CHICAGO – Mayor Rahm Emanuel chose a fraught moment for Chicago to make his stunning announcement Tuesday that he won’t be seeking a third term in office.
The city is on edge as jury selection is set to begin in the murder trial of police Officer Jason Van Dyke in the 2014 shooting death of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald. Homicides are down 20 percent from last year, but Chicago is still on pace for more than 500 for the fourth straight year.
It’s also trying to land Amazon and other businesses to bolster economic development. And it remains 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.
“As much as I love this job and will always love this city and its residents, I have decided not to seek re-election,” Emanuel, 58, said during a surprise press conference at City Hall. “This has been the job of a lifetime, but it is not a job for a lifetime. You hire us to get things done – and pass the torch when we’ve done our best to do what you hired us to do.”
The controversial killing of McDonald, a troubled black teen who was shot 16 times by a white police officer, became a millstone around Emanuel’s neck and a fault line in a racially and economically divided city.
McDonald, who suffered mental health issues and spent much of his life as a ward of the state, lived in the lower-income, predominantly African-American neighborhoods that took the brunt of the 50 school closures, the shuttering of several health clinics and the surge in violent crime during Emanuel’s seven and a half years leading the nation’s third-largest city.
Chicago has been held up by critics on the right as a poster child for urban dysfunction. President Donald Trump, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and others say the city’s violent crime – it suffered more than 1,400 homicides in 2016 and 2017 – shows why voters shouldn’t trust Democratic politicians to lead.
The mayoral election is scheduled for February; a runoff, if necessary, would be decided in April. The new mayor will be seated in May.
That means eight months with a lame-duck mayor, as the city confronts several difficult challenges: reducing violent crime, cutting into the yawning pension shortfall, and persuading Amazon to build its second headquarters here.
Even before the announcement, a dozen candidates, including former Police Board President and federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot, former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, former Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, and Chicago businessman Willie Wilson had lined up to challenge Emanuel.
Now that he has bowed out, several more prominent Democrats could weigh a run, analysts and insiders said.
Among those who could wage a credible runs are former U.S. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, whose father Richard J. Daley and brother Richard M. Daley both served as mayor, former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, former Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett, Rep. Mike Quigley and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.
Chicago’s mayoral elections are nonpartisan, but the city’s politics have long been dominated by Democrats. The last Republican mayor, William Hale Thompson, left office in 1931.
Dick Simpson, a political scientist at the University of Illinois-Chicago, said candidates will need to decide quickly if they’re going to enter the race.
“It’s very late to start a campaign unless you are someone who is already very well established,” he said.
Emanuel entered office in 2011 with one of the most impressive political resumes of any big-city mayor: He was a top advisor to President Bill Clinton, served four terms in Congress, chaired the House Democratic Caucus and became President Barack Obama’s first White House chief of staff.
Outside of government, he made millions of dollars as an investment banker. And as the House Democrats’ chief fundraiser in 2006, he was the architect of the wave election that delivered his party to the majority for the first time in a dozen years, and made Nancy Pelosi the first female speaker in history.
In his appearance Tuesday, Emanuel touted record high school graduation rates in 2018 and his success recruiting several large corporations to relocate in the city among his accomplishments.
Obama praised Emanuel as a transformative leader for the city.
“With record job growth and record employment over his terms in office, Chicago is better and stronger for his leadership, and I was a better president for his wise counsel during a particularly perilous time for our country,” the former president said in a statement Tuesday.
But Emanuel had become a whipping boy of the left. When he ran for reelection in 2015, he was forced into a runoff by a little-known politician, Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who had the backing of a coalition of Chicago Teachers Union and local and national progressive groups.
“Good riddance,” said Emma Tai, director of the United Working Families, a progressive group that campaigned against Emanuel that year.
“Emanuel turned Chicago into a city where black and brown people could not live safe and healthy lives, where working families could not afford child care or rent, where developers snatched up land made cheap by African-American displacement, and where parents starved themselves to keep their neighborhood high school open.”
Publicly, Emanuel gave every indication that he would seek a third term. He made campaign-style appearances, sent out fundraising letters and amassed more than $10 million.
But behind the scenes, he was meeting with a small circle of friends and trusted advisers about his future.
Close friend David Axelrod, a former senior adviser to Obama, told USA TODAY that Emanuel was weighing whether he could win re-election and whether he had another four-year term in him.
A poll commissioned by one of Emanuel’s top campaign backers and published last month showed that the mayor had backing of about 32 percent of voters in the crowded field, and a 19-point lead over his closest competitor. The poll assured Emanuel that he could win, Axelrod said, but he remained uncertain about devoting himself to a third term.
“He loves the job, there’s no question about it,” Axelrod said. “What he concluded is that people rarely make the mistake by leaving too soon, and they often make the mistake by staying too long.”
The death of McDonald, one of the several high-profile police shootings of black men and women around the country that spurred national outrage and a larger debate about policing in black communities, cast a shadow on Emanuel’s administration.
The mayor, facing reelection in 2015, argued against releasing police video of the shooting while the investigation was continuing. Police said McDonald was carrying a four-inch retractable knife and had been breaking into trucks before the confrontation.
After months of litigation – and after Emanuel was reelected – a court ordered the city to show the footage to the public.
The video appeared to show Van Dyke, who had accumulated 17 citizen complaints in his police career, unloading 16 shots into McDonald while the teen veered away from police.
Emanuel said he did not watch the video until it was set to be publicly released.
On the day of its release, Van Dyke was charged with first-degree murder.
Axelrod said Emanuel did not once bring up the Van Dyke trial as he deliberated whether to seek a third term.
Emanuel, who has three college-aged children, said Tuesday it was simply time for him step back from political life.
“Politicians always say they’re leaving office to spend more time with their family,” Emanuel said. “My kids were smart enough to see that coming and scattered to the two coasts, so as of the other day we are now empty-nesters.”
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