Over his eight years in office, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has worked and wrangled with the city’s 50 elected aldermen.
The majority of them applaud him for taking on the city’s bleak finances, despite his strong-arming some of them for votes and his habit of using profanity behind closed doors. At Emanuel’s last City Council meeting, the city’s most veteran member, Ald. Ed Burke,14th Ward, even likened the outgoing mayor to a biblical figure who has “protected the house of Chicago” over the last eight years.
Of course, Chicago still has financial challenges, but the aldermen who worked with Emanuel over his two terms in office are now reflecting on the things that could shape his legacy — the biggest accomplishments, the biggest blunders and the relationships built with them.
Here are some highlights from interviews with aldermen and the comments many made during the mayor’s final City Council meeting last month.
What do you see as Rahm Emanuel’s legacy as Chicago mayor?
“His legacy is going to be getting Chicago’s fiscal house in order — whether it be the property tax increase, the water tax, the garbage tax, the phone surcharge. They were tough decisions that had to be made in order to make sure we didn’t find ourselves in a position where we could potentially be looking at bankruptcy or becoming the next Detroit.” - Ald. Gilbert Villegas, 36th Ward
“The Neighborhood Opportunity Fund is going to, a year from now, two years from now, really benefit communities of color.” - Ald. Michelle Harris, 8th Ward
“The expansion of [O’Hare] airport is big. We’re not going to feel it until it’s done. But it’s a big deal.” - Ald. Walter Burnett Jr., 27th Ward
“When [he] made all-day kindergarten, I could’ve shouted because that helped affect my grandchildren and now my great grandchildren. … I can tell them, I know the man that did this for you.” - Ald. Carrie Austin, 34th Ward
“For the first time ever, the city of Chicago has an Immigrant Legal Defense Fund to ensure that those undocumented residents that are facing deportation have resources to be able to stay with their families and stay in the neighborhoods they call home. For the first time ever, we have a municipal ID - something that was talked about for many, many years — and this mayor and this administration made it happen. And in the city of Chicago, we now have an ordinance that ensures that police cannot abuse or coerce someone based upon their immigration or nationality status.” - Ald. Carlos Ramirez- Rosa, 35th Ward
“I think he had a great Rolodex. He calls people up. All these corporations [that relocated], he knew these people personally.” - Ald. Walter Burnett Jr., 27th Ward
“The city of Chicago now has a minimum wage ordinance, now has an ordinance providing paid sick leave.” - Ald. Joe Moore, 49th Ward
“When people talk about the legacy of this mayor, I can attest to the things he has helped me with in my ward to make my community a better place. Now, the one thing that tops all the icing on the cake … a national park with a museum that is going to be opening up and it’s because this mayor put a call in to Barack Obama and said we need to make sure to preserve the legacy and history of Pullman by designating it as a national monument.” - Ald. Anthony Beale, 9th Ward
“In my ward specifically, one of his crowning jewels will be the Gately indoor track and field facility where After School Matters is going to be.” - Ald. Michelle Harris, 8th Ward
What was Rahm Emanuel’s biggest blunder during his time as mayor of Chicago?
“I think the Laquan McDonald issue was something I don’t feel he dealt with correctly. And then, underestimating the whole Chicago Teachers Union and the will of the teachers to fight for a fair contract and really not be bullied.” - Ald. Gilbert Villegas, 36th Ward
“Probably the 50 school closings at one time. It was necessary, we lost the population … it wasn’t an easy decision for him to make, but it was necessary.” - Ald. Michelle Harris, 8th Ward
“Definitely Laquan McDonald and how he handled the release of the dashcam video, trying to get through to a period where he didn’t have to worry about the election. … And the zoning and development of The 78 and Lincoln Yards. It really went against, not just the best wishes, but the planning and input from several community areas that were opposed to it.” - Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd Ward
“I think his biggest blunder was closing the schools, of course.” - Ald. Walter Burnett Jr., 27th Ward
How would you characterize Rahm Emanuel’s relationship with Chicago’s City Council?
“I think that he viewed himself as the speaker of the house. … He really took into consideration things like seniority, things that would happen in Washington D.C., and I think he didn’t build enough relationships with some of the aldermen who could bring value, that were brand new, but understood how government worked and didn’t work.” - Ald. Gilbert Villegas, 36th Ward
“Rahm Emanuel was like a give-and-take. He allowed me the freedom to sit in a room with him and really thrash out issues. … People said that he came in with an iron hammer, but that’s not the truth. He backed down off of so many issues. He sits in the room, he listens, and he’ll tweak it. He got some of the things he wants, but certainly didn’t get all the things he wanted to do. ” - Ald. Michelle Harris, 8th Ward
“If you disagree with him, he would sit there and disagree with you and you’d have an argument and he’d be cursing. But then you walk out of the room with some kind of deal, some kind of compromise. You know what I’m saying? It was never a permanent thing. He tried to work stuff out. He was just like that. He likes the confrontation, but also, he likes the deal.” - Ald. Walter Burnett Jr., 27th Ward
“Well, the Progressive caucus he never really wanted to deal with. I think we had a total of two meetings in eight years with him. We did have one good conversation with him years ago where we were offering up revenue options for the city. I think he summarily tossed those aside.” - Ald. Scott Waguespack, 32nd Ward and chairman of the Progressive Caucus
“Most of the African American aldermen, from what I understand, liked him. There were only a few who didn’t and some of them were difficult with him, and I think it was vice versa.” - Ald. Walter Burnett Jr., 27th Ward
“[The Latino caucus] just became expendable to some extent, in terms of his time. He tried, but I don’t think it was enough. Not compared to the Daley years where Hispanics were prominent in a lot of the government agencies.” - Ald. George Cardenas, 12th Ward and former chairman of the Latino Caucus
What are your hopes for how the next mayor, Lori Lightfoot, will work with aldermen?
“I’m excited about having the opportunity to work with her. I look forward to having an open dialog. I’d love for it to be the kind of give-and-take I was allowed to have with Rahm Emanuel, but I’d just love to have the dialogue.” - Ald. Michelle Harris, 8th Ward
“A willingness to compromise a little bit more and a lot of negotiating back and forth instead of the City Council having to beg for items and for projects.” - Ald. Gilbert Villegas, 36th Ward
“A more collaborative mayor. A mayor who is going to listen more. A mayor that is going to be in tune with neighborhoods and neighborhood development and people.” - Ald. George Cardenas, 12th Ward
“[Mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot] needs to work with the Council and she needs to empower them to make a difference in their wards. The more you empower the aldermen, the more powerful you are. As Benjamin Franklin used to say, ‘If you watch your pennies, your dollars will be taken care of.’ And I think at the end of the day, we can’t get around working with each other. So we all are going to have to work with each other whether we’re older aldermen, younger aldermen, socialists, progressives, we’ve all got to work together.” - Ald. Walter Burnett Jr., 27th Ward
Becky Vevea covers city politics for WBEZ. Follow her @beckyvevea.