Mayor Emanuel On Regrets, Wins And The Limits Of Power

Myaor Rahm Emanuel speaks with reporter Becky Vevea about his top priorities before leaving office.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks with reporter Becky Vevea about his top priorities before finishing his second term as the city's chief executive. Jason Marck/WBEZ
Myaor Rahm Emanuel speaks with reporter Becky Vevea about his top priorities before leaving office.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel speaks with reporter Becky Vevea about his top priorities before finishing his second term as the city's chief executive. Jason Marck/WBEZ

Mayor Emanuel On Regrets, Wins And The Limits Of Power

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel stunned the city this week when he announced he will not run for re-election, and will step aside in May 2019 when he finishes his second term.

WBEZ’s Becky Vevea talked with the Chicago Mayor about what’s next. Click play above to hear the whole interview and check out the highlights below:

Rewarding aldermen for their support

MAYOR RAHM EMANUEL: I’m gonna continue to support them as they seek their re-election because I don’t leave a friend on the field. If you are part of making tough decisions for Chicago’s future as I walk out this door make sure you know I stood by you even though I’m not running. I didn’t forget what you did to help me push an agenda that pushed Chicago Forward and I plan to be protecting you and supporting you as you seek your own re-election.

Regrets and redos

EMANUEL: The one thing I would do over as we faced a huge financial challenge [relates to] Chicago Public Schools. When I got here I put a stop to the four percent pay raise for teachers. We did it unilaterally. There wasn’t really a conversation or dialogue and that was a mistake. We shouldn’t have done it. We should have sat down with them and said, ‘You got to be part of the solution,’ and I kind of said that they would never really want to do that. We did it the wrong way.

VEVEA: Would you say [taking away the teachers’ raises in 2011] is your biggest regret?

EMANUEL: It’s significant enough because it led to a series of things and challenges, etc. There’s other regrets. I don’t know, I’d have to think about … but I contributed to the acrimony. That’s on me. I own it and it was a mistake. On closing the 50 schools, decisions should have been made years before I got here… and they weren’t. If I tried to do just 10 as some have advocated and did the same 50, but slower. Ten is not easier than 50 and Springfield would have stopped you and it would’ve never gotten done. So that was the calculation.

On the 2015 taxes, I was trying to stabilize the pensions. A lot of people give me credit for recruiting companies. If the pensions had not been stabilized, Chicago’s financial picture would’ve gotten worse and it would have actually stopped the growth. I always said our fiscal picture was not about straightening out the fiscal picture, it was about creating a foundation for economic growth. I always say this: I’m not pro-business and I’m not pro-labor. I’m pro-growth.

[On the release of police dashcam video showing officer Jason Van Dyke shooting Laquan McDonald]: The policy of the city, pre my tenure, in every city across the United States, was to hold the videos to the trial process because it wasn’t supposed to influence other people’s testimonies. When the judge made the ruling, we complied. That was the beginning of disrupting a relationship and a dialogue and I own it. Nobody else.

Top three priorities before leaving office

EMANUEL: I have a whole list ready to go. I’ve now met with six department heads to go through their agenda to make sure of what we’re going to get done. The biggest piece is the consent decree but the truth is to get back an honest discussion about what it’s going to take so that the South and West side is really part of the city. They have the beginnings of an economic investment which I think we put a lot of groundwork in with the Red Line work for Obama’s library with schools and libraries and parks. Plus, we’re making progress each day in reducing gun violence.

BECKY VEVEA: Are you still planning to borrow $10 billion to pay down pension debt and tie up future city revenue in an effort to lower the ballooning annual pension payments?

EMANUEL: It has to make financial sense — meaning securing people’s pensions. And not whacking our taxpayers any more than they need to be — and they shouldn’t be. Now here’s what I must say to everybody: you don’t like mine? Bring your idea. Because as far as I can tell you either have to have a significant tax increase or a significant cut in public safety, a significant cut in basic government services like garbage collection and other things. I’ve rejected those two. I’m trying to present an alternative third option.

The limits of power

EMANUEL: People assume the mayor is all powerful. The truth is you probably have less power but more responsibility, and that’s a hard thing …We’re assumed to do things that we don’t really have a toolbox to do. The era, at least on my tenure, I think we’ve done pretty good getting money out of Washington and Springfield. So the question to the next mayor is, what are you going to do to get that?

A round robin of the Mayor’s faves

One person you’re happy to never have to see or deal with again

EMANUEL: I will answer that question on my way out. I have eight months and I probably have to work with them.

Favorite Chicago neighborhood

EMANUEL: I have been in this job all over the city and I think if you looked at my schedule you’d see that in a single day I’m in five different parts and I’ve met people who will be friends for a lifetime. I love where we live. We picked that neighborhood to raise our family. But every neighborhood has wonderful people with great character and each one had been an eye opener to me — a total eye opener. Because sometimes the only way you see a neighborhood is through the TV and it really never captures it.

Favorite place where he held a press conference

EMANUEL: I would have to say making an announcement in Block 37 that there was supposed to be the L station, the O’Hare express. That was like a cavernous place, like you know the beginnings of the pyramid system right down there.

Favorite local band or performer

EMANUEL: Oh, Wilco.

East Coast vs. West Coast

EMANUEL: Oh, you can’t do that. The kids are on different sides. This is horrible: East Coast. I’m not gonna be a chicken crap. I’m gonna say it. It’s East Coast. I went to Sarah Lawrence out there.

Correction: An earlier version of this transcribed interview mischaracterized Emanuel’s biggest regret in office. According to the mayor, his biggest regret while in office concerns his decisions on CPS teacher raises in 2011.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity by Gabrielle A. Wright.

Becky Vevea covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @beckyvevea.