Chicago Police Furor Detracts From Emanuel's Push to Mend Finances

Emanuel Begins Second Term as Chicago on Financial Edge
  • Mayor cancels trip to Paris climate talks to deal with crisis
  • Shooting fallout threatens return to racially charged politics

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel canceled his planned trip this week to join global leaders in Paris for talks on climate change. A more immediate crisis over a police shooting in his own city is keeping him home.

Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff for President Barack Obama, said he needed to address “a challenging time” for the third-most-populous U.S. city. Outcry over his administration’s handling of a video showing a white police officer shooting a black teenager 16 times forced Emanuel to fire his police chief on Tuesday.

Now he faces a much broader challenge: Avoiding a return to the city’s racially charged politics of the 1980s that would damage Chicago’s carefully built brand as a corporate-headquarters town and undermine his efforts to reverse its deteriorating credit and pension problems.

“How many crises can you manage at once?” asked Adam Buchanan, senior vice president of sales and trading at Ziegler, a broker-dealer in Chicago.

The latest erupted last week after the city released a video showing Officer Jason Van Dyke shooting 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, even as he lay crumpled on the ground. Black community leaders and Illinois’s attorney general, Lisa Madigan, have called for the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the Chicago police department’s practices amid accusations of a cover-up as Emanuel sought re-election to a second term earlier this year.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton supports Madigan’s request, her campaign said in a statement. Emanuel worked in the White House under former President Bill Clinton.

Superintendent Dismissed

Emanuel sought to reduce the criticism by firing his police superintendent, Garry McCarthy, but that move quickly created another source of tension over who will replace him in a city whose 2.7 million population is almost equally divided among whites, blacks and Hispanics.

The acting superintendent, John Escalante, is Hispanic, and many in the Latino community would like to see him get the job. Leaders from the black community, which has been disproportionately affected by the department’s history of abuses against citizens, are pushing their own candidates. In May, the city formally apologized for 20 years of torture led by a white former police commander, mainly against black men.

“That’s going to divide the black and Hispanic caucuses,” said Donald Haider, a former Chicago finance director who now teaches at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

The worst-case scenario would be a return to Beirut on the Lake, Chicago’s nickname when white aldermen clashed with the city’s first black mayor, Harold Washington, hampering his ability to govern.

The current situation has even wider implications because the issue of police interaction with minority communities has captured the national spotlight, putting Emanuel in a “crisis,” said Haider, who ran for mayor against Washington in 1987.

“Beirut on the Lake was a local squabble,” Haider said. “It was a good old Chicago backroom brawl for political power with racial overtones. This is also a call for power, but it is also a cry for justice. This is a call for fair treatment.”

At a minimum, the recent political instability and demands for police reform complicate the city’s efforts to fix its financial problems, said Richard Ciccarone, Chicago-based chief executive officer of Merritt Research Services. Chicago’s pension debt has grown to $20 billion, more than $7,000 for each resident.

“You’ve got a two-front battle for the city of Chicago to deal with,” Ciccarone said. “Which do you put on your priority plate this morning -- do you put your public safety on the front burner, or do you put the pensions?”

Attracting Businesses

Molly Poppe, a city spokeswoman, said in a statement that the Emanuel administration has passed a budget that shores up the police and fire retirement funds. It has also attracted 39 company headquarter relocations. “Chicago will continue steady progress in further improving our finances and growing our business sector,” Poppe said, “and we are confident this hard work will continue to benefit all Chicago neighborhoods.”

Several investors said the police furor hasn’t changed the fact that Emanuel bolstered Chicago’s finances by passing the largest property-tax increase in city history in October. Bonds have rallied about 4 percent since then.

Still, the turmoil could weaken him in his dealings with the city council as the black and Hispanic caucuses jockey over political power and who will replace McCarthy as police superintendent, said Dick Simpson, a former Chicago alderman who advised transition teams for Washington and former Mayor Jane Byrne.

Emanuel doesn’t enjoy the union support that previous mayors did, Simpson said, noting a possible teacher strike that would be the second in three years. Chicago’s schools need about $480 million from the gridlocked state legislature to fix their budget gap, and without that bailout, Forrest Claypool, the district’s chief executive officer, has warned of thousands of teacher layoffs by early next year.

The police-video controversy has drawn renewed negative attention to the city. Trevor Noah, the new host of “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central, joked on Monday that he doesn’t want to go to Chicago “because I don’t want to die.” Noah made the comment during an interview with filmmaker Spike Lee, whose movie about violence on the city’s South Side, called “Chi-Raq,” equating Chicago murders with the war in Iraq, opens Friday.

Murders Increase

Shooting incidents are up 17 percent, and murders have jumped 13 percent this year from a year ago, as of Nov. 22, according to Chicago police data.

The accumulation of criticism has also affected Emanuel’s national standing. The New York Times and Washington Post have written editorials critical of his leadership and handling of the situation.

During an interview with Politico reporters at Chicago’s Willis Tower on Wednesday, Emanuel explained why he had canceled his trip to the climate talks in Paris. “Obviously this is a challenging time for the city,” he said. “It needs sustained effort, and part of that sustained effort requires the mayor to be present.”

Emanuel told the Politico reporters that he’s not considering resigning, as some activists have urged him to do. He said he won’t shrink from making “the very tough decisions to move the city forward.”

“I’m not perfect,” he said, “but like everything, I try to do what I think is right and be willing to be held accountable for that.”

At a later White House briefing, Press Secretary Josh Earnest rejected the suggestion that Obama feels constrained speaking out about Chicago because he’s friends with Emanuel.
Asked if Emanuel should resign, Earnest said , “Obviously, the citizens of the city of Chicago will have to determine who should be running the city, including evaluating his commitment over the long term to implementing those kinds of reforms.”

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