Gift Theatre in Jefferson Park and is thrilled to have its cofounder Michael Patrick Thornton on the podcast. He also heartily recommends seeing one of spoken-word artist Harold Green's live shows and tells the poet (and his audience) that Green's work "is gonna change something in you." The mayor gives five stars to Loy Webb's play The Light and takes every opportunity to brag about Chicago being "the Silicon Valley of theater" and his revival of the Theater on the Lake. One wonders if he's wistful for his days as an artistic rather than a political performer. Ballet, he says, was "the best training for politics."
An appearance by David Schwimmer is a chance not only for bonding over love of the stage and the stress of growing up with demanding mothers but for the mayor to hold forth on family values ("The most important relationship . . . is that a daughter has with the father"), America's moral failings ("People have lost a sense of commitment to their country"), and what he thinks makes Chicago superior to other cities ("There's a sense of community that doesn't exist in New York or LA in the same spaces").
- Baldur Helgason
Having businesspeople and thought leaders on Chicago Stories is cause for Rahm to share random personal information, self-promote, and also to make grand statements about human nature and public policy. One week he welcomes Mary Couzin, founder of the Chicago Toy & Game Group, and lets everyone know that he played Battleship "as recently as this summer," that he takes his kids to the NCAA Final Four, and that he considers the Easy-Bake Oven too "vanilla." Another time, he tells XS Tennis founder Kamau Murray—who was preparing to open his 13-acre, $16.9 million tennis facility on land formerly occupied by parts of the Robert Taylor Homes—"Twenty percent of the folks will always work no matter what's going on around them. And 20 percent . . . will never work and will be complaining."
Emanuel won't let you forget his role in starting the tech incubator 1871. He first mentions it in an episode called "Diversity in Tech" while interviewing Shaniqua Davis, a black entrepreneur who talks about how she started getting more interviews for IT jobs after she changed the name on her resumé to Shawn. Davis's experiences led her to start Noirefy, a platform that connects companies with diverse talent. Hers is a story about systemic inequality and racism in tech as much as it is about personal perseverance and ingenuity. In an apparent attempt to relate, the mayor recounts a rambling anecdote about a casual evening with the Emanuel family:
"Last night I was having drinks with the former CEO of Whole Foods," he begins, saying the drinks turned into dinner at which his son (who goes to UCLA) talked to Walter Robb about a paper he wrote on the upscale grocery chain. The evening ended with Robb telling the younger Emanuel to e-mail him the paper. Rahm attributes his son's networking skills to the fact that "he grew up around this," and reflects in conclusion that his family's social sphere "has real barriers" and that he and Davis "live in parallel worlds."
Reflecting on the experience in an interview with the Reader, Davis said that overall Emanuel seemed genuinely interested in her work. She didn't fault him for not addressing inequality in tech. "He was trying to understand what the landscape was like, to put different plans in place in the future," she said on the eve of joining Emanuel on a speaking tour at historically black colleges and universities—a plan they discussed when she appeared on Chicago Stories. Davis did note, however, that although her overall experience on the program was positive, the Whole Foods anecdote made her "uncomfortable."
"I was telling him how hard it was for me to find a job and he's telling me about the CEO of Whole Foods in [his] house," she said. "At that moment I was like, 'He has no clue what's going on.' We're on opposite ends of the field."
A more policy-oriented Rahm emerges in the episode featuring Apple CEO Tim Cook (the most popular to date, with more than 3,000 SoundCloud plays at launch). "Unless coding is taught in all schools and universal to every child—not just a select—then you're never gonna have an economy where everybody is—at least feels like they can be—part of the winning circle rather than on the outside," the mayor says.
We don't hear much more about a plan to implement coding programs in all Chicago schools after this awkward ramble, a hallmark of Rahm's speaking style on the podcast. But Emanuel does plug the fact that starting in 2020 he's making high school graduation contingent on having a "plan" such as acceptance to college, a job offer, or military service. In the context of the conversation with Cook it becomes clear that the mayor sees the lack of such plans more as a reflection of students' personal irresponsibility than as a sign of wider systemic problems. "I'm a big believer in six months of national service," he says, adding that he thinks that young people have lost a sense of commitment to society and a willingness to sacrifice for the common good.
Rahm could have had a substantive discussion about these issues with U. of C. behavioral economist and Nobel prize winner Richard Thaler. But instead they talk a lot about golf. Rahm relates how much he prefers fly fishing. "I'm obsessive now. I love getting out to Montana."
Thaler is the 18th guest on Chicago Stories, and the first to use the opportunity to ask the mayor a serious question: How will the state ever get out of its financial crisis? Rahm says he'll only speak for the city—and does he ever, erupting into a long-winded, impassioned stump speech about how Chicago has more people with college degrees than New York, LA, Houston, and Philadelphia (per the most recent census data, the claim is actually untrue in relation to New York), how the pension system is now in order, and how investment in transportation has benefited the economy. "We're not in the financial crisis," he says confidently. "We were, but we've actually made significant gains."
