Former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Wednesday he did nothing improper but still fell short in his handling of the fatal police shooting of a Black teenager in the city seven years ago, a dark moment in his tenure looming large now as he hopes to win Senate confirmation as President Joe Biden’s ambassador to Japan.
Several liberal House lawmakers and activists have urged the Senate to reject Emanuel’s nomination because of his handling of the death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times as he moved away from police on a Chicago street. Emanuel’s hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee came on the seventh anniversary of McDonald’s killing.
Emanuel’s critics argue that his nomination is out of sync with the values of an administration that says “comprehensive and meaningful police reform” is a priority.
But Emanuel, whose administration refused to make public the police dash cam video of the killing for more than a year and only did so after being compelled by a state court, said his hands were tied at the time by outdated rules that governed the release of police video.
“A grave tragedy occurred seven years ago, to this day, on the streets of the city of Chicago, and that tragedy sits with me, as it has every day and every week for the last seven years,” Emanuel said.
Emanuel’s reputation for sharp elbows — developed over his decades in national politics as an Illinois congressman and top adviser to Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — also is part of the backdrop as he tries to demonstrate that he has the temperament for international diplomacy, particularly in protocol-conscious Japan.
If confirmed, Emanuel will be Biden’s chief envoy to Japan at a moment when the two nations are looking to strengthen ties as their common adversary, China, has strengthened its position as an economic and national security competitor in the Pacific.
“My top priority will be to deepen these ties while we confront our common challenges,” Emanuel told the committee. “China aims to conquer through division. America’s strategy is security through unity. That regional unity is built on the U.S.-Japan alliance.”
No Democratic senator has publicly stated he or she would vote against Emanuel. The White House expects he will win support from several Republicans, including Sen. Bill Hagerty of Tennessee, who was President Donald Trump’s ambassador to Japan.
Among the Democrats most critical of Emanuel’s nomination are Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who called the pick “deeply shameful,” and Cori Bush of Missouri, who has called on the Senate “to do the right thing and block his nomination.”
Hagerty and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., formally introduced Emanuel at the hearing. Hagerty said while there were many issues on which he disagrees with Emanuel, he was certain the nominee shares his “unwavering conviction that the U.S.-Japan relationship is the cornerstone for peace and prosperity” in the Indo-Pacific region.
The release of the McDonald video led Chicago to make a series of changes in policies on police cameras, the use of force and training. Months before the video’s release, the city agreed to pay a $5 million settlement to McDonald’s family.
Jason Van Dyke, the officer who shot McDonald 16 times. was convicted of second-degree murder, 16 counts of aggravated assault and sentenced to six years and nine months in prison. The episode strained Emanuel’s relationship with the city’s sizable Black community.
Eight Black members of Chicago’s City Council who were allies of Emanuel during his tenure praised Emanuel, in a letter to the Senate committee, for lengthening the day for the city’s public schools and taking other steps that benefited long-neglected Black neighborhoods.
Rev. Martin Hunter, the great uncle of McDonald, also wrote on Emanuel’s behalf, arguing that Emanuel had “inherited a deeply flawed system” on police investigations that tied his hands. Emanuel told the committee that he and Hunter have prayed together about the incident and wished they had “a magic wand” to fix what’s broken in the criminal justice system.
Hunter wrote in his letter to the committee: “There is more to this individual than the caricature that is presented in the public.”
In Chicago, a group of activists on Tuesday called on the Senate to reject Emanuel’s nomination, noting in addition to the McDonald shooting his tenure as mayor was clouded by the closure of dozens of public schools and several mental health clinics in predominantly minority neighborhoods as the city dealt with a budget crunch.
As he left office, the city was mired in more than $30 billion in unmet pension debt owed to city workers, the bulk of it inherited from previous Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration.
“I am living in the aftermath,” said Chima “Naira” Ikoro, an activist and writer on Chicago’s South Side. “There are students who got displaced who never went back to school because of that man.”
Norman Solomon, national director of the liberal organization RootsAction.org, said his group is helping coordinate a letter writing and phone call campaign urging lawmakers to vote against Emanuel’s nomination.
Solomon also slammed the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Robert Menendez, for holding Emanuel’s confirmation hearing on the anniversary of McDonald’s killing, saying it demonstrates that many Democrats are in a “clueless bubble.”
Rev. Ira Acree, a civil rights activist in Chicago, said Biden’s decision to reward Emanuel with an ambassadorship was disappointing.
“What he did was commit an unpardonable political sin,” Acree said of Emanuel. “But the president and Democratic Party appears to want to reward him because of his clout, what they perceive to be his high political acumen and his extraordinary ability to raise money.”
If confirmed, Emanuel would follow in a long line of prominent political figures who have been dispatched to Tokyo by presidents of both parties. The list includes former Vice President Walter Mondale, ex-Senate Majority Leaders Mike Mansfield, former House Speaker Tom Foley, and John F. Kennedy’s daughter Caroline Kennedy and President Ronald Reagan’s onetime chief of staff Howard Baker.
Diplomacy, however, hasn’t always been Emanuel’s strong suit. His old boss Obama acknowledged during Emanuel’s mayoral reelection campaign that Emanuel could sometimes come off as “a little hard-headed.”
Emanuel once sent a dead fish to a pollster whose work he was unhappy with and was legendary for his blunt — and often coarse — communication style.
Yuko Nakano, a Japan analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that while Emanuel has limited foreign policy experience, Japanese officials are pleased that Biden wants to send someone with Emanuel’s profile to lead the Japan mission.
“His experience in the White House and Congress with the decision-making process is a very appealing aspect to the Japanese,” Nakano said. “Those qualifications outweigh him not being an expert on Japan, or even a foreign policy expert for that matter.”