Credit: Jamie Ramsay

Donald Trump may be the best thing that ever happened to Rahm Emanuel. This year Emanuel has been able to style himself as a champion of immigrants and a tough-talking defender of liberal values and his city’s pride thanks to Trump and his petty obsession with Chicago.

Emanuel essentially prevailed over Trump in a standoff over the concept of sanctuary cities when a federal judge decided that the Trump administration cannot cut off funds to Chicago because of its policy limiting police cooperation with immigration agents.

The immigration issue and other Trump policies and wars of words have flipped the narrative and deflected attention from Emanuel’s previous woes, including the 2015 election in which he was forced into a runoff with county commissioner Jesús “Chuy” García, and subsequent revelations indicating that his administration had covered up the fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald.

Since Trump took office, Emanuel has placed himself on the side of police accountability, supporting the Illinois attorney general’s efforts to push through reforms mandated by the Obama administration’s Department of Justice even as the Trump administration said it would not enforce a planned federal consent decree.

Meanwhile Chicago’s stature continues to grow as a glistening global city. The Obama Presidential Center will be constructed in Jackson Park, and a kickoff summit of global activists and leaders was held this fall. In December, Emanuel hosted a gathering of global mayors devoted to fighting climate change—a dig at the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.

But many residents, community leaders, and longtime Emanuel critics aren’t buying the liberal hero persona for the man long known as Mayor 1 Percent. They note that even as he makes bold statements about the rights of undocumented immigrants, Emanuel’s development and financial policies and priorities have continued to marginalize the working-class neighborhoods where such immigrants and many African-American residents live.

Emanuel’s administration continues to funnel tax increment financing funds meant for blighted areas to wealthy developers and parts of the city, including a scheme revealed last summer to surreptitiously direct TIF money to Navy Pier.

Emanuel’s past budgets have infamously slashed public services and jobs and closed mental health clinics, while the recently passed 2018 budget increased water, sewer, and phone bills, all things that have a disproportionate effect on lower-income people. Increased revenue was needed to meet obligations to city union workers, but many critics say more of the tab should be picked up by the city’s wealthy corporations—the types of players who have already donated $3.1 million to Emanuel’s war chest for the 2019 mayoral race.

Immigrants rights activists point out that Chicago’s sanctuary city status isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The city’s Welcoming City ordinance actually includes exceptions allowing police to cooperate with immigration officials when an undocumented person is facing felony charges or is considered to be a gang member—even if the person has never been found guilty of anything.

Two federal lawsuits filed on behalf of undocumented immigrants allege the city’s gang database violates civil rights. On December 7 the city settled in one case, with police essentially admitting they’d wrongly included Wilmer Catalan-Ramirez in the database, causing him to be arrested by federal agents and detained in the McHenry County Jail, all after he was partially paralyzed in a shooting.

Community leaders generally aren’t impressed by Emanuel’s efforts to reform the police department, known not only for violence against blacks and Latinos but also for spying on and infiltrating anti-globalization movements.

Before he endorsed attorney general Lisa Madigan’s call for federal oversight of Chicago police, Emanuel had tried to cut a deal with Trump’s Department of Justice that would avoid court oversight.

Sharon Fairley, who headed up the newly established Civilian Office of Police Accountability after the McDonald scandal, was widely praised. But now that Fairley has stepped down to run for Illinois attorney general, advocates are upset Emanuel hasn’t backed proposals to determine her replacement by a popular vote or a community-driven process. The takeaway seems to be that even if Emanuel will allow some measure of reform, he won’t tolerate real democracy.

And community activists in the south-side neighborhoods surrounding the planned Obama Presidential Center lament Emanuel’s failure to back their call for a Community Benefits Agreement that would ensure local residents benefit from the development and jobs sparked by the $675 million center.

The long-standing battle also continues between Emanuel and the Chicago Teachers Union, which enjoys widespread public support. The city recently announced plans to close and consolidate more public schools next year while emphasizing the role of charter schools, as if closing almost 50 public schools in 2013 wasn’t enough. Plans to close four schools in the Englewood neighborhood have particularly sparked protests.

In recent years Emanuel has broken ranks with his onetime close friend and wine-drinking buddy, billionaire Republican governor Bruce Rauner, over state funding for Chicago’s public schools. But during negotiations this summer over a state education funding law, the Emanuel administration pushed aggressively for a Rauner-backed provision that many see as a quasi voucher system. It allows an individual who donates to a private or parochial school’s scholarship fund to get tax credits in return.

While many Chicago voters are annoyed, disenchanted, and outright furious with Emanuel, his having weathered scandals such as the McDonald cover-up and the mass school closings seems to bode well for his continued survival.

And now Emanuel’s Chicago political prospects appear much rosier thanks to a November surprise: Congressman Luis Gutierrez’s sudden announcement that he will retire and back Chuy García for his seat—conveniently removing García from the 2019 mayoral race.

So unless fiery former principal Troy LaRaviere can pull it off or another upstart candidate emerges, Emanuel may well have smooth sailing into another term. This time he might not even have to don a fuzzy sweater.   v