Rahm Emanuel: Symbol of a Sick America
America's is a sickness of the mind, the unwavering belief by people in power that free-market capitalism will somehow work for everyone.
As with a virus that refuses to die, the effects are insidious, because the very rich have convinced themselves that they made it on their own, and that others have only themselves to blame if they are poor.
Rahm Emanuel is Mayor 1%. He speaks a politician's words to entice many Chicagoans to vote for him, but his actions are on behalf of his friends and colleagues in the business world.
Snubbing the Needs of Average People
Journalist Kari Lydersen, author of Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago's 99%, tells the story of Helen Morley, a resident of the southwest side of Chicago and a regular patient at one of the mental health clinics closed by Mayor Emanuel. At Chicago's 175th birthday party in 2012, Morley pleaded, "Mayor Emanuel, please don’t close our clinics! We’re going to die...There’s nowhere else to go." Emanuel ignored her. According to Lydersen, Morley and others believed that the mayor "didn’t understand the role these specific clinics played in their lives and the difficulty they would have traveling to other locations."
The same can be said for Chicago's shuttered public schools, once the vital centers of their communities. The state of Illinois cut education spending by a greater percentage than any other state in fiscal 2012, and for 2013 it was third-worst in percentage cuts per student. Privatizers rushed in and blamed the public system. As a result, 50 neighborhood schools were closed in Chicago, opening the way for charter schools, which take taxpayer money but have little accountability to the public and an obligation only to their investors. In the end, 2,000 public school employees were fired by Emanuel, including over 1,000 teachers.
Parent Ronald Brooks, whose daughter's school Lafayette was shut down, spoke in the aftermath of the mayor's action: "Lafayette was more than a school. It was an institution....the heart and soul of our community."
Lafayette, which was reportedly underutilized, was replaced by a selective publicly-funded contract arts school with approximately the same enrollment as before the closing.
Cozying Up to Cronies
According to the Chicago Tribune, "The mayor regularly courts his benefactors behind closed doors." Nearly 60 percent of his 103 donors received "contracts, zoning changes, business permits, pension work, board appointments, regulatory help or some other tangible benefit."
Democracy Now cites a report by the International Business Times which found that Emanuel uses no-bid, no-contract voucher payments to quietly pass along money to his contributors. It was also reported by the Chicago Tribune that the lawyers for Chicago's infamous parking meter deal contributed over $100,000 to Emanuel's campaign chest. City attorneys touted the 'benefits' of the deal.
In another egregious episode, Mayor Emanuel appointed Deborah Quazzo, a managing partner at GSV Advisors, to the Chicago Board of Education. The Chicago Sun-Times reported that Quazzo's business affiliates subsequently tripled their business with the public schools. Tellingly, GSV founder Michael Moe related his goal for the future: "An education revolution in which public schools outsource to private vendors such critical tasks as teaching math, educating disabled students, even writing report cards."
Making Deals that Send Our Tax Dollars to Wall Street
Rahm Emanuel has made Chicago look good for tourists, sprucing up the downtown (Loop) business district, adding retail stores and office space. But the funding comes at the expense of average citizens. The mayor's plan for a South Loop hotel and basketball arena is using Tax Increment Financing (TIF) funds (our tax money, meant for blighted neighborhoods), and stands to enrich a hedge fund that contributed to Rahm's campaign fund and then invested in the hotel as the deal was being finalized.
According to Crain's Chicago Business, Emanuel has borrowed high-interest money that won't come due until he's out of office. For example, instead of paying $120.8 million in bonds owed now, he refinanced, thus adding another $228.8 million in interest over 30 years. Like Mayor Daley before him, Rahm hides the costs until someone else is around to take the blame.
Even the vital area of pre-K education is set up to benefit big business, with progressive-sounding social impact bonds likely to double the profits of Goldman Sachs and other investors in the next few years. Said Chicago reporter Rick Perlstein: "[The mayor] struck a deal with a bunch of investment banks to use the preschoolers of Chicago as collateral.." The deal was arranged with little debate, and with little understanding of the long-term risk.
And what about Chicago's (and Illinois') massive deficit? In recent years the state's largest corporations have been paying only about a third of their required state taxes. Threats to leave the city seem empty in one of the nation's busiest trading centers. Yet Mayor Emanuel opposes even a tiny taxon the quadrillion dollar business of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, whose profit margin in recent years has been higher than any of the top 100 companies in the nation.
The mayor claimed credit for a minimum wage increase, even though he didn't act until the State of Illinois began putting the plan in place. He took credit for a longer school day for the kids, but he didn't provide the necessary funding. He took credit for coal-burning power plant closings that resulted largely from neighborhood activism.
Like its mayor, Chicago has two faces. The rest of the nation sees the glitz and glamour of Chicago's magnificent downtown, but the city's south and west sides, according to urban analyst Daniel Hertz, are more dangerous than in the 1990s. This is part of the sickness: a persistent inequality, moreso of wealth than of income, that plagues America and manifests itself in the questionable dealings of a man like Rahm Emanuel. He may best be remembered as the privatizer of Chicago and, as Perlstein suggested, "a strikingly corrupt mayor."