The mayor also periodically shows his spiritual side. "Civic life can only survive drawing on the strength of the spiritual," Emanuel tells Rami Nashashibi, a recipient of a 2017 MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" who's devoted his life to fighting poverty in Chicago through the Inner-City Muslim Action Network. When Nashashibi speaks of Englewood as experiencing "criminal disinvestment," Rahm says with a profound air that what's happened there compared with well-to-do parts of town is not a tale of two cities but "a tale of two choices," deftly avoiding getting into any specifics about who made what choices to leave Englewood behind. He concludes his vague reflection with an apparent hint at crime: "I always say if you don't give anybody any choices, they'll make that choice."
When Cardinal Blase Cupich, the archbishop of Chicago, comes on the show, Emanuel confesses that he's "actually become much more of a traditionalist, much more believing in the role of faith and structure . . . helping kids structure their lives." He ties this to the city's grappling with its crime and reveals what he really thinks about the problem: "So much of the discussion about violence is economics, where I actually think that some of the elements of spirit and moral judgment is missing from that discussion."
He doesn't elaborate on what it might mean for the city to tackle violence from a position of moral judgment, but presses Cupich on why he has expressed compassion for the people who commit crimes as well as the victims. "Where's the moral judgment?" Rahm wants to know.
The mayor's deep belief in individuals' abilities to overcome adverse circumstances comes out most palpably in his interviews with the "ordinary people" who come on Chicago Stories. These offer glimpses into his perspective on what drives poverty and inequality and where the solutions lie.
Rahm asks formerly homeless veteran Claude Lamb not only how he became homeless but "what led you to make a decision to get out of that context?" Lamb recounts how he managed to get a letter telling the mayor he didn't want to be homeless anymore to one of Emanuel's assistants. The mayor's office then helped him get a spot at A Safe Haven, a west-side recovery facility. If you're looking for the mayor's take on the elimination of affordable housing or the eviction of homeless encampments and single room occupancy buildings in Uptown, you won't find it here. Emanuel shares Lamb's opinion that "you've gotta show people that you don't want to be homeless." He says that to improve your lot "you gotta have motivation, you gotta have a desire."
Another bootstrapping tale with a dose of divine mayoral intercession comes via Alphonso Johnson, a man who was able to get a job through the city's Second Chances program (per Rahm, "the largest ex-offender program in the United States") after a stint in prison. He's now a maintenance manager for the CTA. Though Johnson's personal achievements and work ethic are nothing to snub, the conversation leads you to wonder whether the mayor agrees with the adage that everyone deserves a second chance.
"My wife and I have this debate," the mayor begins. "You think everybody who's in prison wants the opportunity for a second chance?" Johnson says that from his perspective—no, not everyone does. Emanuel says with a laugh that he'll have to get Amy on the phone so she can hear that. "My view on this is . . . you can't have any more doors slammed in your face" if you change your "outlook," the mayor tells Johnson. But what about those who don't? "The program, Second Chances, would not have worked if you hadn't changed your outlook about what you wanted to do for yourself—no matter how many opportunities there are."
Perhaps because the guests are selected so as not to stir up any controversy, or perhaps because these people are polite, none of them have used their appearances on Chicago Stories to question or challenge the mayor on any of his policies, with one exception. In episode 36, writer Ben Austen—who's interviewed Emanuel on multiple occasions for the New York Times and other national publications—comes on to discuss High-Risers, Austen's new book about Cabrini-Green.
At the outset Emanuel takes a warm and collegial tone, asking Austen about how he approached writing the book and plugging his own housing-related achievements (colocated library and housing complexes, a new mixed-income development in Woodlawn). All the while he carefully sidesteps taking any responsibility for the shortcomings of the Plan for Transformation—which he cosigned in 2000 as vice chair of the CHA's board under Mayor Richard M. Daley. He reminds everyone that he's a good liberal by referring to mortgage interest tax deductions as a government housing subsidy and saying he's read Matthew Desmond's Evicted. At one point, there's an aside surprising from someone who's overseen the city's shift from segregation through public housing to segregation through Section 8 vouchers: "The vouchers, somewhat, you could argue, almost replicated [the segregation] problem."
The first time Austen brings up school closures—in response to the comments about Woodlawn—Emanuel doesn't take the bait. But then, when the mayor asks Austen to give him "four takeaways a mayor must have on housing," the writer turns the tables.
"We're thriving in so many areas," Austen begins diplomatically. "Because we are thriving it's easy for a lot of Chicagoans not to focus on the parts where we're suffering." He contrasts excelling schools on one hand with shuttered ones on the other, notes how gun violence "erodes at a sense of community," and references the outmigration of African-Americans from the city. "I guess sitting here with the mayor, I want to hear from you," Austen says. "I want to hear like, 'Here are the reasons to stay. Don't leave.' I wanna hear hope."
