Dec 4, 2020 | OPINION | By Reed Schaefer | Illustration by Xixi Qin

As a Chicagoan and former Chicago Public Schools (CPS) student, I am particularly irked by the Biden administration’s strong consideration of former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel for nomination as Transportation Secretary. However, I cannot say I’ll be surprised if Emanuel is nominated; rather, this Cabinet nomination (and the other nominations to follow) will be a chance for us to see the true ideological colors of the Biden administration.  

When I brought up the potential Emanuel nomination to another Chicagoan, she said, “It makes me feel pretty annoyed hearing that Biden is looking to appoint him after seeing how bad of a mayor he was.” She told me he wasn’t fit for Biden’s Cabinet because she couldn’t trust someone who lacks transparency. She specifically referred to his handling of the Laquan McDonald case and his budget cuts, which caused a litany of consequences for Chicagoans who could least afford them. 

“He was the reason my dad decided to leave his job at CPS, and allowing him to work in Biden’s cabinet essentially dismisses all of the things he has done to harm Chicagoans,” she said. How can we expect anything different from him as Transportation Secretary?

Others have spoken out against the Emanuel nomination. Journalist Jamil Smith tweeted on Nov. 20, “Black voters didn’t help elect @JoeBiden to the presidency so he could elevate Rahm Emanuel to his Cabinet, the Mayor who helped cover up Laquan McDonald’s murder by Chicago police for more than a year. It’s an insult that this is even being considered.” 

Popular progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been particularly vocal against the nomination, saying to the New York Times, “Someone like Rahm Emanuel would be a pretty divisive pick. And it would signal, I think, a hostile approach to the grass-roots and the progressive wing of the party.” She warned that progressives will not accept this nomination and that Emanuel should not play a role in the party’s future. 

Let’s break down why this nomination would make so many of us angry.

Rahm Emanuel served as Mayor of Chicago for eight years, from 2011 to 2019. After dropping out of the 2019 mayoral race (likely due to his unpopularity), he left behind a mixed legacy in Chicago, to say the least. The Mayor’s supporters point to progress on the financial front, given the messy pension crisis that he inherited from Mayor Daley before him.  Emanuel tapped into federal funding during his first term due to his strong relationship with the Obama administration and identified sources for city pension funds. However, critics warn that Emanuel’s progress was not fast enough, and further, the funding sources were controversial and continued the alienation of impoverished and over-policed neighborhoods.  

Further, Chicago Sun Times journalist Fran Speilman explained how Emanuel’s leadership was weak and that he tried to lead from the top down. Speilman cites Emanuel’s proposal for Obama Prep High School as a classic example. This proposed selective enrollment high school, named after Emanuel’s former boss, was designated for the city’s predominantly white North Side, where the surplus of well-performing public high schools already exist. There was nowhere in the city that needed it more than the city’s South and West Sides. The proposal ultimately died during the CPS strike.

Outside of Obama Prep, education is where former Mayor Emanuel claims his largest victory. Defenders of Emanuel point to higher high school graduation and college acceptance rates, as well as higher test scores, a longer school day in the city, and universal preschool for four-year-old children.

These can seem like groundbreaking achievements. However, during the same period, a record of 50 public schools were closed, predominantly in poor and Black communities, after which the money was funneled into magnet and selective-enrollment schools. Also during this period, school budgets were cut mid-year a couple of times and funding for special education services was overhauled (an investigation by WBEZ found that CPS funds were funneled away from special education behind closed doors, violating federal laws). CPS has lost more than 40,000 students since 2010, and in 2017, the city laid off 950 CPS employees.  

The Chicago Teachers’ Union argued that Emanuel’s policy agenda only served to perpetuate the glaring gaps between the “haves” and “have-nots.” Christine Geovanis, communications director for the Chicago Teachers Union, characterized the mayor’s education legacy as a “distorted agenda of school privatization, austerity and chronic handouts of precious public dollars to wealthy private interests.”   

The statistics claiming to represent improved success for schools were taken from 2009 to 2014 and have been found to be inflated, according to NPR, so we cannot say with any certainty that these improvements are due to Emanuel’s efforts or whether these statistics reflect the whole truth. Changes to testing since then leave us unable to measure further growth. Further, pressure to improve testing scores has placed a burden on teachers to focus on test-prep strategies in the classroom instead of on learning. To top things off, a scandal erupted when Barbara Byrd-Bennet, the CPS chief that Emanuel had selected, went to prison for corruption. 

