News & Politics

Has Rahm Emanuel Lost His Grip on Chicago?

Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass has been writing for the paper for over 30 years and has seen it all. His sometimes amusing, sometimes maddening portrayal of the old Chicago Political Machine is the stuff of legend in the city.

Last month, Kass penned a column titled “The video that might rip Chicago apart.” He was referring to the now infamous recording of the execution of a 17-year-old kid by a cop who pumped 16 bullets into him — most of them while he was lying motionless on the ground.

A short time after the Kass column appeared, the video was released and all hell broke loose. It became obvious that Mayor Rahm Emanuel had sat on the video for more than a year so that the controversy would not interfere with his re-election. This has protestors calling for Rhambo’s resignation — an unlikely scenario given the Machine’s clout and reach.

But, as Kass points out, something has been going on in the streets of Chicago — Emanuel, once feared and hated, is now simply hated. He has been severely weakened by this atrocity, and no amount of slick PR work will fix the situation.

So a month later, where is Chicago?

The mayor limps along, weakened, his public approval ratings underwater. New polls say what I’ve told you for weeks: That if the Laquan McDonald video had been made public before Election Day, Rahm would not be mayor today.

That makes people feel as if he’s cheated them. So resentment builds against the mayor most of Chicago never really liked, but feared. And now that he’s been humbled, he’s ripe.

When I wrote that Chicago could be torn apart by that video of Officer Jason Van Dyke killing McDonald, I wasn’t thinking about real estate or burning buildings.

The buildings are fine. The streets are still here. The protests were angry and passionate, but they were overwhelmingly nonviolent, a credit to the protesters and to the police they were reviling.

And after this current round of protests fade a bit, after the March elections come and go, the establishment public relations types will push a series of fairy tales to tell you the city is back to its old self.

You’ll know the touchstones when you see them: baseball, hot dogs, warm nights, festivals and gang killings, just like old times. And if Rahm’s public relations wizards have their way, you’ll also read how Rahm has recognized his faults and is moving toward redemption.

But by the time those myths are woven, Chicago won’t be the same. It’s already changed and will continue changing.

Rahm Emanuel has lost the city and he can’t get it back.

The biggest change coming to the city is the re-emergence of  black influence and power on the city’s politics:

Call it rebellion, or pent-up resentment based on legitimate grievances. Whatever you call it, he’s weak now.

After decades of hibernation under Daley, black political Chicago has begun to reassert itself. Young African-American leaders push for recognition. Black politics isn’t the Rev. Jesse Jackson‘s show any longer.

One of the casualties of the old order appears to be Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. Rahm’s buddy, David Axelrod, publicly criticized her for not charging Van Dyke with murder sooner, just as black activists were calling for her political head.

Now black politicians who supported Emanuel and said nothing about how he sat on the video are busy directing African-American animosity Alvarez’s way. Many of them won’t say Emanuel should resign, they’re still worried he’ll bite. But Alvarez? They want her out.

Alvarez was left without a chair when the music stopped. And now she’s their offering.

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle will run her own candidate for state’s attorney in next March’s primary, which would flip the balance of power away from Emanuel. No one is saying much at this point because Emanuel still possesses considerable clout. But a declawed mayor could give the reformers (such as they are) their best opening since the early 1980s, when Harold Washington ran for mayor and won.

Kass’s final question: “What happens to a boss who was never well-liked, a boss who had only limited and shallow support, a boss who is now weak and no longer feared? Rahm knows what happens. So does Chicago.”