Law & the Courts

Nobody Likes Rahm Emanuel, But He Isn’t Going Anywhere

(Scott Olson/Getty)

As the old saying goes: “It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up.”

At 10:00 p.m. on October 20, 2014, on the southwest side of Chicago — a grim, half-commercial/half-industrial zone — a 17-year-old teenager named Laquan McDonald was spotted by the Chicago Police Department attempting to break into vehicles in the trucking yards between South Kildare and 41st Street. He was followed by the CPD as he wandered onto the busy thoroughfare of South Pulaski Road, ignoring commands to halt and surrender, whereupon police backup in the form of 14-year CPD veteran Officer Jason Van Dyke arrived on scene . . . and promptly proceeded to unload his 9mm service weapon on McDonald, pumping 16 bullets into the erratically ambling young man, killing him.

The officers on scene claimed that McDonald had “lunged” at them, justifying the use of deadly force. That this was a lie is clearly shown by a police dashboard-camera video recording the entire interaction, one which only became public in November of this year after a Freedom of  Information Act request — a full 13 months after the fact.

In an earlier era, this sad tale might have been just a footnote folded into the ongoing narrative of ethnic violence, police–civilian conflict, and needless death underpinning the story of nearly every Great American City; a quickly-forgotten “crime story” destined for the back pages of the local papers whose poignancy would be dulled by the repetition of countless other examples of the sort. But what has made Laquan McDonald’s death a national flashpoint is the political context surrounding it.

You see, McDonald didn’t die in a vacuum. He died — and the circumstances of his death were seemingly intentionally suppressed — in the context of the contentious reelection of Chicago’s embattled mayor, Rahm Emanuel.

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As I said earlier, it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up. The McDonald shooting would always have been a major black eye on the Chicago Police Department, and a (justifiable) cause  célèbre for the “Black Lives Matter” movement. But it is clear, now, that parties in City Hall were aware by February 2015 that the dash-cam video of McDonald’s shooting not only existed, but proved that the police had been lying about their account of events. The McDonald family was then paid off, with a $5 million dollar settlement — complete with a confidentiality agreement prohibiting release of the footage by the family’s attorneys — tellingly offered by the city in mid March but only voted on by the City Council in mid April, after Emanuel had safely won his mayoral runoff..

It is impossible not to strongly suspect that Emanuel and/or his office paid off the McDonald family.

It is therefore impossible not to strongly suspect — but also impossible right now to prove — that Emanuel and/or his office paid off the McDonald family and intentionally had the videotape footage suppressed out of fear that, if it came to light during the first part of the year, it would cost him reelection in a race already choked with thinly veiled racial and social antagonisms.

For this scandal (now consuming the last remaining shreds of Emanuel’s credibility) has its origins in that fraught mayoral reelection campaign of early 2015 — and to understand that campaign, you need to understand the political hole Rahm had dug for himself over the previous four years during his first term as mayor. Emanuel came to the job back in 2011 as something of an anomaly: a lifelong outsider to Chicago politics parachuting into the highest position in the city. (Emanuel had previously been a congressman representing the city’s heavily Democratic North Side and northwestern Cook County suburbs, but in that role and his subsequent one as President Obama’s chief-of-staff was considered a creature of Washington, not Chicago.)

#share#Rahm assumed office as Chicago was in the throes of both financial and public-safety crises, and he did so as an outsider, an avatar of the white, white-collar, and Jewish (yes, it matters in an ethnically polarized city like Chicago) business establishment, with few friends or connections to draw upon. In a city where political power is built upon personal relationships every bit as much as graft, Hizzoner’s notable lack of personal charm and impatience with disagreement (the stuff of both D.C. legend and a famous Twitter parody account) did him no favors either, especially when he immediately took up the (laudable) task of introducing a measure of fiscal responsibility to the city’s disastrous $8 billion public-pension shortfall. His attempts to limit future pension liabilities for newer employees alienated city government workers. Failed contract negotiations with the Chicago Teachers’ Union led to a strike. A concurrent effort to close failing Chicago schools enraged both teachers’ unions and the largely African-American and Hispanic communities from which they drew. And the crime wave — affecting not only the African-American south and west sides of the city, but occasionally spilling over into the commercial heart of the city as well — continued unabated.