With nowhere to go, Emanuel begins to answer, a hint of irritation in his voice: On school "consolidations" he says "having kids trapped in failure is irresponsible of a mayor who can spend political capital. Would I be more popular if I left the schools alone?" He doesn't answer, but poses another question: "Would those kids' futures be right if I let them get trapped?" He says that math and reading scores are up, as is the CPS graduation rate. "We're beating the rest of the country," he declares, enumerating several academic studies as proof. "I actually think you have a responsibility, as a journalist, to actually take off the blinders," the mayor concludes. "You should look at success and not run away from it."
He then pivots to talking about his "biggest sense of the urgency of now," namely, youth unemployment. (As he told Shaniqua Davis several months ago, "Rule number one when you're running for office: You've got an answer, doesn't matter what the question is.") At the end of this long soliloquy, Emanuel finds his way back to answering Austen's challenge about how to convince people not to leave the city. "The biggest thing . . . is to grab those who are literally on the street corner now and get them into the economic mainstream."
In an interview, Austen told the Reader that he'd been surprised to learn that the mayor had a podcast and that he was invited to be on it. "My last interaction with the mayor's office was [spokesman] Adam Collins yelling at me and being like, 'The New York Times will never have access to this office again,' after [Austen's] Laquan McDonald story." But it seemed to him that Emanuel was genuinely listening during their conversation. "I didn't think he was weighing his words" like he does during routine media interviews, Austen said. It was odd, though, that the Man on Five had an hour to spend in the middle of a busy weekday on a PR initiative that didn't seem to have much reach.
- Baldur Helgason
Emanuel ends almost every episode of Chicago Stories with a "fast round" of five basic questions to gauge the Chicago-ness of his guests: "Lake or river? Thick or thin pizza? Cubs or Sox? Willis or Hancock? Twelve-inch or 16-inch [softball]?" It's an anodyne litmus test with no real stakes—picking one isn't exactly taking a bold stand. Which seems to be the whole point of Rahm's podcast. It's a platform for the mayor to proclaim his local bona fides and his commitment to the city, but in a way that doesn't require him to stick his (size 15) neck out too far. Whatever he says and whoever he talks to, he and the city come out on top.
In recent months two very different evaluations of Chicago Stories appeared in the local and national press. On one hand, City Hall reporter Bill Ruthhart at the Tribune was delighted to discover "what can happen when a control-the-narrative mayor loosens the reins just a little." Ruthhart enjoyed the podcast's "spontaneous moment[s] of levity," and formed the impression that it "represents a departure from Emanuel's tendency to avoid letting the public see his meaningful interactions with regular Chicagoans." A few weeks later, Amanda Hess scoffed at this assessment in the New York Times Magazine, noting that any mayoral revelations are coming "on the podcast he controls completely." Hess placed Rahm and Chicago Stories within a growing roster of podcasting politicians that includes Senators Bernie Sanders and Heidi Heitkamp, Representatives Keith Ellison and Sean Duffy, and retired public officials including Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and Preet Bharara. These podcasts present a "hermetically sealed branding platform," she noted, unmediated by journalists and their "pesky questions." The podcast "is just another way that our political news is becoming less accountable to the public and more personality driven."
Both of these assessments have merit. It's clear Rahm's having a good time doing the show, and it's a unique window onto his otherwise pretty private existence. Yet given his deep familiarity with the mechanics of political strategy, it's hard to imagine that Chicago Stories isn't some finely tuned, focus-group-tested messaging tactic. It props up everyone and everything his donors adore: theater, cocktails, feel-good stories about the poor and disadvantaged succeeding against all odds with a helping hand from this or that city program. But it's what comes off as most sincere that's often most disconcerting—the stories Emanuel tells as he tries to be relatable produce instead a feeling of alienation if you live a less privileged life. As Emanuel talks about restaurants you can't afford, vacations you'll never take, books you don't have time to read, and his kids' easy access to wealth and opportunity, the mayor feels as far away as the gleaming skyline is for many Chicagoans.
What's more, the tough realities he doesn't tackle—gentrification, police brutality, the hollowing out of whole communities—are dead spots in the echo chamber. The avoidance of controversial topics in favor of conversations aimed at making him seem more relatable seems callous coming from the most powerful person in Chicago.
There's a thing Rahm tells My Block, My Hood, My City founder Jahmal Cole in episode 21, and that he's been saying, in varying ways, for years: "I've always believed that if a child in Englewood and a child in Edgewater look at this city and they have the same perspective—'That's my city'—nothing's gonna hold this city back." It's a happy ending to a fairy tale he hasn't written. Perhaps Chicago Stories has drawn little public interest because most of Emanuel's constituents know they wouldn't find that kind of story on the mayor's podcast. Besides, their lives in this city tell them more important things about him than his shirt size and his favorite board games. In Emanuel's own words: "Voters—at the end of the day they can figure out a person."
The mayor's office didn't respond to a request for comment. v