Another example of Emanuel’s poor leadership is when he attempted to balance the budgets by closing half of the city’s mental health clinics in 2012, leaving thousands of Chicagoans without mental healthcare. This has forced a significant portion of mental health patients into homelessness or into the Cook County Jail, the only place they can get treatment. Cook County Jail is now one of the largest mental healthcare providers in the nation. Further, the mental health clinic closures leave the city’s South and West Sides, in particular, vulnerable, exacerbating the already greater rates of homelessness, poverty, and mental health issues in these areas.

Protestors and activists pushed for reallocating funds away from policing, which made up around 37% of the city’s budget. Instead, Emanuel pushed to increase police funding, proposing to allocate $95 million to a new police academy on the city’s Southwest Side. The training academy promised tougher training for officers in order to revitalize the struggling South and West Sides of the city.

However, protestors and activists were speaking out against the very police presence that dominated their neighborhoods and asked that the $95 million be reallocated to much-needed services and development (particularly education, mental health, and job training) in their communities. Despite these efforts, Emanuel’s push for the cop academy as a means of economic development passed in City Council easily and is celebrated as another of his successes.

Easily the most controversial aspect of Rahm Emanuel’s tenure is the way he handled the Laquan McDonald case. In 2014, Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times on the city’s Southwest Side. The dashboard camera footage showed that McDonald was walking away from Officer Dyke and posed no threat. In the ultimate example of a lack of transparency, Emanuel refused to disclose the tapes or even acknowledge the issue until it couldn’t be ignored any longer.  

To quote Chicago Tribune journalist Kristen McQueary, “Not until Emanuel was safely reelected in 2015, until the City Council approved a $5 million settlement for the teen’s family, until a judge forced the release of the video, until 80 minutes of nearby surveillance video went missing, until Emanuel could get his spin machine up and running, until the Cook County state’s attorney formally charged the police officer, did Emanuel finally acknowledge the city’s rightful outrage and his own vulnerability.” Many, myself included, believe that Emanuel was using the large financial settlement to cover up the murder.  

Emanuel has made it clear who he is here to help: wealthy white Americans, at the expense of Black and minority populations. Emanuel can point to test scores and college admittance, to a bike path running through the city’s North Side, and to financial development as his successes as a Mayor, but we cannot ignore that this progress is largely superficial and only came for some and not for others, particularly those who needed it the most.  

If President-elect Biden nominates Rahm Emanuel for the Transportation Secretary Cabinet position, he will be showing his voters who they really voted for on election day — just another politician with empty promises of progress. 

Any Cabinet position that Emanuel would be nominated for would guarantee top-down leadership and trickle-down economic policy geared toward big business and those who already have their share, coupled with a lack of transparency that will hide the effects of the decisions he makes. This will end up alienating progressive voters. However, it wouldn’t be a surprising nomination, considering their close relationship during the Obama administration and the fact that Emanuel’s neoliberal focus can be seen as a way to “work across the aisle.”  

Biden’s broad coalition of voters was bent on “bringing down Donald Trump” and the vague promises of a “return to normalcy” and “bringing Americans together.” Since Americans did come together to defeat Trump, perhaps Biden feels that his campaign promises have already been fulfilled for progressives. 

Biden’s promises to bring back dignity and the “soul” of America are coupled with promises of rebuilding, economic development, and working across both sides of the aisle.  However, such broad promises from a traditionally moderate politician and a wide coalition of needs means there is no way that he can realistically fulfill all of these promises. 

Selecting Emanuel to his Cabinet would end Biden’s honeymoon period immediately and show Americans where he really lies on decision-making issues: that his promises of progress are just a ploy for votes and this is really just another reiteration of a neoliberal Presidential administration who really only cares about economic progress at the expense of the progress of the Black and minority Americans they are claiming to support. 

I urge President-elect Biden not to turn his back on his progressive supporters, especially Black and minority voters, and not to nominate Rahm Emanuel to his Cabinet.

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