On July 3, as the country got ready to celebrate its birthday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel celebrated one of his favorite subjects: himself.
In a New York Times op-ed that appeared online with the headline "In Chicago, the Trains Actually Run on Time," Rahm gave himself all the credit for whatever success the Chicago Transit Authority may have. He didn't even mention the people, like bus drivers and train operators, who do the actual work.
"Chicago riders have closer contact with the person whose job it is to make the trains run on time: the mayor," he wrote. As if our busy, busy mayor drove a bus in his spare time, in addition to writing opinion pieces for the Times!
Alas, several days later, on July 10, the CTA's subway workers overwhelming voted to authorize a strike. Quick, New York Times—get me rewrite!
In the editorial, ostensibly written to give transit advice to New York City, the mayor failed to mention that CTA bus and subway workers have gone more than 18 months without a contract. And that their unions are locked in bitter negotiations with the CTA over things like health-care cuts and work rules.
It's sort of like when Rahm parades around the country telling people how he's made Chicago an educational Garden of Eden, without bringing up the fact that the system's so broke it's paying hundreds of millions of dollars in borrowing fees just to keep the doors open.
As always, the less you know about Rahm's Chicago, the better it seems.
The mayor's CTA op-ed provoked some outcry. The New York Daily News, for one, ripped him in a front-page headline that read: "Rahm touts Chicago trains, but AT LEAST our riders don't get SHOT on the way home!"
Low blow, but I guess the mayor was asking for it.
The unfortunate headline of the piece recalled the old trope about Italian fascist Benito Mussolini: "Say what you want about Mussolini, but at least he got the trains running on time."
A mayoral press handler said Rahm can't be blamed for the Mussolini reference because he didn't write the headline. That's called throwing the Times under the bus.
But, of course, the excuse overlooks the mayor's trains-run-on-time passage I quoted above.
It reminds me of the time Charles Barkley complained he was misquoted in his own autobiography. Like Barkley, Rahm apparently didn't read what he wrote.
This wasn't the first time the Times has played footsie with Rahm. They have a codependent relationship, left over from the time when Rahm was a big player in Washington and they needed him for access and he needed them for publicity. Over the years, he's been glowingly cited on a multitude of topics by a variety of columnists.
Far be it from me to give advice to a great paper like the Times, but in Chicago there's an old City News Bureau adage journalists are supposed to follow: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." When it comes to Rahm's agenda, the reportorial technique is more like, "All right, buddy, whaddya want?"
In the case of the Times op-ed, it's pretty obvious what Rahm wants: to keep his name alive in national conversations and to promote himself as a model for other Democratic leaders. He aspires to be a paragon of the nonideological pragmatist who makes things, like schools and trains, run—even if he can't.
I used to think Rahm had no ideology other than winning. But now I realize there's an ideology embedded in that approach. It values the bosses who sign the checks and disregards the workers who cash them. They might as well be as invisible as the bus drivers and subways operators Rahm failed to mention in his editorial.
Emanuel's ideology means that on policy issues he doesn't take the lead—or oppose—economic policies like progressive taxation, higher wages, single-payer health care, or transaction taxes on Wall Street or the Chicago exchanges. That holds true even if the issues are ones that fire up the Democratic base.
Moreover he champions public-private initiatives like his preschool program. He funded that by borrowing the money instead of fully covering it in the budget, which means less cash for the classroom and more money in interest rates. The cost of the program, therefore, doubled to $34 million, with $17 million intended to go to lenders.
When it comes to the Democratic base, Rahm drips with contempt for it, especially the unions. In interviews and speeches, he writes them off as a bunch of out-of-touch losers. It's no wonder that in Emanuel's reelection race and subsequent runoff against Jesus "Chuy" Garcia, he was most popular in the wealthier neighborhoods like the Gold Coast and Lincoln Park, where Rauner also ran well. Emanuel thinks these so-called moderate swing voters are the future of the Democratic Party—and the city, for that matter. For everyone else—like the transit workers Rahm deemed unworthy of mentioning—it's shut up and get in line.
After reading Rahm's Times piece, I called Kenneth Franklin, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union 308, made up of workers who just authorized a strike.
"Yeah, I read that column," he said. "I was disappointed that the mayor didn't take the time to thank the workers who do the work. But I wasn't surprised. I consider him to be arrogant. It's all about him."
It's no way to run the trains, the city, or the Democratic Party. v