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Rahm therefore found himself embarking upon his reelection campaign in late 2014 disliked by voters, loathed by the city’s powerful teachers’ and public-sector unions, and distrusted by both police and minorities alike. This was reflected in the conventional wisdom of the time, which held that if Rahm faced a serious challenger, he was quite likely to suffer the indignity of being ousted from office by his own party.

He was lucky enough to avoid that serious challenge, but still struggled to secure a shockingly anemic 45.6 percent of the vote in the first round of the race, against four political nonentities. And it is in this context that the suppression of the explosive McDonald shooting video must be understood: a mayor fighting desperately to retain office, with the very real possibility that even an unserious candidate (in this case Jesus “Chuy” Garcia) could knock him off in the April runoff should racial tensions be inflamed by the inconvenient emergence of the video.

Even a moderately intelligent child could play connect-the-dots here to figure out what must have happened.

Therefore, even a moderately intelligent child could play connect-the-dots here to figure out what must have happened: why the payoff was offered (before the family had even filed suit!), why a confidentiality agreement was included in the settlement, and why the mayor’s office fought hard against the ultimate release of the video. It fairly stinks of naked political self-interest.

And yet, despite apocalyptic headlines from places like Salon about how Mayor Emanuel is now in the midst of a “catastrophic downfall,” the truth remains this: Rahm Emanuel isn’t going anywhere, unless he wants to. Short of an indictment (for which no grounds currently exist), this is a political scandal that Emanuel will be able to weather if he so desires. Even now he is making all the necessary pro forma moves to separate himself from the McDonald controversy. Two weeks ago he threw his police superintendent Garry McCarthy under the bus. Then he announced the creation of a “Blue Ribbon Panel” to investigate Chicago police practices and abuses of members of minority groups, the sort of de rigueur political eyewash that always follows such controversies. Blame is being shifted, distance is being created.

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None of this will suddenly restore Rahm Emanuel to the good graces of Chicagoans. His current approval rating is a world-beating 18 percent (indeed abysmal but less startling when one realizes that he won reelection with an only slightly-more-impressive 35 percent approval), and shows no signs of improving in the near-future. But the reason that people are calling for Emanuel’s resignation is because, since he committed no discernable crime to speak of in McDonald case, the only move left is to try to shame him from office. After all, slow-rolling the release of the McDonald police-dash-cam footage wasn’t criminal — it was merely unethical and blatantly politically self-interested.

Talk of passing an initiative through the Illinois legislature to recall Emanuel from office is even more vain. (Illinois had no recall provisions at all until one covering the governor’s office passed in 2010; the old joke goes that we in Illinois usually rely upon the Justice Department to do our “recalls” for us.) Such legislation would have to pass through both the state house and senate, and then be signed by the governor. Democrat Mike Madigan controls the legislature and its Democratic supermajority with a vise-grip; Governor Bruce Rauner is a Republican and former work colleague of Emanuel’s. Both have zero interest in throwing Chicago, the financial engine of the state, into political chaos by approving a recall, and Springfield prefers the devil they know to whomever might follow in Rahm’s wake.

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The Chicago Tribune’s John Kass (a keen observer of city politics) makes a more nuanced claim about Emanuel’s political future, arguing that the McDonald scandal and cover-up won’t bounce Emanuel from office, but will make it effectively impossible for him to govern, and functionally dooms his chances at a third term come 2019. As Kass says, the revelation of the McDonald video, and the universally held belief that Emanuel’s team suppressed it for electoral advantage, makes voters feel as if they’ve been cheated. It also — no less important — makes city aldermen and union powerbrokers feel like they have no reason to heed any of Emanuel’s demands.

So in the end, Chicago may be faced with the worst of all worlds: a mayor with no compelling legal reason to resign (and too bloodymindedly stubborn to do so for the good of the city), yet one whose power is also utterly broken. Chicago has long been regarded as one of America’s least-governable cities. We may be on the verge of discovering just how ungovernable it can be.


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