How Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel reached the end of the honeymoon

July 25, 2011

By Mark Guarino, Christian Science Monitor

Two months into office as Chicago’s 55th mayor, Rahm Emanuel is already under scrutiny – by labor and teacher unions, the city’s inspector general, and, now, the local media.

Mr. Emanuel rode into office with a huge margin of victory, but his tidal wave of popularity may be showing strains, observers say.

“If you’re looking at this as a baseball game, he’s had a very good first inning. But there are eight innings to go. The challenges get a lot more intense,” says Andy Shaw, who leads a civic watchdog group.

In his first media flap, Emanuel stormed out of an interview with NBC affiliate reporter Mary Ann Ahern, showing his famous temper for the first time since leaving Washington. Ms. Ahern had pressed the mayor to explain why his three children would be attending The University of Chicago Lab School, one of Chicago’s most elite and costly private schools, despite calling public school reform a priority of his administration.

After stating that his “children are not in a public position” and that he was “making this decision as a father,” Emanuel dropped the microphone and walked off. On the video he could be heard saying, “I’m done. Especially after that.” The mayor’s office declined to comment on the incident.

Some City Hall watchers point to this incident as the end of the honeymoon period for Emanuel, who entered office pledging more transparency in city government, a promise he has kept in spades.

The City of Chicago website now has a searchable database of employee salaries and all lobbyist activities, including campaign contributions, gifts, and loans. Emanuel also eliminated all petty cash funds and slashed 94 percent of the city credit cards. Reforms to the city’s contracting process now put the bidding online, in an auction format.

Open government was hardly a hallmark of his predecessor, Richard M. Daley, so any movement to modernize city hall in that fashion is “a slam dunk,” says Mr. Shaw, president of the Better Government Association, a civic watchdog group in Chicago. These transparency measures “were all very easy,” he says. “Almost anybody could have written that script.”

The more complex issues, like solving the city’s $31 million budget hole and rescuing its embattled public school system, have less obvious solutions, Shaw notes.

In his opening salvos, Emanuel has taken the offense against the city’s teacher and labor unions. In June, the Chicago Board of Education – under his purview – axed a 4 percent pay raise for the city’s teachers, arguing that union members had received two similar raises since 2003 while their students “got the shaft.” The city’s public school system is saddled with a $724 million deficit, Emanuel says.

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