Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel is making the rounds, reflecting on his eight years in office and trying to bolster his legacy during the final weeks of his administration.
During a speech Thursday at the City Club of Chicago, Emanuel argued that he has helped restore the city’s confidence.
“We got our game back,” he said. “We got the spring in our step. We don’t doubt ourselves anymore.”
In a brief opening speech, Emanuel recalled just a few of the crises facing Chicago when he took office in 2011: ballooning pension payments, a structural budget deficit, a short school day and year.
“The cumulative effect of all those crises added up to a crisis of confidence,” he said. “There was a prevailing and pervading sense that somehow, the city of Chicago, that our best days were behind us.”
Emanuel largely tackled the city’s financial troubles by raising property taxes and implementing new fees and fines.
But those budget woes are far from solved.
After getting sworn in on May 20, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the new City Council will need to find an additional $270 million in next year’s budget to pay into the city workers’ retirement funds. Lightfoot has yet to outline a specific plan for how she plans to find that money.
Here are a few highlights from Emanuel’s Thursday talk, which was led by WBBM’s Craig Dellimore.
When asked if City Council is really ready for ethics reforms
“First and foremost, they are,” Emanuel said.
Emanuel then argued that Chicago’s reputation for being the most corrupt city in America is a “cheap trope” and referenced Thursday’s news that Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh is stepping down amid a scandal involving a children’s book she wrote.
“It is not just about the laws,” Emanuel said. “You can change all the laws so this is right, this is wrong, but you also have to have character to know what is right and what is wrong. … I think the lion’s share — not just of City Council, but members in public service — are in it for the right reasons. Do they get tripped up? Do they make mistakes? Are there individuals with nefarious motives? Yes. But that’s not just limited to Chicago.”
On the city’s gun violence
The mayor has talked many times about meeting with the parents of children or teenagers killed by gun violence, citing that as one of the toughest parts of the job.
When asked by a member of the City Club if there’s “anything or anybody” that can end gun violence once and for all, Emanuel said there’s one element of Chicago crime he still can’t figure out.
“The idea that you would kill somebody for a street corner that none of you pay mortgage on or own? I don’t get it, and I’m going to walk out of here with the riddle to that unanswered,” Emanuel said.
On shining a brighter light on Chicago’s City Colleges
Emanuel’s “reinvention” of the City Colleges of Chicago during his two terms still draws some criticism for limiting which campuses offer what programs. But when asked about that, Emanuel reflected on something bigger that bothered him when he first ran for office in 2011.
“The City Colleges was not on the radar screen of the city and yet, for 100,000 people, it was their livelihood,” he said, noting that community colleges were not a prominent topic during the 2011 campaign.
Emanuel touted his launching of the Chicago Star Scholarship, which gives any Chicago Public Schools student with a 3.0 GPA free tuition, books and transportation at any of the City College campuses.
And a funny story …
Dellimore lightened the mood near the end of the conversation by asking the mayor for any funny moments that happened during his time in office. Emanuel told a story about being stuck in traffic on a busy Saturday.
Emanuel said the car hadn’t moved for maybe 10 minutes, so he asked his driver, Lou, what was going on.
“And Lou goes, ‘I don’t know, some jerk is building a new Chicago and we’re stuck in it,’” Emanuel recalled with laughter.
“Building a New Chicago” is the slogan painted across most of the city’s construction signs.
Becky Vevea covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @beckyvevea.