The Chicago experiment with meritocracy is failing. The quintessential American city— “the city that works”—is in chaos. Its municipal corporate bonds are are at different levels of junk status and going south. Teachers are poised to strike. Petty corruption continues to surface.
The overarching story is the broad failure of Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
To be fair, Emanuel was handed a nearly insolvent city in 2011, after twenty-two years of Mayor Richard M. Daley’s misappropriations of Chicago’s finances. At Emanuel’s first inauguration, he said of Daley, “nobody loved Chicago more or served it better.” (Emanuel was Daley’s primary fundraiser.)
As chief of staff and senior advisor to Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, respectively, as well as stints as a congressman and investment banker, Emanuel proffered an impressive résumé. In 2011 his background might have indicated to some a new day for Chicago, a promise for a meritocracy run by the most capable and skilled. Now it looks like a promise unfulfilled.
Emanuel’s trademark arrogance is much subdued since losing the trust of 75 percent of Chicagoans. A full 40 percent wants him to resign over his stonewalling of the release of a dash-cam video showing the sadistic police shooting of Laquan McDonald in October 2014.
Officer Jason Van Dyke fired 16 shots into McDonald from close range, most of them while the African American teen was already prone in the middle of a street after trying to walk away from a police cruiser. Emanuel exacerbated the problem by keeping the video out of public view for 14 months. (He claims not to have seen it until November 2015, when a judge ordered its release, though his aides were well aware of it.) Emanuel managed to win reelection in April 2015; then a supine Chicago City Council promptly approved a $5 million settlement with McDonald’s family, before it even filed a lawsuit.
Chicago is setting a national bar for police abuse, prompting a federal Justice Department investigation. Shootings in 2016 are already on pace to exceed the previous year, and homicides are at the highest level since 1997. As Saul Bellow's Charlie Citrine says in Humboldt's Gift, "No realistic, sane person goes around Chicago without protection," and apparently not only from criminals. In the last two years Chicago has paid $106 million to cover police-related legal settlements, judgments, and fees. In the eleven years between 2004 to 2015 the cost was $642 million.
Chicago Public Schools teachers are ready to strike for the second time in Emanuel’s tenure, perhaps in April. The school system currently faces a $480 million deficit, and layoffs in administration are already underway. Just two years after Emanuel ordered the closing of fifty public schools on Chicago’s primarily minority south and west sides—even as he continued to create more charters—the administration cannot account for some 5,600 computers, 36,000 desks, chairs, and tables, and no one is sure how many books are missing.
Emanuel’s third public school CEO in four years, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, is on her way to prison after pleading guilty for guiding approximately $23 million in no-bid contracts toward her former education consulting firm employer—which pledged a 10 percent kickback to Bennett. The contracts were for principal training, which most principals reported was useless.
In related meritocratic financial shuffling, the school’s administration is issuing $725 million in bonds with a promise to pay back at 8.5 percent, a significantly high rate further adding to the debt burden and three times what a creditworthy municipality would pay today.
The city is looking to the state legislature and governor for a school bailout but that seems unlikely. Governor Bruce Rauner, a former investment banker and Republican—also formerly a close business associate of Emanuel—will not help Chicago’s schools or the city unless the overwhelmingly Democratic state senate and house of representatives (traditional allies of teachers and other unions) agree to his so-called “turnaround agenda.”
This agenda, à la Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin, is Rauner’s playbook for busting unions and eliminating collective bargaining for teachers and other municipal and state employees. A staunch supporter of charter schools, Rauner terms this tack as “pro-business,” and is now maneuvering to take over the nation’s third-largest school district through bankruptcy. For its part, the state of Illinois is looking at a potential $6 billion deficit in the fiscal year beginning in July.
Chicago’s woes are as ubiquitous as its potholes, the fixing of which used to be a marker of how well a mayor was handling the daily exercises of government. Emanuel’s corporatist style of government is coming under increasing fire, and demands for his resignation are growing. His legacy is failure.
Ronald Litke is a Chicago-based journalist.