A more-introspective-than-usual Mayor Rahm Emanuel reflected on his third year in office Friday, saying the decision to shutter dozens of Chicago Public Schools was the hardest he’s had to make and acknowledging his hard-charge personality has rubbed many the wrong way.
Emanuel also said more has to be done to make all of the city’s children feel safe and admitted the city’s school system would benefit if he developed a better working relationship with Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis, who led a teachers' strike in 2012.
The mayor’s self-evaluation came three years to the day after he took the oath of office in Millennium Park. During an interview with WTTW-Ch. 11’s Phil Ponce before a crowd of 600 University of Chicago alumni, Emanuel was asked if he could have made his decision to close 49 elementary schools last spring in a way that would not have alienated so many people.
“I’ve asked that question a lot … the hardest decision in the last three years was that decision. I’ve made my general rule, not to look out for my political future but for the future of the city of Chicago,” Emanuel replied. “I don’t know whether you could say there’s a way to do it where you’re not going to make people angry, because you are taking away something and changing people’s lives.”
The mayor said that for him, the schools for too long had suffered on a “path of least resistance that led to the road of lost potential.”
“I knew it would have political consequences for me,” Emanuel said. “I couldn’t in good conscience say to myself in this tenure of my mayoralty that I’ve chosen my political career over a child’s education. I’m not saying people are going to like what I did, and I know they’re not, but I couldn’t live with myself.”
Pressed on whether the public school system would be better off if he and arch nemesis Lewis got along, Emanuel responded: “Without a doubt. Without a doubt.”
“There’s no doubt working together is much better,” he said.
In answering a question about whether his at times abrasive personality had alienated people who could help him, Emanuel had a rare moment of concession.
“The short answer is yes,” said Emanuel, who then turned to a line he’s used before. “My wife has always said that if she had a fourth child she would name it Patience, as just a subtle reminder on a daily basis that there is another tempo in life.
“The very way I pursue things is to get the things that I think are important,” he said. “That level of pursuit with a blunt focus both helps and hurts and me.”
Emanuel also addressed the violent crime that continues to dog the city. While homicides have dropped, Chicago continues to have a reputation for rampant gun violence.
The mayor said he’s less concerned about the city’s reputation than he is by the fact that many children and families continue to live their lives in fear because of the frequency of gang shootings.
Emanuel then told the crowd how he calls the families of gun violence victims and invites some to visit at City Hall. On Thursday, he said, one family visited, including a girl who is a sophomore in high school, but isn’t attending class for fear of being hurt.
“The perception I’m worried about is the perception of the child who was in my office yesterday who was too scared to go out of her house to school,” Emanuel said. “That’s the perception problem with crime.”
Asked what more he could do to fix that, the mayor said he envisions a day when there is an after school program for every child. He also cited a need for tougher gun control laws.
And in classic Emanuel form, the mayor also used the event to apply political pressure to Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn to sign a city pension bill. The measure sitting on the governor’s desk would require many city workers to pay more toward their retirement and get less in benefits to help erase a pension fund shortfall. The city would put more money into the system, and the mayor has suggested a property tax increase would be the source of those funds.
“I helped the governor and my administration helped the governor pass the state’s pension reforms, because I thought creating that path was key for us to have a path to go down,” he said. “I think if the city and labor comes together, Springfield should ratify it, because we’re the parties to that agreement and let us get on with the business of securing people’s pensions and securing the economic future of the city of Chicago.”
Emanuel acknowledged many challenges remain as he enters the final year of his first term, including the looming increased payments required to the police and fire pensions if reforms aren’t made. But he insisted he had changed the culture of City Hall, from working to eliminate Chicago’s budget deficit to better positioning the city’s finances for the future.
“This is my third year anniversary. I started this at 6’2, 250 pounds and now I’m 150 dripping wet,” he joked. “ I know we have other challenges. But what I inherited and the practices that got us there, are they very different? Yes … We have changed the way we’re doing business.”
But Emanuel said he recognizes many of his changes have rubbed voters the wrong away.
“Change is never easy. The hard part about politics is having people understand change is a friend, not a foe,” he said. “I make no bones that I’ve brought about a period of change.”