• YouTube

“I really struggled with the decision to do that commercial,” Kim Wasserman told me yesterday.

The noted Little Village activist was talking about the first commercial in Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s reelection campaign. It aired Wednesday, and Wasserman played a starring role.

Wasserman, a community organizer with Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, helped lead a ten-year campaign to shut down coal-fired power plants in Little Village and Pilsen. The Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization was also instrumental. Countless neighborhood residents, community groups, and environmental lawyers participated. They marched, they sued, and they lobbied, and their tireless efforts culminated in the closing of the plants in 2012.

Mayor Emanuel’s commercial distills the ten-year fight to its 30-second essence, and gives credit where credit is due. To Mayor Emanuel. But the mayor is too modest to doff his hat to himself—so he lets Wasserman do it.

The commercial begins with a closeup of Wasserman as she relates that, after her infant son’s asthma attack, she realized there were “a lot of people affected in Pilsen and in Little Village by air quality issues,” and that “these coal power plants were having an impact on our community.”

But “the message was falling on deaf ears,” she says. “It was literally ten years of fighting.”

An ominous image of smokestacks fades and the scene switches to a park bench, on which Wasserman sits with her son and Emanuel. The mayor is looking at Wasserman with a furrowed brow and deep concern.

YouTube video

Then there’s a clip of the mayor on the telephone, above a Tribune headline, “Mayor gives coal plants ultimatum”. In a voice-over, Wasserman says: “I think Rahm comes at these issues being able to have tough conversations. He said, ‘If the right thing to do is shut them down, then that is what I will do.’ And that’s exactly what he did.”

Another headline appears over a smokestack—”Chicago’s two coal-fired plants to close”—as Wasserman adds, “That’s the kind of leadership that our communities need.”

It’s certainly the kind of commercial Emanuel needs: a prominent activist lauding his flair for getting things done. An activist who happens to live in the neighborhood of the mayor’s strongest rival in the coming campaign—Cook County commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.

To compress a ten-year fight into half a minute, certain story elements must be sacrificed. One of the elements in this instance was the fact that the coal plants were on their deathbed when Emanuel was elected.

Pressure on the state of Illinois from environmental lawyers had led to a 2006 concession from Midwest Generation to install controls that would significantly limit toxic emissions in its six plants in Illinois, which included the Crawford plant in Little Village and the Fisk plant in Pilsen. The most expensive controls, for sulfur dioxide, had to be installed by the end of 2015 at Fisk and 2018 at Crawford. Journalist Kari Lydersen, who documents the long struggle in her e-book Closing the Cloud Factories, notes that company officials indicated they might close the plants by those deadlines rather than install the sulfur dioxide controls.

The activists in Little Village and Pilsen didn’t like the idea of waiting another nine to 12 years for their air to improve. They received no help from Mayor Richard M. Daley, who sided with Midwest Generation. But the local activists and other environmentalists kept the heat on the company and on Chicago officials. In the predawn hours of October 24, 2009, eight Greenpeace activists climbed the smokestack at Fisk and painted QUIT COAL on it.

A coalition worked with 49th Ward alderman Joe Moore in the drafting of a clean power ordinance that would regulate particulate matter and limit carbon dioxide emissions—and likely force the Crawford and Fisk plants to close. Meantime, the advent of fracking was making natural gas cheap, a financial blow to coal-power companies like Midwest Generation.

By April 2011, Moore’s ordinance had 26 cosponsors, and it got a City Council hearing, but it didn’t make it out of committee. According to Lydersen’s account, some activists believed that Emanuel, who’d been elected two months earlier but hadn’t yet been inaugurated, “was already calling the shots and did not want the ordinance passed before he took office.”

Emanuel became mayor the following month, and in February 2012 triumphantly announced that he’d brokered an agreement under which the Fisk plant would be shuttered by the end of 2012 and the Crawford plant by the end of 2014. The Tribune noted that nearly a hundred coal plants nationally had closed in recent years, because of the price of natural gas and stricter air pollution requirements. The Trib story also observed that the City Council had delayed a vote on the clean-power ordinance the previous April after Emanuel “made it clear he wanted to weigh in on the issue. Now the new mayor gets to take credit for a deal.”

The activists celebrated the agreement, though some were disappointed that as part of the deal, the proposed ordinance was withdrawn. “An ordinance would have more binding power and would make more of a statement,” some of the activists thought, according to Lydersen’s account.

Two months later, the financially troubled Midwest Generation announced it would close the plants even sooner—by the end of that August. In December 2012, the company filed for bankruptcy.

“You can never say it was this one single thing that did it,” Faith Bugel, a lawyer for one of the groups involved in the fight, Environmental Law & Policy Center, told Lydersen. “The ordinance and the organizing were critical and also coming at a time when natural gas prices and electricity prices were putting pressure on coal.” The activists’ pressure had helped topple the plants, Bugel said. “With coal teetering on the brink, everything came together.”

Wasserman told me yesterday she’d been torn about doing the commercial because the shuttering of the plants had been a collective victory, a fact she didn’t want neglected, and she knew a brief commercial was likely to do so. Ultimately, she decided that Emanuel deserved credit for ensuring that the plants closed, and that although the collaborative effort that set the table for him might not get its due in the commercial, it would be preserved by history, for those interested enough to research it.

“Rahm was a minute part of how this happened,” Wasserman told me. “He was there at a very good moment in time, and he ran with it. He took it from the one-yard line and got a touchdown.”

That version would have made for a different commercial. “We struggled for years and years to get the ball to the one-yard line, but we couldn’t push it in,” Wasserman might have said. “Then Rahm showed up, asked for the ball, and carried it into the end zone.”

And this week, he got to spike it.